Friday, May 13, 2011

Authenticity, hipsters, copycats

There's a post about authenticity at Thread for Thought that links lots of topics-- hipsters, Native Americans who reclaim imagery, drag queens, Marie Antoinette, the ongoing hip-hop baggy-pants legislative battles, French ladies' hats during German occupation.

Much has been written about dominant cultures appropriating oppressed cultures. Fashion trends like the current "tribal" and "ikat" trends take various cultural elements and re-sell them to Westerners with no context of meaning or history, flippantly turning those idioms into Western ones. Some Native Americans, for instance, reclaim images of old Hollywood cowboys & Indians like feathered headdresses because those images have been appropriated and twisted by an oppressive dominant culture. To put it another way, hip hop culture has also been appropriated to some extent by powerful corporations and white pop culture. Dance moves, phrases, beats and clothes "borrowed from," (but never returned to) hip hop street style have left a sour taste for many people of color who consider themselves a part of that culture.

I think this is a small part of why so many people are angry with hipsters. Hipsters appropriate from everywhere. They're in hot water with cultural studies departments right now for wearing feathered headdresses, championing "ironic racism," and for fetishizing oppressive masculinity. I think part of the reason they do it stems from simple retro styles being back in. The '70s are in, and in the '70s the dominant culture appropriated massively from Native Americans and other cultures.

But hipsters also appropriate from dominant cultures. Anchorman mustaches; unwieldy glasses which, still today, can be seen on white-collar workers and nerds alike; a nostalgia for the '80s that was popularized by Gen-X-ers who glorified their own childhood, but is now seen from people born in the '90s. Lodge/sportsclub decorations and aesthetics, European bicycle culture, white "trailor trash"-y styles. The implication is, all those cultures exist for hipsters to play around with. It implies that those dominant cultures don't know any better because they're older and stodgier, but hipsters are young and playful so they're doing it ironically. For many people from dominant cultures in the U.S., this is the first time they've experienced having their culture appropriated and twisted.

I definitely don't want to compare appropriation of cultures by their oppressors to dominant cultural appropriation by hipsters. First off, hipsters aren't dominant. It's not like aging geeks and good-ole-boy hunting clubs don't have a mouthpiece with which to object. Second, I don't think it's really hurting anyone, just sort of mystifying them and pissing them off. I bring it up because I want to note that the attitude has changed and expanded about what's up for grabs, and that's a new feeling for a lot of people.

What does this have to do with portraiture? Mmmm-- something, I'm sure.


Anonymous said...

Hipsters are hurting the cultures they appropriate. They have made cheap clothing and affordable housing ridiculously unaffordable. The cultures/subcultures that once lived a certain lifestyle based on ideals and/or convenience are being bought out by people with no identity of there own. What's worse is they are appropriating our social/political movements, stripping them of all meaning in order to use the symbolism and irony which in effect renders them useless.

Ciana Pullen said...

Hi Anon.

The gentrification thing is a good point: literally appropriating a community so that the original people living there can no longer use it, that's pretty harmful. Hipsters, like the yuppies, artists, retirees, immigrants and cool kids who also move in and change things, seem to me to have arrived on the scene way after the system of gentrification began, though. And I would also point out that because of their economic class those who are being pushed out aren't exactly the dominant culture I wrote about (but sure, there's some overlap).

As far as appropriating social/political movements, I simply disagree; vacuous kids have always been a part, a *large* part, of any big movement. I think hipster kids who appropriate movements only deserve our mild annoyance while our real anger should be reserved for the political/economic establishment who are the real threat and who are delighted that our real anger is directed at hipsters and not them. Also, *if* hipsters are honestly participating in a movement that is intended for the general public, and plenty are, I don't think that would count as "appropriation."

But hipsters cannot hijack a movement or take over a neighborhood alone. They absolutely require an exploitative media that tries to make the movement invisible in the first place, a banking industry that places an unfair onus on homeowners, slumlords who deny renter's rights, and a government that allows it all to go unchecked. I will hold the PORTION of hipsters accountable for their attitude that it's ok to appropriate this stuff (and all the racism, classism, ageism, etc. that goes with it) but that is all that I hold them accountable for.