Has Contemporary Art Become Hipster?

"And so I wonder, has contemporary art become hipster? Have trendy, eclectic styles and ironic references become the driving subject of art? Because it seems that the contemporary art world is no longer interested in confronting us with deep, personal, non-ironic, and sincere manifestations of the creative process. Instead, we are presented with inside jokes amongst artists and worse: bastardizations of the powerful and divine (excuse my choice of word) ability of human creativity."

The above was a tangential thought I shared last November in my Op-Ed “Show Me Some Contemporary Heart.” The context was the lack of sincerity and directness generally found in contemporary works of art and, instead, a gravitation towards the ironic, the trendy and the self-contained. I now feel the topic deserves a second look with possible explanations for these trends. So here we go.


Google search statistics for the word "hipster" are at an all-time high. via Google trends


Let’s face it: contemporary art tends to be a poor mediator between the “art world” and the “real world,” often perceived by the general public as incomprehensible, shockingly unexciting and allegedly hiding some deep meanings about our surroundings (usually explaining such meanings through heavy text with pretentious implications). And we all know what a bad reputation the word “hipster” conjures—the negative backlash is so strong that, unlike the geek, nerd, or punk stereotypes, nobody would ever proudly admit to being a hipster (unless doing so ironically). This is understandable: no one want to be associated with being superficial, pretentious, performative, mocking, serving style over function and living engaged in ironic living coated with the illusion of uniqueness.

Yet since a lot of contemporary art seems to carry these hipster qualities—and the two major cities New York City and Berlin have a reputation for their art scenes as much as their hipster playgrounds—I wonder if there is a correlation between the two. In this post-postmodern (or am I missing a “post”?) age of hyper appropriation and stylistic mishmash, it is not difficult to spot the similarities: Take Duchamp’s conceptual sweater, add Warhol’s carefree wayfarers, put on Pollock’s paint-spattered grungy boots, add a Dali mustache and bam—contemporary art hipster.

Illustration by Fabián Ciraolo via the artist's tumblr page.

Hipsters tend to appropriate the styles of cultures that they don’t belong to. The reason? To obtain social capital. The French anthropologist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described social capital as referring to the social worth of an object, a manner of speech, a fashion style or common activity related to a specific class or subculture. In the process of (mis)appropriating the social capital of others' cultures/communities, the hipster ultimately becomes an eclectic collage of bastardized histories. This is where the disdain for the hipster stereotype emerges: unlike the geek, the nerd, or the punk (who are not afraid to demonstrate how much they enjoy what they enjoy––and actually have to work for their "cred" within their subcultures), the hipster cherry-picks what they find worthy/cool as they go along and strap it on. 

In the end, they devalue these fashions by gaining their social capital without a fair exchange. In the New York Times article "How To Live Without Irony," Christy Wampole eloquently explains, "For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses."

Of course, hipsterism is not a particular style but first and foremost the mindset that facilitates these actions and tastes. But what drives a person to adopt the social and cultural capital of another group? What drives a retail company, like the infamous Urban Outfitters, to cater to this mentality by selling products that have been culturally appropriated? (Even Disney most recently attempted to trademark the phrase Dia De Los Muertos for an upcoming Pixar film!) Where can we start making sense of this senseless (mis)appropriation that extends from the individual to the collective level?