Swimming through the cultural cynicism

by RYAN BOLTON, originally published in TRAVIS magazine

It’s getting pretty thick, isn’t? Tougher and tougher to wad through our culture’s waning artistic relevance. We are getting weighed down with culturally vapid artists, singers and hipsters alike. We have all been waiting together with fingers crossed. “Come on,” we say in unison, “bring us the next Picasso.” Or we quietly whisper to ourselves that this Dan Brown hack is not Hemingway. It’s like comparing a Hummer and a Tiger Tank; one is actually good at what it does, the other just a showy rip-off and piss poor attempt to get chicks. And thinking of that, Hemingway was a longtime ago. And so were the Beat Poets. And likewise for the Hunter S. Thompson’s. Pity, we think as we stroll through the new releases section at the bookstore. And then we turn to music and gasp at the screaming lack of a cultural imprint. So yeah, we had the big guys mix things up on a mainstream stage. Sinatra. The Beatles. Led Zeppelin. Rolling Stones. Tupac. Nirvana, of course. And then we hit Radiohead. But what else do we have now that is unique, brilliant and authentically artistic on a mainstream platform? Lady Gaga maybe?

What is this feeling, you muse? It’s our cultural malaise.

With the wickedly public passing of Michael Jackson, many questioned if we had hit an impasse with such an internationally popular artist. When Jackson’s albums dropped, at least in the early days, they didn’t just go to the top in America; they peaked in Greece, Russia, Brazil and South Africa, too.  His music touched such a vast swath of humanity. And now we have Katy Perry and Bieber topping the charts.

But when we look for a cultural band-aid to heal the gaping lesions of our generation, we always come up short. Hence the hipster. Really now, it’s not the hipster’s fault. If anything, we should all have empathy. We feel it too, of course. Looking to define oneself in a vacuous culture, the hipster simply turns to the trendy relics of yesterday. Gaudy eyewear. Fanny packs. Moustaches. Tape cassette players. Neon shirts. Pabst beer and so on. Some kind of a shitty attempt at cultural revitalization in a semi-ironic manner. And part of the reason why we get so upset at the hipster is that yes, they’re acknowledging the fact that nothing mainstream is actually creative, mind-expanding or relevant, but their proposed solution just exacerbates the problem in the first place. It just adds to the fact that we’ve passed post modernist art and have no other options. We broke all the conventions in music, art, film, and writing, so now what? We did the avant-garde as a society together. The Beatniks howled at us from the rat-infested gutters and we stopped and listened. Nirvana showed us what commercialism will do to a genius. And the hipster is now showing us what happens when we run out of cultural alternatives. We’re just left with a cultural malaise in which we’re not breaking any new ground in any medium. In fact, we’re breaking down the foundations to our mediums. Newspapers ring a bell?

Now there is always an ebb and flow with everything, culture included. We can all be assured of this. But the wait is a killer. When can we expect an art piece that will move us all? Something that both the old and the young will look at from all angles and together conclude it’s a masterpiece. Like, say, Edvard Munch’s The Scream? Or Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Maybe those times have come and gone with the brush strokes of Andy Warhol. Maybe that’s the thing – old and young will always be divided on what’s culturally relevant and what’s not. What makes for bunk and what makes for a magnum opus. One thing, though, is for sure: We’re just going to have to wait and see. Because at this cultural juncture, we’re borrowing from the worst of the 80s and it’s not getting any better.

I was recently attending a cocktail party downtown Toronto. I was chatting with the founder of the Fringe Festival about the cultural relevance of Michael Jackson’s demise and its social commentary on the current state of music. And although he agreed we might not see such a heavyweight for some time to come, he kept assuring me that today’s cultural cynicism will indeed pass. Yes, the Jonas Brothers are absolute shit. Yes, the Twilight series is ridiculous. But we need the shit to pile up until we can acknowledge that we are drowning ourselves. That we have starved ourselves of anything substantial. And it will be then that the next art movement will commence. That long-awaited artistic and cultural renaissance we all pine for, hipsters included, because, really, do you think they like looking like the offspring of Weird Al Yankovic and a goat farmer from Alabama? They don’t, the irony is wearing thin.

But first, we should recall and start with the words of the late JFK, who said: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” Good words.


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