(Note: These words are mine, and may not represent the opinions of the rest of the editorial staff on a case-by-case basis.)
We Are Already Here
A lot of people are going to quickly assume we are a “counterculture site,” so let me make this absolutely clear: we aren’t.
As a matter of fact, there is no singular counterculture. Yet there are ideals which once were a part of various vibrant, (if short-lived), countercultures, and these rest close to my heart: self-expression, freedom, irreverent humor, an element of egalitarianism mixed liberally with pirate capitalism, a sense of pragmatic community, and even compassion. Somewhere along the way it became about toothless political movements, cool-points, and self-defeatism, sprinkled liberally with pointless elitism and a side of Who Gives A Fuck? Somewhere along the way it got co-opted. So it goes, brands are a dime a dozen. Life keeps on moving.
The old countercultures, if they even existed, are dead. The time is nigh to make way for the new, and leave the labels at the door.
A Brief Jaunt Through Drug-Addled History
Let’s begin with one of the quintessential icons of the branded counterculture: The Matrix. Yes, even as an example it’s a cliché right out of the box, and that’s part of my ultimate point.
Still, for those who live under a rock or masturbate to QVC all day long, here’s a framed sketch of the first movie. In the scenes where Keanu isn’t desperately attempting to recall his lines, it is a smart, slick take on the alienation most suburban American youth feel. Taken out of the cubicle and into the underworld with the protagonist, we witness him “keeping it real” by eating mush, donning fetish fashion, and fighting an army of identical men in business suits in slow motion. It’s us against the Man, man.
Wake up, Neo. Zak De La Rocha wasn’t “fighting the man” when he made his ending credit soundtrack royalties. It’s what he did with that potential energy that counts. (Hookers? A small island for “his people” and “their culture,” where everyone sings in falsetto about oppression?) As Yogi Bhajan put it, “money is as money does.” Hard nosed books on business such as Drucker’s Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices say exactly the same thing, in a less epigrammatic, Yoda-like way: profit is not a motive, it is a means. Without profit, nothing happens. Game over.
Any element of punk, underground, beatnik, hippy, psychedelic, straight edge, or occult culture will be co-opted by the straight shooters the moment the shtick becomes profitable. It doesn’t matter that these ideologies have little in common. It is the fashion or mystique that gets sold. When all an ideology really boils down to is an easy to replicate aesthetic, how could they not? “Cool” is what they’re buying, and the comfort of a world with easy definitions and pre-packaged, harmless rebellions. Psychedelic and straight edge can share the same rack in a store if the store owner can co-brand the fashions. Marketers are wily as hell. They are paid to be.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pointing my finger here. As my fellow white suburban friends say, “this is how we roll, son.”
All you read and
Wear or see and
Hear on TV
Is a product
Begging for your
–Hooker With a Penis, Tool.
You know it, I know it. But so many more-self-aware-than-thou-comma-dumbasses, through an act of inept transference, find anything with a dollar sign on it questionable. They demand free content, and all of the perks piracy can “buy,” and yet anyone that’s made a red cent off their work is somehow morally bankrupt.
These frothing bulldogs of the counterculture are sitting ducks. They will wind up howling after the piece of meat on the end of someone’s string. That is, unless they lock themselves in a cave or try to start an agrarian commune. For my part, I welcome the Luddites to live amongst the chickens, I simply have no capacity for it, let alone interest. Two weeks at Burning Man may be fun, but try doing it for a year and chances are you’ll come back telling me what hell is like.
Where did this “bulldog mentality” come from?
I’m sure it could be traced back to Mesopotamia if you tried hard enough, (and were high enough.) But I think a more recent example is enough: the second that psychedelic culture gained a certain momentum, Madison Avenue chewed it up and spit it out in 7up ads. This was used to sell these “psychadelic clothes” to a wider market. When people bought those hip clothes to “make a statement,” whose pockets were they lining? It’s a revolving door of product tie-ins, and it all feeds on culture.
Fashion embodies a state of mind, a culture. But it is not that culture. An example of this can be seen in Harley Davidson driving lawyers in their 40s. Harley Davidson meant something because of what it was, and that became a shtick that was re-marketed to people that needed not an alternate form of transportation, but instead what Harley Davidson had come to “mean.” The bottom line here: we live in a culture where appearances count for a lot more than reality.
Word in the counter culture grapevine is: the poorer you are, the cooler you are. You stick to your ideals. People take pride in it because it’s all they have. Word in the mainstream culture is: the more money you have, the cooler you are. You know how to get things done, and you can purchase all the status money can buy. You have to consider the cost to your dreams a tax write-off. This is where I do a 360, guzzle a bottle of whiskey, and stagger into the tall grass. I don’t buy any of it, anymore.
If your life revolves around what people think about you, how the shoes you wear define you as a person, or which line of body spray is most likely to get you laid, you’ve turned yourself into a patsy.
The only way out of this cycle is to create, and forget about trying to be original.
People don’t set the artistic trends by trying to set the trends. They are genuine to what really gets them in the vitals. Fight long enough and it will find its market, or you will die trying. Even if only one other person reads and really absorbs your words, you haven’t lost.
Despite popular opinion within this “counter-culture,” effective marketing is not about outright manipulation. It is about meeting people halfway. For example, Yoga was boiled down from a very demanding esoteric practice with a rich and complex ideology behind it into something any housewife can do. These housewives were looking for a lifestyle change, a way to stay healthy and feel good. This was provided to them in an effective, albeit diluted, package. They wouldn’t have been gotten into the Yoga baby-pool if it wasn’t packaged in a way that catered to their needs and beliefs. Yet, at least at the moment, those more rich and intricate ideologies behind Yoga still exist, and they can be sought out. You can approach your own work with the same mentality.
Of course, meeting “them” halfway sounds good on paper. But can you make it profitable? That’s often the Achilles heel of the creative. I don’t know a single person who can do everything well, and this is the reason we have to work together towards common goals, or wallow in our meaningless flame wars and postures of significance.
So, I agree with you in spirit, vicious hipster kids of the counterculture. Of course much TV programming is vapid and retarded. Of course it’s incredibly depressing that the market has supported many a ride down a slippery slope of Herculean atrocities against brain cells.
Yet their rants on YouTube about the Man aren’t providing a decent alternative. You want to call TV programming vapid? Make Something Better. I know you can do it. But you’re going to have to sweat blood.
You only lose if you give up, and let your identity get co-opted because it’s easier that way.
(For those interested, you can read a great deal more about this anti-advertising advertising trend in a book called Nation of Rebels by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter: Article.)
Innovation and Originality
It is true, the world is full of underground posers, sharpening their sticks for the coming revolution against an opposition that doesn’t exist, artistes who haven’t done a lick of real artistic work in a decade, who use their supposed underground artistic cred to get them in bed with whomever they can scam, would-be rock stars that think they are evolving music by turning it into a vapid fashion show, and old school DIY punks who haven’t yet realized that their ideological stance, though noble in its way, simply limits them.
But there are also daring innovators and experimenters within all of these fields and more, who only really give a damn about The Work. The posturing, the politics, the bullshit be damned.
These innovators I’m speaking of are the people who push their own boundaries, and the boundaries of the culture around them enough that they are simply classified as “counterculture” or “revolutionary” because the culture, and the media, doesn’t really know what to make of them. (My hope is, you could very well be one yourself.)
Most of them are engaged in the constant process of figuring out who they are, through exploration of their medium. It has certainly been a common experience for me, to look back upon a project I completed a year or two later and wonder, “who made that?” There’s an aspect of skin shedding, of discarding, in the creative process, and a certain remorse most active artists feel when they are likened to the static detritus of yesteryear.
These creators are the people that the fashionista Counterculture du jour will forever be trying to play catch-up with, without necessarily even realizing it. When something has been branded as a movement, most of these people have moved on.
However, let’s be clear: originality is not a requirement of innovation. They aren’t inventing these things ex nihilo. Their ideas, their art, and their rhetoric is and has always been built on what has come before. This isn’t to say that their posthumously declared “movements” are not unique, because they are. But there is a lineage, and there is a tradition, no matter how fragmented it may seem to the outside observer.
It is to my mind a great loss that the practice of mentorship under accomplished artists has mostly died out in the past century. Not only does it keep the lineage of a cultural perspective alive, it also fosters a familial aspect of community that has, at least in my experience, mostly been removed from the artistic process. The closest we seem to have is the revolving door found in art schools and universities, which doesn’t provide the time or often the one-on-one relationship required to really bring about the benefits of mentorship. It is also interesting that in our society, like with smoking pot, college is one of the only places where “experimenting with” art is condoned. Though many bad artists may be weaned from their aspirations in the “real world,” just as many or more with real potential are driven to other occupations which they may be poorly suited to.
This idea of “originality” as a primary indicator of the value of something is perplexing. It is the vitality of a piece, it’s ability to strike the heart or the mind, and wring things out of us we didn’t even know we had in us, which speaks to me as “original.” But the elements: the story, the medium, or even the components of the piece itself could have been used a thousand times before. So what? This is equally true in business, where the true innovators take something that’s being done, and figure out how to do it better, or more efficiently. Attempts at “true originality” usually result in bizarre and often useless gizmos that at the end of the day do several incompatible things poorly and nothing well. (Anybody remember the Nokia N-Gage?) The art of the collage or montage demonstrates what we all do as thinkers, as painters, as poets, or as scientists. The message of the collage approach is clear enough: do not be afraid to show and honor your influences, and at the same time, don’t be afraid to break those idols.
Innovation comes from the fact that each person is unique: our observations, our experiences are our own. We cannot but be original if we are brave enough to be true to that, if by original we mean “vital” and “genuine,” and throw out this idea of creativity occurring in a vacuum. Nothing is more poseur artiste than the desperate drive to create originality for its own sake, without putting your voice, your interest, your passion first. Finally, it isn’t about whether a story has been told a hundred times, it’s about how you tell it, and how you live it.
Plays Well With Others? (Y/N)
In revealing the nature of the Counterculture myth, we also have to explore the myth of the artist as a unique and individual creator, slaving away in solitude, because this doesn’t seem to line up with the history of art. Nor does it make a whole lot of sense for the myth-makers, (in other words the artists), to be working in isolation, given the cultural significance of myth itself.
It is true that the unique perspective of a genuine, engaged outsider is part of what gives art its teeth. The revolution comes from listening to your experience, everything else be damned; the necessary compromise comes in learning how to play well with others without putting a pair of scissors in their eye.
In other words, for a movement to have integrity, each individual must be true to themselves above all else, yet for that to come about, we need solidarity of purpose. This is the dilemma. Creators need one another, for critique, for diversity, for sustainability. They need each other to build a myth of a “scene.” You needn’t agree about anything else, but without an alignment of collective and mutual best interest, a movement, a commune, a culture cannot come to be. It will collapse in on itself before it attains any sort of critical mass. This seeming paradox is part of what keeps many creative individuals disenfranchised, biting at each others ankles: they’re arguing about the wrong things, and focusing their energy and attention in the wrong place. We need to learn to work together towards common goals, to hell with the politics.
We need no manifestos, no party lines, no armbands. What we do need is space to meet up and share ideas and collaborate, we need a means of making the relevancy of our work evident outside our insular and seemingly elitist circles, we need to be able to eat without completely shilling our ideals or making other creative prerequisites impossible, we need to live and love as we see fit, and the means to come and go as we please. Last but not least, we need time, colossal dedication, and a little less useless damned distraction.
We are in the process of developing the virtual space to bring this about. What will come next is anyones guess, and is as much up to you as it is to us. The question then, as always, is not what we can imagine, but what we can realize.
Myths of The Artist and The Scene
It is undeniable that there is a real value in a fringe, in an underground, in a community. Even in a concrete way, this ever-changing, forward thinking movement provides something valuable that a healthy culture at large could not do without– they challenge the status quo, they bring in new ideas from the outside. Most importantly, they create living myths.
Let me be clear: a movement, a counterculture, is itself a myth. You may find people proclaiming to be a part of one, and I’ll be damned if I haven’t seen signs of them popping into and out of existence all over the place, but you’ll never find an absolute, concrete demonstration of it. A movement is an ideal which holds the lure of total freedom, a sweet taste that often quickly sours on the tongue, which is nevertheless integral, and indispensable to the artistic spirit. Like any good myth, or art itself, there’s a definite value in it, and there is a kind of truth in it, even if it is also a flat out lie in a literal sense.
There are several layers of this myth building. There is, first, the myth of there being a particular movement, such as the Beats. Like a corporate entity, this movement develops a brand identity. I can say, “the Beats,” and most people even vaguely aware of American art and literature know what I’m talking about. Think about that a moment. Here are separate artists, living separate lives. Sure, they may have been friends, and they influenced one another. But this idea of “the Beats.” That’s branding, plain and simple. Like most successful branding, though they surely had a hand in it, most of it came about over time from the outside. More than anything else, people just needed a name to call them by, and it stuck.
They borrowed from jazz at that time, from the culture and politics at that time; none of it was “original” in that sense, but it was all unique. From this melting pot of experience, personality, and social context a group identity forms, and it might do our more recent would-be underground movements some good to remember that if you do everything else right, and have a cohesive community of vital people who have the means to produce their work, this happens all on its own. You needn’t brand before you have an identity.
Then there is the myth of the personalities, for example, the anecdotes about Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and so on, which also helps perpetuate the myth of the movement. This isn’t to say that “William Tell routine” did or didn’t happen, but as it moves into the realm of myth, it ceases to matter.
Then, finally, there is the myth contained in the individual works themselves, unique for each artist or group of collaborators, but which would in no way exist as they do without the group as a whole living, growing, arguing, fucking, and ultimately dissipating and dying as they did.
I talked quite a bit about the role of art and myth in Living The Myth: Creating Meaning In A Cultural Void, which was first published in Generation Hex (Disinformation.) I don’t mean to rehash that material here, but to get at the meat of the counterculture as myth, I have to talk about these things again to provide context, if in a slightly different light.
Myths help us understand ourselves, our motivations, our fears, our hopes, our desires; they help us explore the nature of our existence without for a moment being true.
The value that myth provides is demonstrated, first off, in the fact that it has been with us since the birth of civilization: though tools and language may have been more useful in the concrete formation of civilization, the myths and art of antiquity are the first proof we have of this explosion. They are also our only glimpse into how our ancestors felt about themselves, and about the cosmos. Myths and art, nearly inseparable terms so far as I can tell, provide a distorted mirror for us to regard ourselves in. We see ourselves, but in a new light, the best artists showing us greater existential truths through the distortion or even complete abandonment of empirical truths. Artist, and the myths they weave from their own lives, thus point our eyes upon ourselves, both as individuals and as a culture, in a new way.
It is, just from this historic precedent, a self evident fact that myths speak to our humanity; they convey meaning, not truth. Since a very early age this was always clear to me. Even as a youth I remember staring at the television in befuddlement as documentaries would attempt to discover the supposed “historic truth” of a myth. Did giants actually walk the Earth before the time of King Arthur’s court? How did Noah manage to get every species of animal aboard a single ship?
Way to miss the point. Myths speak to the narrative, the qualitative, to the emotional side of us which quite simply need grand stories and images for us to relate ourselves to. It is psychological nourishment, and cultures that are devoid of it suffer for it.
Enriching The Soil
It is quite apparent that fringe political movements, which for instance liberate the workers from wage slavery or develop alternative and sustainable methods of energy, communication, or commerce may appear more essential in the coming years than the mere development and disbursement of myths or art movements. However, all of these developments are knitted together. We cannot, in fact, have one without the other. As I put it in Generation Hex,
“There is a common misconception, especially within the capitalistic myth, that art and philosophy are useless endeavors– at best mental exercises, at worst, activities for criminals and dilettantes. They forget that all of the great periods in human history have occurred side-by-side with quantum leaps in the arts and philosophy. It is impossible, and irrelevant, to definitively argue which came first. Art and philosophy, without trade, commerce, and application, are sterile and masturbatory. Similarly, trade and commerce are brutish and myopic when not applied with the sensibility that comes from in-depth philosophical and artistic debate. All are crucial to evolution, but only when applied together.”
Artists and thinkers are neither engendered nor supported for the value they can produce within other sectors of the economy. This is partially because this value, being qualitative, and in being a part of a systemic benefit, is difficult if not impossible to evaluate. That is a valid problem, as there is a meaningful distinction between advocating the arts, and a free ride.
But that isn’t really the cause, at least not entirely. Many people simply don’t recognize this benefit at all. What is worse, social and economic systems don’t engender it. The arts are seen as a nuisance, with endowments shrinking every year. (Even if this wasn’t the case, the parameters and requirements for artistic grants are so specific and oftentimes so complicated and arcane that they make Heideggar seem plainspoken.) In a country where scientific research is most enfranchised when it can be used to make bombs, and the Department of Defense budget exceeds what is spent on the entire rest of the country, this comes as no big surprise.
Yet, for this as well, we all suffer as a result.
There Is No Movement; Apply Within
And there we have it. As in many times in the past, there is a strong and demonstrable need for creative movements and cultural revolutions that the culture at large may neither recognize, understand, nor support. All these facts do not mean that you should not, or can not, bring it about. Supposing this is a course that speaks to you, as it does to me, barring bad luck and the “acts of God,” the only real barrier is in ourselves, in the forms of egotism, laziness, isolation, a lack of vision, planning, or making the wrong compromise.
We have no need for a counterculture, an ultraculture, or any other movement so long as it is for the sake of fashion, so long as we hobble ourselves or one another or use elitism or ideological disagreements as excuses that keep us from getting something done. Nor do we have any use for these things if they are anything but a means to an end which realizes the common and manifest goals of its members. It matters less than not at all if you consider yourself a Pagan, a Christian, or a Muslim; a plummer, an artist, or an information architect. That is, so long as we can find the fulcrum point of a common ground, and a common good, to lift us both up with. If on the other hand, we both define ourselves as artists, but can find no such leverage, we’d probably be better off going our own ways. We can have our ideological arguments over tea; there is no ideology in my mind which trumps someone being a genuine, open-minded, passionate person, and no party line agreement can provide reparations if they are not.
Revolution, or evolution for that matter, isn’t going to be found in a common manner of dress, speech, or ideology. If it is found at all, it will come in the chance meeting of equals in this wasteland that we call the world, and the work they do to water the desert until it flowers.
When any counter culture gets big enough, it gets co-opted by a “Major.” If there is any value in a “counterculture” it is in a core ideology which cannot be replicated, cannot be sold. As I said, it is the trappings and mystique which get marketed and sold. So if you have it in you, and shooting from the hip is getting old: make a shtick. Make it huge. Sell it off to the highest bidder. Sell out without “selling out.”
And use that to build something wonderful.
I’d like to give a couple final, slightly more personal observations on this subject before I go in search of the high quality coffee beans that are my birthright.
As is probably plainly obvious, the subject of this article is far from merely academic for me. The pursuit of these ideas, and development of the skills, connections, and means to create media which fulfills these needs, has been my life focus for as long as I can remember.
I have found that there is nothing quite like the friendship between driven and dedicated artists; nothing can be such a good instructor as that of an informed equal, or provide such a feeling of belonging, whether or not you find yourselves agreeing on a single ideological point. For relatively brief periods of time, I have personally been a part of such vital communities, and I have always worked to make my projects collaborative, at least to some degree, as that seems to be the real burning point of the creative process.
So I welcome you to contact me, and for us to collaborate together. It’s true, I obviously don’t have the time to put my hands inside every project. But I am here to do my job: and that is to help you get your work out there.
Just make it good.