Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hipster vs. Bohemian

In 2009, the New School hosted a symposium entitled "What Was the Hipster?" (The companion book is now in print.) In 1955, the New School hosted a panel discussion tackling the question "Are There Any True Bohemians?"

From the department of "The More Things Change..." comes this brief report from The Village Voice of 1955:

Click twice to read large

What I wouldn't give to get my hands on a transcript of that entire discussion--Marianne Moore bemoaning the loss of Bleecker's pushcarts? Poet-critics talking about how "the physical character of the area is fast changing"? Frank O'Hara talking about whatever he talked about?

(This was at a time when you could find lectures in the Village on topics like "The Psychological Cost of Conforming" and "New Attitudes Toward Sex"--in which Dr. Abraham Kardiner delivered the good news that "There are indications that the female in her twenties isn't so much on the rampage today.")

What else did the Village writers and critics of the '50s have to say about Bohemians? Did they find them bothersome and omnipresent as many find hipsters to be today? Were they annoyed by their beards and fetishistic love of coffee? I doubt that the creative class unilaterally celebrated Bohemians then as much as we romanticize them now.

1950s Bohemians

What would poet Jean Garrique, and the rest of the panelists, have made of New York's 21st-century hipster? Would they have seen them as no different than the Bohemians of the 1950s city? Maybe they would say--about both groups--what the authors of What Was the Hipster? say in their book:

"It has long been noticed that the majority of people who frequent any traditional bohemia are hangers-on. Somewhere, at the center, will be a very small number of hardworking writers, artists, or politicos, from whom the hangers-on draw their feelings of authenticity. Hipsterdom at its darkest, however, is something like bohemia without the revolutionary core."

Maybe we've been asking the same question for half a century.

2000's Hipsters


  1. Grumbler,

    Have you ever read Hemingway's early 20's description of 'bohemian' Paris? Not the later memoir, written when he was old and nostalgic, but the first hand newspaperman's account. I think he wrote it for the Toronto Star (of all places), in '21 or '22. His description of this one particular cafe where American expats went to hang out, almost entirely with other American expats, was very funny . . . and to the point. Plus ca change indeed . . .


  2. Make it a full century and you'll have something. Folks were saying the same thing in 1917. Hipster, Hepster, Bohemian, Beat, (or more pejoratively, Beatnik), Hippie, Yippie or Freak, what ever you want to call your own group, or the "them" that's screwing up your scene, people only respect their own tiny set, which they believe to be the true pioneers, and perpetually bemoan the callowness of the late-comers. This is human nature at its most comic. That said, the label "Hipster" has been so thoroughly degraded by the easy materialism, anesthetizing technology, and know-nothing smugness of the current generation that the word itself is completely empty. What constitutes "hip" today would, I suspect, be of no interest to any scenester of yore, whether artist or poet, hustler or lowly hanger-on.
    I don't use the H-word anymore. I prefer to call them Squares.

  3. I honestly don't think the hipsters of today are much different than the bohemians/freaks/hipsters whatever of previous eras. There have always been a lot of hangers on and poseurs and trust fund kids mixed in with the genuine artists.

    Perhaps the big difference today, and the reason for the backlash, is that the city has gotten so much more fratty and suburbanized that there is less tolerance for artistic pretensions.

  4. No maybe about it: this made me think of a similar debate from a sixties film from Chicago titled "What the F*** are these Red Squares?". You could do link of all these debates through time. It would be cool. But you might be called a hipster douche for doing it.

  5. to anon 10:57 am. YES! 45 plus years ago they had hanger ons. i remember, some were groupies w/no taste or culture. others had $ as well. but they really tried hard to fit in, be invited to parties. they were very aggressive socially. & named dropped. most were girls. do not romanticize new york. one of the major changes IS: the marketing of loft living. the ranch house of the 50s became the loft of the 90s. & the people who just had to have a doorman & a lobby, (on 1st & 2nd & 3rd aves 70s/80s, or a split level on long island)- now rent an open space loft style place on ave B. so they are around 24/7 (the wall street kind, medical student etc). before you only saw them on weekends. nothings changed except marketing. that shapes tastes. 2yrs after the hippy san franciso media blitz, tie dye was in the dept. stores & those ugly phycedelic posters were on everyones wall in the frat house. & the hip words in TV commercials. these days i think so many people look the same, you cant tell a book by its cover!! only when they speak!! the photo of the 2 current hipsters could be 1) 2 kids cutting hair in a beauty salon, 2) harvard PHD students. if i missed something subtle please tell me. i know my own generation well, but may have slipped w/yours. that shirt hes wearing sure is ugly!!

  6. CityofStrangers, i have not read that Hemingway. i will check it out, thanks.

    i'm reading the N+1 book about the hipster and maybe it comes down to socioeconomics--that hippies, like hipsters, had a financial parental safety net, and they did not make art. while the beatniks and bohemians, at least the core of those groups, were actually taking risks by making art with little money behind them. though we'd have to say "in general," which is always tricky. the city today makes it impossible for artists with no/little money to even get in the door.

  7. Hippies did not make art, Grumbler?

    Perhaps you weren't around in the 60s to witness the psychedelic art that flourished then, or any of Rudi Stern and Joshua's light shows, or the art of the Underground Comix typified by R. Crumb, or the tie-dying, or face/body painting.

    And their contribution to the musical arts is legendary and well-known.

    Hippies, who were a lot less numerous than today's hipsters, greatly influenced American culture, with their contribution in art, music,politics, social movements, liberation movements (gay, women), ecology, etc, etc.

    I don't know whether hipsters today have so many trust funders among them, but I assure you, of the hundreds of hippies I knew, not one had a trust fund. They were genuinely poor and struggling.

  8. Grumbler - It's wroth a read. You might have to dig a bit to find it - I read it in a collection of Hemingway's early journalism - he really was a first rate journalist, especially in his early years. His description of hangers-on in 20's Paris, could be any scene, any time . . .

    As for hippies, I think they were much more interesting than media gives them credit for now. The last 'Anonymous' was right - a lot did make art, and a lot of them were pretty tough. People like the Merry Pranksters: Kesey, Cassady (Kerouac's old friend), Mountain Girl. Hanging out with the Hell's Angels. Hunter Thompson. Hendrix et al. It's easy to forget now that there weren't many of them, relatively speaking, and they had to put up with a lot of abuse form larger society.

    I admit, having spent a lot of my younger punk rock years on Canada's west coast, I have a natural antipathy, but we have to give credit where credit is due. I used to meet people who left the US, went up to the Canadian wilds, and carved homesteads and ranches out of nothing. They endured redneck loggers, isolation, Canadian winters, and still remained faithful to their ideals. Now that's living off the gird!

    Sadly, their kids became rednecks, but anyway . . . that's another story.


  9. I agree with the above comments. Hipsters try to sort of resemble the bohemians of the past, and they sort of accomplish this. But there are some big differences.

    The main difference is that the current "hipster" subculture has produced absolutely nothing creative of note. The subculture has lasted about ten years now, so its time to stop waiting. Also, while the revolutionary veneer of past bohemians was always very thin, now its non-existent.

    I think we are simply in a more conformist age and this is the last gasp of bohemianism, which will die once the hipsters fade from view.

  10. Hipsters today are creatively bankrupt. They have re-recycled everything to the point of meaninglessness.

  11. "The main difference is that the current "hipster" subculture has produced absolutely nothing creative of note" "Hipsters today are creatively bankrupt." Well, if you define hipster that way, then yeah. The people who HAVE creatively produced or are creatively fertile aren't called hipsters, they're called whatever they are or by their name. It's all sort of begging the question. I know a lot of people who from a distance of ten feet or more look like hipsters, but they create and produce and so on, and I know people who look nothing like hipsters and contribute nothing. Again, I think it's a rigged topic: part of what "hipster" means is "a person 'we' don't like" or "a poseur" and so forth. And so now God forbid you own Chuck Taylors or a sweater or whatever. And all of this is a plus ca change things as well, I suppose. Hurrah!

  12. there not the same, hipsters can afford the brand name clothes and the stuff that looks old and nostalgic, i cant afford designer jeans that look bohemian or "hipster" as ive heard it said, im a musician, and a young one at that, bohemians but self expression before anything else for the most part, hipsters arent really anything of any importance, its the popular school kids that felt left out and now want to fit in with the other kids, ive seen it all around in new york. example, me and a bunch of my friends have read thoreaus essay on civil disobediance and were having an intelligent conversation, when some of the "hipsters" decided to chime in, only one of them read it, the rest of them were of no use to our conversation, so we left. do you know what the difference is between hipsters and bohemians? bohemians have had hard lives while hipsters were raised with money, so dont even talk about being hipster.

    1. ^^^^^^HIPSTER ALERT^^^^^^

    2. I disagree with you, 8/10 Anonymous, and I have to agree not only with 8/09 Anonymous but with some of the other commentators. Today's media-obsessed consumerist whores so loathsomely termed as hipsters are the epitome of the term "vapid." Their idea of an ironic statement is supporting the very things they consistently trash. If they make any sort of contribution to society, it is miniscule at best. They will grow up in the next decade to merge into the rest of zombified culture: white picket fences, 9-5 jobs, fighting to keep up with the Jones while continuing to drain their communities of any sort of innovation.

      This is my culture, a culture of spoiled and self-proclaimed idealists who sit around and talk shit with pretty words and in the end do nothing. They glorify drug abuse, knowing that mommy and daddy's money can send them to an uber-riche rehab clinic when the heroin-stained veins can no longer be disguised behind layers of soulless tattoos and expensive fabrics. And the poor, fucked-up kids of America's ghettos watch as the poster children for entitlement leave the poverty-stricken hells that they are chained to.

      So today's modern bohemian is not a hipster, someone who pumps money into the consumerist pig they're so desperate to destroy. Today's bohemian is like Anon 8/09, the literal starving artists who would rather sacrifice comfort for the sake of their art. The great minds of once-upon-a-time, the Oscar Wildes and Hemmingways and van Goghs, the Sylvia Plaths and Oscar de Quinceys, those whose art was their salvation and condemnation. Those who were so plagued by the burden of their craft that they found escape from their art between the legs of a smoke-drenched hooker, at the depths of a bottle of scotch, in the soft white clouds of opium or in the sweet bite of a razor. And in their escape, they found their muse and slaved to it once again.

      Today's generation idolizes the hookers, the drinking, the drugs, instead of idolizing the beauty of suffering, the humbleness of hard work, a dedication to art. They strive to be individualists by merging with a sea of sameness. And when they grow up, they'll just be robotic copies of their parents, shuffling along mindlessly while worrying about the money in their accounts and complaining about the state of the world while doing nothing to encourage change.

      I don't know, maybe I'm nostalgic for a time that was never mine, the true bohemians who shaped the culture of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Anons like 8/09 who don't buy thrift-store clothes because it's what everyone else is doing, but because he's saving up for that battered guitar in the pawn shop window or the drum set on craigslist. The Anons who don't live in gentrified neighborhoods with doormen and stainless steel apartments, but roach-infested shitholes in the heart of the ghetto, just so they scrape together enough cash to devote to their creativity. Maybe I'm bitter. Maybe I'm a hopeless romantic. But instead of the shallow mindsets that permeate the vapid, thoughtless little brains of my peers, I'd rather live amongst true individuals, slaves of their crafts and passions, enhancing the community by sharing their genius with the world and inciting change. Let's bring back the true bohemian meccas of yesteryear, where ideas were nurtured with raw reality and determination, not the bank accounts of a materialistic generation. [/rant]

  13. You need only look at the proliferation of new businesses in Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn to discount all the unfounded kvetching about hipsters. Most of that kvetching boils down to resentment of youth and beauty, qualities the kvetcher invariably attributes to a "trust fund". I assure you, there is not enough money in America to support the number of hipsters in Brooklyn, to say nothing of the thousands of businesses and creative undertakings this class of people have put in place in just the past ten years.


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