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Taking Back Bohemia

Talking to an NYU friend on the phone the other day, she brought up the East Village beats on Mad Men. “They remind me of me and my friends in a lot of ways,” she commented. I’d thought the same thing when I saw them. It was easy for me to use the words “beat”, “beatnik”, or “bohemian” when talking about these people from the past, but when I look at my own self and friends, I wonder, what words am I supposed to use? If one does a search on New York Times for the word “bohemian” today, they’ll get a fair amount of results, but only four out of the ten most recent articles use “bohemian” to refer to current people and attitudes; the other six use the term historically, referring to things from over four decades ago. If one searches “hipster” instead, they come up numerous articles mentioning modern day “hipster designers”, a “hipster hospitality franchise”, and a “scruffy hipster quartet”.

Needless to say, this is the word that we’re currently using to describe the beatniks of today. And sure enough, in an article in the Christian Science Monitor from last fall, “hipster” is defined as a “well-educated 20-something…test[ing] out new ideas, explor[ing] art and music projects, and launch[ing] DIY revenue initiatives.” NPR refers to them as “contemporary bohemians” a month later, and in April of this year, Time Out Melbourne defined them as “inner-city folks of a vaguely artistic bent, generally with a degree or so under their belt and a progressive political outlook, doing…things [such] as riding bikes, launching websites and playing in noise bands.” These definitions excited me because they reminded me of the community I became a part of in Chicago, a group which I always felt had no name. Of course, we were artists, but for me that community was about more than just writing or sculpting or making music. It was about going to rock shows at a bowling alley, late night thrift store events in Pilsen, and Halloween parties where people dressed like Pokémon trainers and danced to 90’s pop music. I wanted to use the word hipster to describe myself and my friends and our lifestyle, but it wasn’t that easy. After all, “hipster” is a more complicated, contentious term than “contemporary bohemian” because it is a word with more than one definition.

Commenters in an April article from The Awl define hipster as “those who think they are better than others…and they adorn themselves in junk for the purpose of proving this point”. An article in The Guardian defined them similarly as, “fashionable twits who appear to care more about the next big thing than the welfare of their fellow man.” From this type of definition we get websites like Diehipster and Look at This Fucking Hipster and articles which decry these lowlifes as the “dead end of western civilization”.

The problem with the term comes with these two very different definitions. If you use “hipster” to talk about creatives moving to Detroit or DIY kids raising chickens, people could interpret those people as the condescending poseurs of the other definition. For instance, the other day I commented on a friend’s Facebook status about new English teachers moving to our area in Japan, half-joking, “I hope we get more hipsters hotties!” He quickly replied, “I think hipsters should stay underground and fester in their own smugness.” I tried to explain to him what I meant by the term and sent him a video from the Youtube series American Hipster Presents, a project that interviews young urban creatives to reclaim the term. He watched it and told me, “The video is cool, but I don’t see anything particularly hipster about it”. The disconnect couldn’t have been more clear.

The bohemians of the sixties don’t look that different from those of today. East Village, NYC. (Image credit: Life Magazine)

From that disparity comes the word’s contention. While researching for this article, I found that the Wikipedia entry on hipster is locked until October. This is not the norm for articles which pertain to subcultures. Freegan, maker, DIY, hippie, bohemian, and nerd are all entries open for editing. For hipster, a biased point of view is stated as the reason for the lock, and the discussion around it is telling:

Anonymous: …It seems to lack any sort of insider perspective.

OnBeyondZebrax: …I haven’t been able to find an “insider” perspective, in which a confirmed hipster (an impossibility!!) explains [themselves]. There are no “confirmed hipsters” because it’s nothing but a stupid media LABEL being resurrected from decades ago by outsiders who are busy bodies or high faluting [sic] and need “labels” for people, and put as an exonym onto others who would just as soon these people buggered off and got a life.

Echoing this last sentiment is another comment from the aforementioned Awl article. It states, “[hipster is] a derisive term used to describe any twenty or early thirty-something who is interested in things outside the prevalent mainstream culture who is disliked by the speaker.”

So, what we have today is an overly broad pejorative that’s to a lesser extent being used to describe contemporary bohemians, in effect conflating the two meanings. And let’s be real, that hurts. I can’t help but read articles where writers attack people who wear the same clothes and listen to the same music as my friends and me and not feel attacked myself. When talking to a friend about this last summer she exclaimed, “I can’t take this anymore. I’m so tired of how we’re being portrayed.” The narrative of artists, makers, and crafters has been taken over by the media and this contentious term. So what do we do now?

When I began this article, my thesis was that we should abandon the term as it has become too contentious to be used to describe contemporary bohemia. But then I dug deeper and started to find a new perspective on the subject. I discovered that while big media publications, Salon, Forbes, New York Times, Slate, etc. were using “hipster” to malign or occasionally defend others, bloggers were beginning to defend the term and apply it to themselves. They championed its positive definition – the creativity, the sacrifice for one’s passions, the environmentalism, the independent thinking – all the things that excited me about the community in which I felt at home in Chicago. I had been ready to give up the word in search of a new one to unite today’s bohemians, but now I want to take it back. After all, there’s no reason we should sit back and remain the victims of journalists. People have been redefining themselves for centuries to gain power and solidarity. In the nineties, LGBT people reclaimed “queer” and launched a political offensive. More recently “nerd” and “slut” have emerged as sources of pride and group identity for other maligned groups of people. I’m tired of sitting by and watching others control the narrative around me. It’s time to give ourselves a name. It’s time to take back our story.

Header Image: Contemporary Bohemia – a musician, a comics artist, an art handler, a teaching artist, and a friend in Logan Square, 2012. Chicago, IL. (Image courtesy of Jon Wolfe).

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1 Response to " Taking Back Bohemia "

  1. The CG Project says:

    I can dig it, Man. I’ve been toiling with some of these same ideas…

    “I propose that we are already in the throws of a Second-Hand Renaissance made up of shared ideas about our surroundings; corrupt, big-brother, tabloid journalism; Bloated-Budget, Bombing Blockbusters; RT, TL;DR, HD-TV News and Slick, Sugar-Coated Marketing that keeps us running to the store in fear. In this overbearing environment, filled with feedback and LCD screens, those of us that can re-appropriate the mess that engulfs us are amid a new Artistic Revolution. A Re:Nuisánce.”

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