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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 10, No. 3, 2011
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elitism and

Ellena Savage


Ellena Savage is a writer and immediate past editor of the Melbourne University newspaper, Farrago. She also writes for where this article originally appeared. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.

I was recently sitting in an inner-city beer garden with four friends (a designer, a sound engineer, a student editor and a doctoral candidate), discussing the shameful traits that characterize 'hipsters' -- the slick young urban gentry with access to recreational drugs and synthesizers.

“They're just so smug,” one said to a chorus of nods. Another offered a quip about fixed-gear bikes, the hipster's vehicle of choice, while sipping on his boutique cider.

To the outsider, of course, my friends and I look as though we might ourselves be hipsters, and are probably derided as such behind our backs. We studied arts and sciences at university, and those of us who didn't are pursuing careers in the arts and social sectors.

We live in the fashionable inner-city suburbs, make our op-shop outfits look fashionable, read classics and literary journals, watch Q&A (Australian talk show), hold compassionate politics, and have social lives that involve parties, theatre, lectures, protests and lattes. We love Brooklyn and Berlin, but also think Africa might be 'pretty cool.' Yes, there are puerile vanities here, but where are comparative vanities not entertained?

In bogans, of course. But then, being a bogan would put one under the same weight of social scrutiny: the stereotype says they are anti-intellectual, sexist, racist, small-minded hicks with a taste for processed food and alcohol marketed to 14-year-olds.

Criticisms leveled against hipsters and their grown-up, Green-voting elders -- 'latte sippers,' 'Chardonnay socialists' (are socialists prohibited from drinking, or is only Stolichnaya allowed?), and the caricature of 'middle-class guilt’ -- have little to do with actual coffee, chardonnay or affluence. They have more to do with attempting to unravel fraud.

There is a sense that the trappings of inner-city elitism are manufactured markers of status, rather than genuine expressions of alternative life; that politically correct gestures have little value when they cost nothing to commit. Self-interest, the critic laments, is at the heart of outward gestures.

While this criticism is valid -- the existence of the vapid fashionista is well documented -- we should discern what value there is in contempt, particularly when aimed at groups such as 'hipsters' and 'bogans,' which are impossible to precisely determine.

Aside from externalizing angst about the possibility of having hypocrisies of one's own (calls of hypocrisy rarely come from the unencumbered), hipster hatred, like bogan hatred, is equally about uncritically deprecating an entire set of cultural practices and preferences to advance oneself.

Hipster derision expresses a deeply held parochialism and conformism in Australia (and globally), which is especially apparent and alarming among young people for whom hipsters are their generation's answer to Boomer lefties and Gen X radicals.

Perhaps my generation has learnt from previous ones that when belonging to an alternative class becomes popular it loses currency. Or that we are wise to the mythologies of Baby Boomer idealism and rebellion paralleled with their pursuit of wealth and status.

But hipster derision is more than that. It is a tall-poppy mechanism that identifies a perceived elitist in-group and devalues it in order to justify one's belonging to the mainstream.

That it is strongest among people my own age is a testament to the cynicism of my generation; our humour credits the perception that vegetarianism and veganism, charity and consumer responsibility are moral vanities rather than attempts to make ethical use of the privilege afforded us.

Although we have made cultural leaps and bounds, Australia is still a parochial country in many ways. One of these is the emotional challenge we attach to being confronted by people who have chosen or inherited other ways of living.

It would be nice if everyone were able to compartmentalize their differences, keeping them out of sight, but we all outwardly practice culture whether or not we can recognize the trappings. So long as the choices hipsters, bogans and old-fashioned conformists make -- however conceited -- remain their own and do not harm others, criticism should be reserved for more interesting matters.

Arts communities, where hipsters reside, certainly include dilettantes and frauds -- they always have. Regardless of their existence, a vibrant artistic culture is an indication of cultural affluence, which should never be devalued.


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