BRANDING A MOVEMENT
The patron saints of the countercultural idea are, of course, the Beats, whose frenzied style and merry alienation still maintain a powerful grip on the American imagination. Even forty years after the publication of On the Road, the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs remain the sine qua non of dissidence, the model for aspiring poets, rock stars, or indeed anyone who feels vaguely artistic or alienated. That frenzied sensibility of pure experience, life on the edge, immediate gratification, and total freedom from moral restraint, which the Beats first propounded back in those heady days when suddenly everyone could have their own TV and powerful V-8, has stuck with us through all the intervening years and become something of a permanent American style... The Gap may have since claimed Ginsberg and USA Today may run feature stories about the brilliance of the beloved Kerouac, but the rebel race continues today regardless, with ever-heightening shit-references calculated to scare Jesse Helms, talk about sex and smack that is supposed to bring the electricity of real life, and ever-more determined defiance of the repressive rules and mores of the American 1950s — rules and mores that by now we know only from movies. —Commodify Your Dissent.
The myth of the artist as unique and individual creator, slaving away in solitude is romantic, but it doesn’t square with history. Nevertheless, it seems to be this myth that inspired Kerouac, in part, to try to write in a secluded cabin at Big Sur. But this conflict underwrites the book written there. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a movement to happen in a hermitage.
It is true that the unique perspective of irreverent outsiders is part of what gives countercultures like the Beats its teeth. The “revolution” comes from listening to your experience, everything else be damned. But the necessary compromise comes in learning how to play well with others without putting a pair of scissors in their eye. Revolution is not a solitary endeavor. No one “makes” it alone, no one is truly “self made.” You’d best believe every lone cultural figure that’s become a success had friends or collaborators you never heard of that helped spread a message that became immortal.
The very myth of there being a particular movement, such as the Beats, is a kind of sleight of hand. Like a corporate entity or any other egregore, this movement develops a brand identity by virtue of its motility and dispersion. Love them or hate them, you probably know about the Beats as a concept. It’s become ubiquitous — in modern parlance, “viral”. Most people aware of American art or literature have at least a vague sense of what the Beats were.
Yet here were separate artists, living separate lives. Sure, they may have been friends, and they influenced one another. But this idea of “the Beats,” that was effective branding — regardless of the history, or how the meme perpetuated itself. It may be coined intentionally, announced with manifestos and a movement, as André Breton did with Surrealism, or it can happen later, a convention for the benefit of journalists that need to name something, as seems to have been the case with Gonzo. Retroactive or intentional, the effect is the same.
From this melting pot of experience, personality, and social context, a group identity forms. It might do 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 almost all on its own. You needn’t brand before you have an identity.
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 creative spirit. Like any good myth, or art itself, there’s cultural value in it, and there is a kind of truth in it, even if it is also a lie in a literal sense — as Pablo Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”
So many bookshelves are littered with books — mostly unread — which were purchased because of the allure of the author’s persona. The personal myths of a movement’s personalities, of its members, help to solidify the identity of movement; for example, the anecdotes about Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and so on, which also helps perpetuate the myth of the movement as a whole. This isn’t to say that “William Tell routine” — the stories around the death of Burroughs’ wife that underwrites the movie biographization of Naked Lunch — did or didn’t happen, but as it moves into the realm of myth, it ceases to matter. The greater your success as an artist, the less your actual life, even your work, matters. A movements is a game of whisper down the lane.
It’s been observed in numerous places that Hunter S. Thompson drew a similar inference, from the Faulknerian “fiction is the best fact.” If we look at Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson was also well aware of the myth-building necessary to have any kind of success as a writer, even if the caricature or double that he created in many ways became a cage. Personality often brands a movement, and defines what the movement comes to mean in the public imagination.
I'm never sure which one people expect me to be. Very often, they conflict — most often, as a matter of fact. ...I'm leading a normal life and right along side me there is this myth, and it is growing and mushrooming and getting more and more warped. When I get invited to, say, speak at universities, I'm not sure if they are inviting Duke or Thompson. I'm not sure who to be. —Hunter S. Thompson, 1978 BBC documentary.
Finally, there is the individual works themselves — books, paintings, movies, comics, sculptures — unique for each artist or group of collaborators, but which would in no way exist without the myth and untold reality that lurks behind it, people living, growing, arguing, fucking, and ultimately dissipating and dying as they did. But you’ll notice that in the context of movements, the actual art is mentioned last. This isn’t incidental.
Lack of originality is often a challenge lobbed at the Beats, from critics and eventually the general public, once it was no longer protected by the aura of cool. But that criticism is entirely beside the point. The Beats openly appropriated inspiration from bebop, from Buddhism — which was seeing a new, if still very muted, popularity in the West — and from other cultures and political ideas at that time. None of it was “original” in that sense, but the melange was, for better or worse, unique. Even the ways Buddhism and bebop were both decontextualized and re-interpreted as free-wheeling riffing rather than structured disciplines created new versions of them in the public imagination.
The vitality of a message, its ability to strike the heart or the mind and wring things out of us we didn’t even know we had in us, often speaks louder than being the first working the beat. But the techniques, the medium — even the components themselves could have been used a thousand times before. So what? The atoms that make up a tsetse fly or an orangutan aren’t after all so different.
This is equally true in business, where the innovators take something that’s being done, and figure out how to amplify, to do it better, or more efficiently. Attempts at originality usually result in useless and often downright bizarre gizmos that at the end of the day do several incompatible things poorly and nothing well. “No one thought of it before” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea.
The art of the collage, montage, bricolage, and the like demonstrate what we all do as thinkers, as painters, as poets, or even 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 or re-use them in unforeseen ways. Once all norms or exemplars are cast off, innovation ceases, and we are left with sheer monotony, a kind of aperionic echo-chamber of vacant and meaningless variety. True variety makes a space for both new and old.
This has conflicting implications for the intersection of media and copyright law, as people increasingly think of the Internet as the new Commons. Information wants to be free, on one hand, and free information doesn’t butter any parsnips on the other. This falls in that category of unexpected consequences. Whether it’s good, bad, or more likely both, it’s the sandbox that future creative movements are going to be playing in.
Artists appropriate. Nearly every artist we know of has acquired and adapted and remixed other sources. Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist deals with this in a practical manner. Kleon states throughout the book that, “nothing is original… all creative work builds on what came before.”
In the process, hopefully that material is filtered through one mind, one history, one style, so that the result is something new. Although for some artists, like John Cage, removal of authorial intention became the goal. Yet even then, we remember the myth of the artist. The intentional erasure of the author defines them in those empty spaces. There’s no escaping style.
The street art habit of “tagging”, painting a signature in public spaces is in a sense the quintessential artistic act — it all amounts to staking your momentary claim on eternity with hand prints on the cave wall, or dicks scribbled atop the Mona Lisa. Duchamp’s “Fountain” — which was inarguably a urinal — is arguably art because it was placed in a gallery with his name beside it. It’s a statement about the art world, as well as the artistic motivation. As Hunter S. Thompson said in an interview with the Atlantic Online in 1997,
And trouble is, people will do almost anything to get on (TV). You know, confess to crimes they haven't committed. You don't exist unless you're on TV. Yeah, it's a validation process. Faulkner said that American troops wrote “Kilroy was here” on the walls of Europe in World War II in order to prove that somebody had been there — “I was here” — and that the whole history of man is just an effort by people, writers, to just write your name on the great wall.
We can go a step further. “Pure” culture is myth, though there is certainly a continuum of authenticity. Where they are criticized for appropriation and lack of originality, we should instead scrutinize asymmetrical power. Appropriation doesn’t cause asymmetrical power structures, though it can often mirror it. That may sound like an abstract distinction but its repercussions are dead literal.
The same power structures exist in countercultural societies as anywhere else, they just map differently. Many criticisms have been lodged over the years — Kerouac’s misogyny and alcoholism, Ginsberg’s fondness for young boys, Burroughs’ romance with guns and heroin. Maybe some of the disappointment is in the expectations that counterculture is somehow supposed to transcend the norm.
To the extent that these criticisms are valid, they point toward a larger fact. As clear as it is that new art and culture can be created through appropriation, we do not make ourselves anew in this transformation. Sexism, racism, and so on don’t disappear within a countercultural setting. They are just carved in relief, through embracing deviance, as homosexuality was at the time. But the underlying power structures remain. This is the problem, not de facto appropriation. And it’s is a key reasons I selected the Beats as an example of movement — not because it bears emulation, but because it offers itself up so readily to this observation.
Asymmetrical power in America has long lent itself so often to white men having the upper hand in what they can borrow and adapt, or outright “discover.” That bears scrutiny, though it won’t be fixed by refusing to explore outside the milieu of your upbringing. Critique of power is always needed — but we should make a distinction here between method, history and intent.
The histories that we write of Beats or famous thinkers disproportionately emphasizes those that social power centralizes. This is the manner of myth — the explicit story being told is false, yet the implicit assumptions it’s based on tells a truth about the speaker that they aren’t even aware of. The ways we narrativize movements is telling. We may be better off erecting our tent cities of the mind rather than all clustering about the same crumbling museum.
Asymmetrical power structures don’t change with a new paint job. The Beat and Hippie movements hoped that primal territorial and ideological conflicts, wanton greed and corruption, are some sort of prolonged hold-back rather than the results of an underlying structural reality. The Beats were cynical where the Hippies were optimistic, but both movements were founded on a kind of naive idealism. Hope alone does not bring change. The alchemy of hope is tricky, even downright dangerous. No single revolutionary movement will “save” the world — all that results from demonstrative radicalization is further polarization, disenfranchisement and estrangement. And if that fringe becomes normative, it is building atop swampland.
What can be done? It almost seems that such things can only happen blindly, naturally, like bees pollinating flowers. We can build systems that re-enforce some instincts more than others, and we can do it without being defined by the labels that people want to define us with.