our brand could be your life

Like most everybody, I found this New Yorker article by Emily Nussbaum an unusually sharp piece from a preternaturally sharp writer. In it, Nussbaum considers not just paid advertising and product placement in TV, but TV’s relationship to commerce, and art’s in general, and ours to art and commerce and commerce in art.  As I often do, I stuck the link to Nussbaum’s article into the Twitter search bar, eager to see what the tribe had to say. I saw many people praising the article, which is good, because it’s good and deserves the praise. But I couldn’t help but be annoyed. After all, many of the people celebrating Nussbaum’s article have contributed, albeit indirectly, to the condition she laments.

We have lived through a period of studied artistic populism that I have written far too much about already. An aspect of this change has been a persistent microgenre of essays arguing that “there’s no such thing as selling out.” Often packaged with the annoying (and flatly false) attitude that this argument is novel and daring, these essays appear with periodic frequency, reassuring their readers that the challenge of anti-commercialism is just one of the many artistic challenges that we can now safely discard. As is typical with arguments that tell capitalism what it wants to hear, there’s a fussy, desperate nature to these pieces; you can really feel the sweaty effort as people convince themselves that everything is already good. But look, they’re playing with house money, at this point. That there’s no such thing as selling out has risen to that rarefied territory of being an orthodoxy that represents itself as apostasy, and people believe it, and will go on believing it, and they daily slap on more paper mache to that creation. There’s no such thing as authenticity, don’t you know.

Whenever I see this stale routine, I think of Liz Phair, or more precisely, Liz Phair. I will be restrained and say merely that this self-titled album is shockingly bad. Much worse than bad, from front to back the album is generic in a bone-deep way. The single, “Why Can’t I?,” easily Phair’s biggest hit, could have been sung by almost any pop singer of its time. I’m sure the album bought her a house, and good for her, get your house. And certainly everybody is free to disagree with my take on the album. But if you too think it’s as bad as I do, and if you too think it’s a shame for as distinct a voice as Phair’s to be rendered indistinguishable from everybody else’s, then you should consider the obvious. You should consider the possibility that selling out actually is real, and that it actually is pernicious, and that it takes talent and difficulty and individuality and sands them down into whatever the market demands, and that there’s nothing particularly secret about any of this. I want you to consider the possibility that life is not as complicated as a thinkpiece pretends, but as is simple as a smile bought with a $5 bill.

When I read John Hermann’s mournful response to Nussbaum, I want to say, to him and to Nussbaum, hey, punk exists. There’s a lineage here, there’s a discourse, there’s a whole tradition of aesthetic resistance. And when I say punk I don’t just mean punk, but a whole long family tree of aesthetes and bohemians and crabby old refuseniks and lonely old hermits and honest-to-god starving artists smoking cheap cigarettes in their dirty garrets and the prematurely aged, like me. I want to say there are countercultures. But of course there aren’t, anymore. We smothered them, under a blanket of ironized mainstream culture, pathetic petty resentments of those we’re afraid are cooler than we are, the semantic horrorshow that is the term “hipster,” and that commissar’s ideology, poptimism, enforced with a predictable progression of complaints: first that these countercultures were in fact the constricting authority, then that they were ridiculous, then that they were elitist, finally that they were sexist and racist and whatever else. We’re left with where we’re at, where we’re allowed to love everything and question nothing.

Capitalism is remorseless and counterculture could never stand against it. That capitalism appropriated punk and every other anti-capitalist and anti-establishment movement before it stands as the most worn-out cliche in culture. But reading Nussbaum’s essay, I feel more sure than ever that these cranky, niche movements served essential purposes. They  could never have prevented the rise of product integration or sponsored content or any of their ugly cousins. But they made good martyrs. Those movements stood proud against a whole host of insults, petty and grand, that capitalism hangs on art, and they provided the comfort of a community that refuses while knowing that refusal is doomed to failure. And they did so in a way that caused and should cause deep, real discomfort to our current presumptions, the genuine shivers of genuine incompatibility. Like George W. S. Trow, who Nussbaum disdains but can’t dismiss, these movements could be pretentious and phony and sanctimonious and provincial and could throw the aesthetic baby out with the ethical bathwater. But they needed to be, it was necessary, to stand for saying no, and to stand in defense of the new.

As is so often the case, our culture industry and the people who make it up have tried to have it both ways at once ,and found that they can’t. We can’t, it turns out, have a critical culture predicated  on the celebration of totally unapologetic art populism, suspicious and resentful of artistic ethics that go beyond aesthetics, without that nasty capitalist aftertaste. “Pop,” after all, has always been a more coherent economic phenomenon than an artistic one. That’s not to dismiss the abundant pleasures of pop art, an artistic category that has the entire weight of capitalism behind in and thus does not need defending, and which, as Nussbaum says, has already won. It’s merely to point out that populism, in art as well as in politics, is disturbingly susceptible to being co-opted by the capitalist impulse; the money is where the people are, after all. And once you’ve chased away the various anti-populist countercultures, once you’ve declared them socially and politically undesirable, you can’t be surprised when you find there’s no one to help you ward off the pimps from the multinationals, sticking a Snapple ad in your favorite show. I’m not so deluded as to ask that we abandon our addiction to the novocain of pop triumphalism. I merely ask that we count the costs. We’ve put out our lips to be kissed, and we’ve found that the grimier sides of the entertainment industrial complex are more than happy to use a little tongue. We made this world, and now we’re living in it.

But there is still hope. When the internet’s social culture isn’t functioning as a giant machine for enforcing consensus of tastes, the internet’s lonely corners are the perfect spaces for letting niche tastes, and niche aesthetics — which, if they mean anything at all, involve the critical judgment we have been taught to disdain — bloom into cranky flowers. Things can grow in those spaces. If you’re of the poptimist bent, you only need to leave them unpruned, to treat them with benign neglect. For those who are dissatisfied with the state of things, you can roll your shirtsleeves up. Plant a new counterculture. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest of elitisms. Protect it from writers that hack. Then punk and all of its friends may yet come back.