The manipulation of mass culture as an expression of aesthetic autonomy
Karl Marx, Exaltasamba and Racionais mentioned on the same lyrics, young non-binary neogoth people in the eletronic scene that used to like Britney Spears, The Powerpuff Girls stamps on top of Louis Vuitton prints, games like high fashion. Mass culture or just a niche trend? Sophistication or Downgrade? Pop Art or Fine Art? It doesn’t matter.
For a frighteningly globalized and extremely online generation, separation between high and low culture is irrelevant; everything was diluted in an increasingly diffused, fluid and slightly chaotic fabric. A combination of mass culture references and aesthetic experiments that would make Andy Warhol proud. Or maybe shook. What matters is not to be afraid of pop. And I don't even want to aestheticize it so it looks “higher”.
This movement could only be carried out by the most diverse generation in history, natives of times when everything is hyperlinked and lip-syncing songs is a talent that brings you followers and PR packages. Growing up in this context gives today's youth an advanced understanding of virtuality and virality, concepts so new and fast that they barely allow us to access their possible negative consequences.
Generation without generalization
Digital natives, Generation V (because of the coronaviiiiiurus) or Generation Z. There are many names to try to describe those born after 1995. Generation is a group of people of similar age, influenced by certain events that left marks on their values and behaviors. Ironically, “Z” is the last letter of the alphabet, symbol of the exhaustion of a model that was born as a sociological cut, but ended up becoming a trick of market segmentation and even a mechanism of age oppression.
Creating and / or nourishing a cultural war between generations can be as toxic as the cancelling culture. It only serves to widen differences and generate illusory views of understanding. To declare that an entire generation is lost or that it will save the world is, at the very least, naive. Or delusional. Nobody deserves to be reduced to a generational cut.
In this sense, if the generational theory is quite confining, it can be more liberating to see “genZ” as a signifier of a set of young behavior and socio-cultural forces, instead of a homogeneous group of people. Once again, youth invites us to challenge conventions. Embrace fluidity and plurality instead of insisting on the alienation of labels. Combine instead of separate.
From mass indie to the monomass
Once upon a time there was a youth obsessed with the ideal of “being alternative”. Since the invention of the concept of youth as a market target in the 1950s, several movements have established subcultures and micro-communities to escape the system and the mass culture wave. Hippies, punk, grunge, ravers and other movements created the possibility of living outside the system, supposedly independently. If the market appropriates niche cultural codes and turns identities into mass products, these movements sought to question this logic and move away from what became Pop. But the market is fast, and we, in addition to being neurotic, are contradictory.
The 2000s brought about the collapse of this model when we all saw the rise and fall of the hipster - a subculture that ostensibly fetishized style, authenticity and uniqueness without necessarily carrying ideals that proposed transformations. A behavior that preached authenticity while looking so inauthentic. A search for differentiation because, well, we have to differentiate ourselves. Hipsters are the great example of the years 2010, the Age of Mass Indie, when the celebration of differences and an alternative attitude became mass products.
The Mass Indie strategy had a number of problems. You worked so hard to be special that no one understood what you were talking about, and ironically, the details that defined you were so small that no one realized you were different. Fast-fashion retail and the internet made it virtually impossible to distinguish the aesthetic of a Williamsburg hipster and Lucas Lucco of 2012. Mass Indie made the dilemma “Differentiation vs. Belonging” quite unsustainable.
In 2020, however, being young is assuming an attitude that is both conciliatory and destructive, something that Dazed called MONOMASS - hyper-individualism and mass trends coexist comfortably. It is a very precise articulation of a spirit of time that less discriminates cultural expressions and seems to have less need to assert itself - or define itself - as an alternative culture. After all, it can be more liberating to reinterpret cultural signs than trying to obsessively categorize what's cool and what's not. Cool for who?
Subversion as a survival strategy
In a time when memes are such big and fast cultural signifiers, it's impossible not to talk about mashups as a permanent state, a strategy for navigating reality. Mixing to understand it, recreate to potentiate, appropriate to go viral. It is typical behavior of a generation that is very efficient in subverting meanings and reconstructing cultural signifiers.
It is about the multi-artist @0000000brendy - who, together with Boni, leads Estileras, a Brazilian fashion platform that proposes un-disciplinary and multi-media performances - to define herself as a “maloqueira”. An act of bravery: defying such a pejorative term and transforming it into an identity marker, positioning yourself through the reinterpretation of an old and so problematic signifier. Like someone who plays their past and proposes a new future at the same time. This is a logic that understands that everything can be manipulated, including the “big” signifiers of culture. Fluidity in everything, especially in the understanding of self-image.
If the Millennial strategy bet heavily on building aspirational versions of ourselves, perhaps the great asset of genZ may be the ability to navigate the rawness of reality in a more ironic and less polished way. 63% of generation Z feel that their lives are not as good as that of third parties on social networks (Visual GPS, Getty Images and YouGov, 2019). How to deal with it? Through an infinite overlap of layers that makes less separation between what can and cannot; because it is easier to be the protagonist of culture when fewer silos are created within it. Millennial is performance, genZ is linguistic collage.
This explosive sensitivity allows us to appreciate the strangeness of the present and the anxiety of a future that does not exist or has expired. Almost half (45%) of Britons today believe that youth will have a worse life than their parents, a figure that was 33% in 2003 (Deloitte, 2019). In this context, it is natural to create different strategies to deal with the real.
Being young in 2020 is oscillating between Defensive Pessimism and Compulsive Irony. In this coming and going, many will explore these cultural gaps to undertake new identity possibilities. Instead of being a victim of bodily dysmorphia, use it as an aesthetic of self expression. Instead of settling for a gender expression, discover the infinite spectrum of possibilities between male and female. This is, in some ways, conformity with the meaninglessness of things and the certainty that, with the constant feeling of imminent collapse, there is no time to lose with attempts at perfectionism.
Ugly for who, angel? it’s called Aesthetic Autonomy
Ugly fashion, emo vibes, the medicalization of anxiety in a world where nobody is doing well. If millennials embrace the magic of perfection, genZ embraced another type of distortion: strangeness. If millennials tried to “fake it‘ til you make it” genZ simply accepts that the world is broken. You can fix it, as long as you stop pretending normality.
The vast imagery repertoire is a tool to cause the deconstruction of perfection, an intentional exaggeration, clearer and more forceful. From the revival of Crocs to the elevation of acrylic nails to an art level, we are surrounded by cultural objects that fascinate us and also make us question our aesthetic taste. Cool for the internet, ugly for the press. They are icons of a massified aesthetic and classified as "common", "cheap" and "corny" that are reconfigured through a mixture of strangeness and frankness.
When everything looks like a new copy of everything, what is really original? And what is beautiful? Did I hear the word "Camp"? Yeah. As Susan Sontag wrote in “Notes on Camp”, “it's about seeing everything in quotes, a way to navigate a culture of massification”. It is to challenge good taste through the reinterpretation of the “ugly”; it is ambiguity, it is raising the eyebrows, it is a question mark that looks like an exclamation.
It is not about being intentionally ugly, but about offering possibilities between the beautiful and the grotesque, about embracing ambiguity. The consequence is earning an aesthetic autonomy that allows to navigate the culture without shame of its personal (p)references.
And re-signifying the place of the beautiful, the cool, the aspirational is a fundamental part of a critical and social transformation. As Bell Hooks wrote in "Art on My Mind: Visual Politics", "we need to theorize the meaning of beauty in our lives so that we can educate ourselves for a critical conscience."
Even though not everyone masters it, the separation between cool and uncool has become an efficient marketing tool. Institutions and the market may even insist on models of segmentation and separation between “mass” and niche, but culture is operating at another frequency. More experimental and less ideal, it allows us to navigate reality in a way that can be more liberating - and much more fun.