What happens when alternative culture is co-opted by the mainstream?

David Foster Wallace may have been one of the most outspoken cultural critics to point out that although at one point irony was a powerful weapon of artistic response, especially in the 60’s and 70’s when trust in establishments such as the government seemed especially misplaced, irony has since become so mainstream it is now necessary in the creation of art simply in order to achieve acceptance. To imply your cultural complicity.

Sukhdev Sandhu, another cultural critic, refers to the same in an essay on music in which he describes the trajectory of critically acceptable music. The sentimentality and ‘schmaltz’ of earlier musical periods has been replaced in the recent past with the idea that music’s value is defined more by its ‘realness’ and ‘truth.’ Scholarly writing on music today looks for neophilia, an illustration of the musician’s subcultural awareness, or, as in Wallace’s take on irony, resistance towards the mainstream. Emotion, ‘yearning,’ as Sandhu says, is rejected, critical acceptance being reserved for the alternative.

The problem?

The alternative has now become the mainstream.

We’ve reached a point in Western culture at which everything we once viewed as revolutionary or anti-establishment has become the establishment.

Sure irony was once a culture’s useful critique, a tool to “Lay waste to corruption and hypocrisy,” to respond to the vapidity of US culture. Certainly, the emergence of ‘alternative’ music in the late 20th century; the anarchic sound of the Sex Pistols or the vocalization of a marginalized subculture in early West-coast rap, served as a much needed dose of reality in a world whose popular music had for too long been dominated by the majority.

But imitating the revolutionary work of a Thomas Pynchon or a Robert Rauschenberg or recreating the sound of 2Pac or the Ramones isn’t, in and of itself, grounds for artistic acceptance. A groundbreaking new way of making art is groundbreaking in its novelty. When the work is recreated, the revolution is over, and, well, you get where I’m going.

Robert Rauschenberg - Untitled, 1963
Robert Rauschenberg – Untitled, 1963

When Mike Will Made It produces Miley Cyrus’s albums. When LA’s Hammer Museum produces a show of artists who practice institutional critique. When upper middle-class teenagers wear GG Allin t-shirts….

The ‘alternative’ has lost its definition.

David Foster Wallace:

And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

Whether its irony or some other form of cultural critique in art or music, when something becomes what is expected, we stop trying. When artists, I’ve heard the example of Richard Phillips, can create insincere art contributing nothing new to the conversation, and we are more or less asked accept it at face value ‘because it’s ironic,’ we’ve begun the gradual destruction of an intelligent culture. We’ve stopped asking questions and we’ve stopped having to explain ourselves, assuming, because we are perpetuating cultural norms, our work is self-evident and valid in its own right.


And irony (insert other culturally acceptable means of expression here) means safety.

So what’s next?

In short, the risk of failure. The risk inherent in creating art that is different and perhaps in direct contrast to what the art world has been trained to accept. Risk being labeled sentimental or ‘full of conviction.’ And perhaps the idea of good art can move past irony into sincerity into an art that can ‘open possibilities for the future’ instead of wallowing in its own nihilism and irony. After all, being right is the opposite of being original. You can’t be both.

The move in music criticism towards acceptance and the well-argued and well-defended justification of divergent musical styles once considered inauthentic, naive or simplistic, is a start. When other art forms, visual art in particular, can begin to ask the same of its critics, perhaps a new kind of artist will again grace the spotlight and the age of an absolute which requests the ironic or the rebellious before originality and authenticity can be granted, will be over.

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