Are there any signs of hope in contemporary artistic expression? Anthony Domestico thinks so, and his recent post at dotCommonweal dissecting some trends in what might be called sub-popular (or “popular indie”) music points out a few examples which should force the curmudgeons to think twice. In reading through commentary on contemporary music, he reports:
. . . I found an awful lot of doom and gloom being proclaimed. Young people and their music are embittered and whiny, I heard; they express no hope in humanity; all popular music (or at least all somewhat popular indie rock) is just so much rhythmic moping.
Of course, this isn’t a true assessment of young people or their cultural expressions. Speaking from my own area of expertise, I can tell you that the defining characteristic of fiction in the last fifteen or so years has been an increase in sincerity and hopefulness. People like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace have argued again and again that an ironic, embittered attitude towards the world isn’t enough, and that any art that reflexively resigns itself to this kind of attitude is necessarily impoverished. One of the major projects of post-post-modernism (or whatever you want to call our current moment) is the reclaiming of huge swathes of human experience—love, joy, commitment, sacrifice—as viable subjects for literary representation.
The artists he cites in his post, whether literary (David Foster Wallace) or musical (Fleet Foxes) cannot be called ‘obscure’, but neither are they quite household names. Yet in their places relatively outside the spotlights, these artists seem to be engaged in the rising cultural project of creating a new “authenticism” which looks to be much more humane than the former intellectual regime.
What is taking place here, indeed, maybe something of a rejection of the pervasive irony and cynicism which has burned itself out through long dwelling in various subcultures (both artistic or academic) and then later in broader American society. Indeed, the concern of some of the lyrics he specifically cites—unease with pervasive immaturity and a nagging desire to settle down with a family, a rejection of the endless reassurances given to a generation reared on self-esteem, a desire to curb excessive individuality with a larger collective project—ought to raise some eyebrows, as it is almost a direct antonym to the howls of self-indulgence given by the usual litany of rockers: Lennon, Dylan, or even Nirvana.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether this movement will have any real traction in the broader culture, or whether it is really a ‘movement’ at all. But even if it is simply the latest caprice of fashion, looking for as-yet-untapped veins of thought to mine, it is striking that the most countercultural or ‘different’ approach now comes from a sort of neotraditionalism.