The ways we conduct ourselves, the decisions we make, the things we want from life are, for the most part, predicated on our place within the culture we’re born into. The way we talk, the way we dress, what we eat, the way we love, who, if anyone, we pray to; they’re all determined either in accordance with, or in spite of, the ideals and will of whoever ushered us through the formative years of our lives. Even as adults, most of us will continue this trend. In some ways, the paths that many of us find ourselves on are ones that were picked out for us before we were even born. While the specifics like where we went to school or where we were raised will undoubtedly vary, the general life path is the same for almost each and every one of us.
It should be explicitly stated however that this is by no means a bad thing. In the whole of human existence, the ability to cultivate societies is perhaps the most impressive and resounding trait of our species. It has given us written word and oral history, music and art, math and science, love and sport. But as long as there have been societies standing shoulder to shoulder together, there have been individuals set on standing apart. But what turns social dissent into a full-blown movement? What motivates a counter cultural movement to make the effort to separate themselves from the norms of the cultures that gave birth to them?
There have been several significant counterculture movements throughout history, beginning with the Bohemians of the 1800s. The blueprint instilled by the Parisian Bohemians has been followed to the letter by every major countercultural movement of the 20th century. In America, perhaps the three most important movements have been the beats of the 50s, the hippies of the 60s and the punks of the 70s and 80s.
From Misfits to Movements
In early 19th century Paris, a group of artists and writers began to separate themselves from the working people to focus on their passions. Named the Bohemians, they are widely recognized as the first group of individuals to form a community based around the idea of living outside the constraints society; in this case, the deeply materialistic one of France. Comprised of a diverse collection of writers, artists, actors and students, they rejected private property and permanent residence, living where they could and surviving on very little material wealth. They rejected strict moral values, actively engaging in drug and alcohol use and practicing open sexual freedoms. The goal of the Parisian Bohemians was simple: art above all.
In the morning, they typically rose early to work on their novels, plays or whatever inspired them at the time, and by night they would descend upon the city of lights. “We never dined at home. Like a flock of birds of prey we descended upon the Palais-Royal, or the cabarets in the Rue de Valois, or the various restaurants in the arcades, according to our whim,” said author Henry Knepler in one of his accounts of the Bohemian lifestyle. The wild nights were usually spent drinking, dancing and cultivating the company of women. The late evenings would turn into early mornings and the whole thing would begin again.
The Bohemian lifestyle wasn’t simply about the instant gratification of pursuing ones passions, however. Almost everything they did was in an effort to undermine the mainstream culture of the time. Sometimes that meant sitting in a coffee shop all day and only ordering one cup of coffee; or setting up an easel and a nude model in front of a restaurant. The Bohemians would scrounge together whatever clothes they could find, in staunch opposition to the meticulous fashion standards of the bourgeoisie, members of the wealthy social class. What better way, they thought, to make a statement against the excess of society than to wrap themselves in the garb the rich throw away? They looked at the artifice of the social classes and material wealth and boldly flaunted their disregard for it. They were viewed as lazy by those who worked all day to make ends meet. This lifestyle of the Bohemians, however, set the stage for the beat movement of the 20th century.
The beat generation wasn’t originally considered a movement. They were a tight knit group of friends, who used their lifestyles and literature to challenge what they saw as a vapid mainstream culture developing in America. In the atomic age, America was experiencing a great deal of growth. Suburbs and interstates turned America into a sprawling empire, and rampant commercialism was beginning to develop. Coined by poet Jack Kerouac in 1948, the phrase “beat generation” referred to the upbeat, musically inclined anti-conformist youth movement growing in the underbelly of New York City. In many ways, the beats were mobile bohemians, traveling and spreading their message from coast to coast. Through their literature and activism, they created a lasting effect on the American way of life, inspiring a number of folk and rock musicians and changing the way Americans dealt with censorship, drug use and sexuality. They were the frontrunners of many of the civil and social revolutions to occur over the next several decades.
Hippies are perhaps the most famous of the American counterculture movements. They’re most commonly associated with drug use, bright colors and free love, but there was far more than that to the flower power generation. Many of the ideals of the adopters of hippie culture came from a feeling that there was a lack of purpose in their lives, an idea common to the Bohemians. Many hippies left their middle class lives to experience what they hoped would be a more fulfilling way of life, beside people who shared a desire to escape the confines of nine-to-five jobs and 2.5 children. They peacefully rebelled against authority and conformity and opted to live in poverty for the freedom and community it invited. There was a great deal of social and political change in the 1960s, and the hippies embraced causes like civil rights, feminism and sexual liberation. Like the bohemians, they rejected the comfort of what they thought was an empty existence and chose to replace it with the experience of seeing what the world had to offer.
Hippie culture found its polar opposite with the emergence of punk rock. After the exhausting fiasco of the Vietnam War, Americans were angry, jaded and worn out. Thanks to the war, the draft and the Watergate scandal, faith in the government was shaken and the establishment had put itself at odds with the people. Cultivated through the brash garage rock of the 60s, punk rock music became a counterculture rooted in rebellion. The hippie movement had all but fizzled out and in its place stood something brooding, nasty and very, very loud.
Much of early punk, both in the U.S and the U.K. started out as a stripped down reaction to the decadence of 60s rock and roll. Instead of a six minute guitar solo, you’d get three chords played for 90 seconds. This stand against the tame and the excessive became not only a musical statement but a cultural one as well. The “do-it-yourself” ethic became the cornerstone of this burgeoning lifestyle and brought a generation of bored, disillusioned youth together.
But for all of the strides made by these poignant and powerful countercultures, and all of the impacts they made on American culture, each one faced an eventual demise. The beats gave way to the beatnik stereotype and were caricatured in film and on television. The hippies scattered away toward more stable lifestyles, or burned out of drugs. Punk gave way to grunge, and then became commercialized, losing its aggressive edge. Remnants of these countercultures exist to this day on much smaller scales, but their presence is now accepted by our jaded modern society.
The Vicious Cycle
But just as the Bohemians were the first to unify social dissent and craft it into a separate culture, they were the first to begin the self-destructive cycle that has befallen all countercultures from that point forward. As a counterculture grows in size and exposure, it grows in acceptance and more and more members of the dominant social order “descend” into it. It becomes cool, it becomes chic and it becomes trendy. At the same time, more prominent members of the counterculture often find some level of success or recognition through their counterculture works, which propels them into the realm of the mainstream. History has shown that the most surefire way to crush a counterculture is to let it destroy itself. Every major countercultural movement has become a caricature of itself, as it grows too big for its own identity. This is often the case when you can no longer separate those who are committed to the way of life from those that are simply attracted to it. But this distinction is often made too late.
This brings up another major factor in the way that countercultures falter over time: the lack of “lifers.” Being a part of a counterculture is one thing, but maintaining that lifestyle, particularly in America, is exceedingly difficult. For many, the need to find some sort of stability in life, financially and socially, eventually becomes too pressing to ignore. In some cases — usually in the second and third generations of various countercultures — many young people enter the lifestyle knowing full well that they can drift back into the fold of the mainstream when the time is right.
In our particular generation, downward mobility has become increasingly popular, with some middle and upper class young people going as far as living on the street or hopping train cars to experience a carefree, unemployed lifestyle with little to no responsibility, up until the mood strikes them to return to their suburban homes and get on with their “real” lives. They get the excitement of vacationing as part of a fringe lifestyle, while also having the security of knowing they can whip out their iPhones at any minute and move back in with their parents. Even Henry Murger, who many consider to be Paris’ original Bohemian, was determined to move out of the counterculture lifestyle he helped cultivate, and used his short plays, ironically about the Bohemian lifestyle, to elevate his status and move up among the bourgeoisie. He saw Bohemia as a temporary state of existence, and those who could not move on to the next phases of their lives would inevitably destroy themselves.
Ultimately, World War I brought the Bohemian lifestyle to an end. With the French people facing the horrors of an unprecedented global war, art and literature were put on hold and the counterculture never quite regained its footing. Before its demise however, it had already begun to show signs of degradation. Author Gabriel Guillemot was very critical of the later stages of Bohemia, stating “few men of talent, let alone men of genius, remained Bohemian throughout their lives. The vast majority of those who did were men who lacked the talent to make a lasting reputation, and men who lacked the moral fiber, the sense of responsibility, to lead a satisfactory adult life.” Many Bohemians found it necessary to move on to more suitable and socially acceptable lifestyles, while others found success for their works and moved up in the world.
Countercultures will continue to exist, and will continue to reflect the cultural atmosphere of whatever situation they stem from. They are perhaps the most eye-opening gauge of where a culture stands, and by resisting the status quo, they force people to examine different aspects of their society. They are as important and vibrant as the cultures they clash with. The only question left: where do you stand?