Chin: Dartmouth and the Alternative

The alternative aesthetic requires greater inclusivity.

by Clara Chin | 7/13/17 8:15pm

“He has gone to breathe an air beyond his own

 toward a wisdom beyond the shelf

 toward a dream that dreams itself.” 

– “About a Boy,” Patti Smith

Our school slogan is “Vox clamantis in deserto,” or “a voice crying out in the wilderness.” It is at the essence of being alternative or “alt.” Alternative is the new hipster, an artistic and social aesthetic that runs parallel to and “against” the mainstream. In short, this aesthetic is defined by solitary, brute intellectualism. One imagines the type of person who goes for solo hikes in the woods, enjoys a good cold brew, reads philosophy and watches Wes Anderson or Stanley Kubrick films. The alternative person disregards engagement, viewing and participating in aesthetics with intellectual interest and little emotion. Despite the lack of emotion, their artistic pursuits have earned them the moniker “softboys.”

“Vox clamantis in deserto”  is a sentiment of personal vision or intellectual expression. Wilderness invokes a sense of solitude that suggests deep reflection and intellectualism but also insinuates connection to our physical instinct or animalistic nature. While our aesthetic is often that of a preppy East Coast school, our old motto can be interpreted as support for this alternative aesthetic on this campus and elsewhere. 

I, too, enjoy a good cold brew coffee; Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” are two of my favorite popular art movies. An aesthetic of intimacy and solitude paired with occasional intellectual discussion is appealing, because it produces a desirable look of detachment. But the popular alternative aesthetic sometimes perpetuates rigid social and gender norms no different than those of the mainstream.

Anderson and Kubrick’s hyper-masculine works embody detached art and subtly objectify women, while David Lynch’s media overtly objectifies. To be a softboy is understandable; to be a softgirl is unheard of. The aesthetic of detachment favors the reductive and rigid gender norms of unemotional men and emotional women.

Women are frequently relegated to melodramatic roles that emphasize male sprezzatura and deny woman sprezzatura. A classic example occurs in season one of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” when high school girl Laura Palmer’s murder is investigated by the male Agent Cooper. Lynch relegates Laura to the silent role of a beautiful sad woman. Just like in mainstream television, women in popular alternative television shows participate primarily as stereotypically beautiful damsels in distress. While portraying women as beautiful is not negative, it is almost as if the women are merely part of the visual aesthetics: It is the male creators both onscreen and offscreen, of and in the art, who engage in the discourse of the alternate, while women are too often relegated as subjects of the discourse and nothing more.

The rise of rage filled feminist punk has allowed popular alternative art to resist this unoriginal portrayal of women. In Courtney Love’s “Doll Parts,” she sings, “I am doll eyes, doll mouth, doll legs, I am doll arms, big veins, dog bait,” alluding to the objectification of women as dolls, with merely composites of body parts. Love refers to herself as dog bait, echoing the objectification of Laura Palmer as dog bait for Agent Cooper in “Twin Peaks.” While feminist punk successfully critiques the alternate and enables a non-masculine space for alternative art, the performances still demonstrate the persisting limits to non-male participation in the aesthetic of the alternate. Instead of allowing for multigendered expressions, the alternative aesthetic distances femininity and embraces masculinity.

Feminine rage can thwart the effect of male emotional detachment, but may also reflect the desirability of masculinity to female performers. In “Piss Factory,” Patti Smith invokes masculine imagery of factories, sweating and drinking beer, singing, “I would rather smell the way boys smell.” Modern punk-influenced singer Cherry Glazerr sings, “I told you I’d be with the guys, but I know better now than to be with the guys,” expressing a desire to depart from femininity but alluding to the dangers of aspiring to maleness. While Love, Smith and Glazerr critique the “bro” culture that is present in the alternative music genre in which they partake, they lack the privilege of aesthetic dispassion. They sing about gender issues deeply engrained in this music, and would have to ignore such issues to achieve dispassion. To attain visibility, the dispassionate female artist must sing loudly and with rage.

While access to this aesthetic of Vox Clamantis should be less gendered and more open to non-males, it is also important to problematize why this aesthetic of disaffectedness is desirable in the first place. It can be engaging and intellectually intense, as with Lynch’s Episode 8 of the latest “Twin Peaks,” which raises thought-provoking questions about existence and origins. It also permits the avoidance of uncomfortable emotions that can be artistically and socially productive. It is why people enjoy Anderson movies; they are quirky yet palatable. Anderson films certainly disrupt typical movie norms such as the melodramatic “Spiderman” and “Beauty and the Beast,” but in reality, these movies do not challenge social norms or allow for a true feeling of discomfort. Julia Ducorneau’s “Raw,” for example, addresses issues of sexuality through the metaphor of cannibalism. The analogy is a means to highlight the extreme despair of the main character.

At times, this is an aesthetic to which I aspire — I enjoy all three of these artistic-intellectual engagements. The people who live their lives according to alternative aesthetics are often doing so to distinguish themselves from the preppy men they might consider politically problematic or intellectually unengaged. Unfortunately, alt groups are as much of a boys’ club as the wolf packs they disassociate from. More often than not, the beauty of the Alternative Boys Club is superficial — a performance of Alternative Masculinity in which those who preach the Alternative Lifestyle use their taste in coffee, movies and activities to distinguish themselves from others or find a sense of self-importance, while still avoiding the possibility of gaining any deep understanding of art.