This Is Slacker Minimalism
How Punk and Minimalism Came Together to Define Contemporary Luxury
- Text: Lucas Mascatello
- Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Lucas Mascatello
A friend of mine once told me that Kurt Cobain killed punk rock. His argument was that where punk was about community, politics, and rebellion, grunge was about the individual—it was emotional, not political. Instead of fighting something greater, the 90s were about being at war with yourself. Punk has been dead as long as I’ve been alive, which means we’ve been living in the 1990s for almost 30 years. The establishment that has grown out of this cultural dynasty looks very different than our classic image of the bourgeoisie. A new aesthetic now caters to the skaters and suburban misfits who are now marketing consultants and start-up founders. We call this Slacker Minimalism.
We’re all tourists and nothing is underground. The internet makes it too easy. Today, community and social capital are more valuable than conventional success. Being rich is no longer an end unto itself—in fact, the image of an ad exec crunching away on his iPhone in the back of a Town Car is lonely, not empowering. Instead, the modern concept of luxury is about using your status and purchasing power to express your freedom. Where people used to bind their feet and wear powdered wigs to blend in at society functions, today you can wear cashmere sweatpants and a t-shirt. It’s important not to try too hard.
Above all else, it’s important to remember that Slacker Minimalism is a philosophy disguised as an aesthetic. As a form of consumer nihilism, this world view is about expressing dissent without genuinely challenging the status quo. Slacker Minimalism divorces subcultural symbols and expressions from their politics through “refinement.” Your anarchist t-shirt is de-radicalized by its fine jersey and high price tag. Cobbled together from failed ideologies and passé cultural movements, Slacker Minimalism traffics in the iconography of rebellion, making it the principal aesthetic tool of the luxury industry today.
Traditionally, in order to be countercultural you need to be disciplined. This generally means making sacrifices and working hard. Where the neo-luddite lives offline and disconnected, the Slacker Minimalist hacks these value systems by automating and outsourcing the labor: “I don’t have time or energy to fix this problem, so what can I buy?” Rather than self regulate, this is about solving the issue of using your phone too much by buying a second, less functional phone. The Slacker Minimalist buys compression tights that make them run faster, installs productivity apps to get more done, and consumes nootropics, amphetamines, and other pharmaceuticals to optimize. Being busy and stressed is never cute, so these products help maintain an easy and unbothered exterior.
Tattoos and drugs are a commitment, and they’re fun because they’re risky. The Slacker Minimalist flirts with danger, but mitigates risk. A portable weed pen allows you to get stoned without standing out or being a true drug user. Similarly, the Juul has its own kind of magic as the non-smoker’s smoking option, offering seemingly harmless vapor in the form of a cucumber-infused spa-water cartridge. This is the apologetic middle ground, where designer tattoo sleeves come on and off, and vice can be styled into your life without stigma.
The Slacker Minimalist makes transgressive messaging cute, rendering it ineffective. This is about expressing cultural literacy and status through appropriation. Slacker Minimalism requires one to understand the cultural reference being borrowed and appreciate the value of erasing its associated beliefs and context. Cultural criticism is turned into cynicism and irony, which have their own kind of capital: “I know this slogan used to belong on a protest sign, but I’m going to put it on my sock.” There is a plug and play quality here, allowing you to opt into a standing narrative of rebellion while also trivializing it.
The pissing Calvin comes from Bill Watterson’s comic Calvin and Hobbes. As a bootleg, it doesn’t really matter where the image came from, or how it was made. Like any other meme, its lack of location is part of its power. If taken at face value, pissing is kind of a juvenile non statement, but therein lies the appeal. As a children’s comic character, Calvin (like Bart Simpson) can be inserted into a radical context and make it funny. Calvin is a symbol of vague collective counterculture that can be retrofitted to any ideology—you get to decide what he pisses on.
As a new kind of luxury, Slacker Minimalism explores the politics of your purchasing power. Slacker Minimalism plays with the conventional value system, using wealth to dislodge and relocate objects in the social hierarchy without uprooting them. The things you own and the ways in which you call attention to them can be transgressive, but in this context these expressions are elevating rather than stigmatizing.
Wearing inexpensive items out of context is a way of expressing your distance from that social sphere. If I wear a trucker hat, I’m probably not a trucker and the hat is a way of communicating that. This role-playing is a way of saying you could afford something better, but don’t need to maximize your expressions of wealth. If consumer culture is about curatorial power, then there is a kind of elitism in knowing which things are not worth spending money on.
This is a way of foreseeing the inevitable trend of objects toward luxury and accelerating it. Instead of waiting for a more expensive sunglasses to emerge, why not take a ubiquitous style and simply elevate it through price? Slacker Minimalists use their position in culture to make commerce more transparent. There is a cynical humor in this gesture insofar as it proves people will see value if they are told it is there. It’s unthinkable that people would pay $1,000 for a glass of water. Until someone does.
Why buy used things when you can instead buy something new that looks used? This gesture is another way of aestheticizing labor and removing its meaning. Where work entails hardship, sacrifice, and dedication, these objects simply bear the markings without any of the history. This process dehumanizes labor by creating artifacts without genuine origins. These shoes were not owned by a person with a life and friends and a family, they were carefully stained by a graduate student working in a studio. By manufacturing history the object can either be placed within, or removed from, a specific location and time.
Trolling is an inherent part of Slacker Minimalism insofar as it’s designed to test the limits of our social system. Slacker Minimalism celebrates the luxuriously impractical, antagonizing and confusing the public by bringing to market items that have no deliberate function or legible value. This is where cynicism and nihilism truly manifest.
When trolling operates in the extreme, consumption becomes a way of sponsoring the absurd. Absurdism is innately conversational, it can be laughed at both by those driving it, and by the people it mocks. Purchasing objects that have no purpose, or even better, objects which defeat their own purpose, is the most genuinely rebellious activity of the Slacker Minimalist. The designer brick that’s too expensive to use, or a cashmere noose too delicate to bear your weight are powerful because they are useless. They are truly complete facsimiles, distinct only in the sense that they actually cannot perform.
If the absurd is social, then the objects explored here represent antisocial behavior. Where absurdism plays ball by inviting social discourse, these items shut conversation down. This territory is about anticlimax — having the public’s attention and refusing to engage. When the cameras are on Kate Moss, she stands in the water and defiantly smokes in her dress. When you visit Bukowski’s grave, his final message reads, “Don’t Try.” Slacker Minimalism has the power to make things exactly as they appear.
If you want to destroy something controversial make it cute. Hopefully everything will be made into safe children’s toys one day soon.
Lucas Mascatello is an artist and brand strategist based in New York City.
- Text: Lucas Mascatello
- Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Lucas Mascatello