Underground Mainstream

Commercial culture depends on the theft of intellectual property for its livelihood. Mass marketers steal ideas from visionaries, alter them slightly if at all, then reissue them to the public as new products. In the process what was once insurgent becomes commodity, and what was once the shock of the new becomes the shlock of the novel. Invariably, early expressions of sub- or alternative cultures are the most fertile sampling grounds, as their publications or zines are the first to be pilfered. Invariably, pioneers of radical form become wellsprings for appropriation. Rebellion of any kind breeds followers, and many followers become a demographic.

From the beginning of the twentieth century, avant-gardes have ceded original ideas to the mass marketplace. In Europe, the Weiner Werkstatte, Deutsche Werkbund, Bauhaus, and scores of other reformist schools and movements that sought to better the marketplace with convention-altering arts-and-crafts fell victim to their own successes. Their collective goal was to raise the level of both manufacture and design while changing timeworn habits and antiquated expectations, yet their ideas became “established.” The avant-garde is usurped when its eccentricity is deemed acceptable.

In the 1920s, Earnest Elmo Calkins, a progressive American advertising executive, argued that quotidian products and advertising campaigns must borrow characteristics from avant-garde European Modern art. Despite its anti-establishment symbolism, Cubistic, Futuristic and Expressionistic veneers, he argued, would capture consumers’ attention better than a hundred slogans. In the post-World War I era, when renewal was touted, new-and-improved-ness was the commercial mantra. But why waste time, Calkins reasoned, inventing something entirely new when the most experimental artists and designers of the age were already testing the tolerance of new ideas on their own dime. He commanded commercial artists to appropriate and smooth out the edges of Modern art, add an ornament here and there to make it palatable for the consumer class — and voila! — instant allure.

Calkins further proposed the doctrine of “styling the goods” (otherwise known as “forced obsolescence”) to keep the traffic in new products moving. He alleged that frequent cosmetic changes to everything from a soap package to a radio-receiver cabinet would encourage consumers to discard the old and purchase the new — and simultaneously to replenish the economy. Waste was not an issue. Of course, this required true visionaries, skillful acolytes and capable mimics. Commercial artists were, thus, early participants in the knock-off trade.

Yet when an intrepid commercial artist attempted to push the boundaries of design, they had to be cognizant of what industrial designer Raymond Loewy called MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable). Fervent avant-gardists created truly unprecedented form, but when it is commercialized a kind of trickle-down occurs. Invariably what began as an elitist subculture follows a predictable trajectory from popular rejection to mass acceptance.

Take the Sixties psychedelic movement for example: It was born in a small community that shared proclivities for sex, drugs and anarchic behavior — all threatening to the mainstream. Kindred visual artists, musicians and designers developed means of expression that helped define the culture’s distinct characteristics. Psychedelic art was a distinct vocabulary, influenced by earlier graphic idioms, that overturned the rigid rules of clarity and legibility put forth by the once avant-garde Moderns. Through its very raunchiness it manifested the ideals of youth culture. For a brief time it was decidedly a shock to the system. But as it gained popularity (like when it appeared on the cover of Hearst’s EYE magazine or the sets of NBC’s “Laugh-In”), it turned into a code easily co-opted by marketers.

Synthetic psychedelic was manufactured when the visions of the originators were co-opted by entrepreneurs, and what began as a pact of mutual self-interest turned into cultural imperialism. Underground bands led the way in this commercial whirlpool. They were given record contracts by labels owned by major corporations who wanted significant market share. In turn, the record labels advertised and packaged these bands using the very codes that signaled “alternative” to the growing youth market. Psychedelic design was one such code. At first the look was fairly consistent with the original vision and motivation of the avant-garde pioneers. Many album covers of the period are today “classic” examples of true psychedelic design. But within a short time, as profits began to roll in, youth culture trend-spotters expanded the range, thereby dulling the edge of the psychedelic style. Psychedelic was no longer an alternative code; it was the confirmation of conformist behavior, a uniform of alienation. The establishment still disapproved of the aesthetics, but it was difficult to be terrified of something that was becoming so integrated into the mass marketplace. Drugs were still bad, but psychedelic was just decorative. The avant-garde was commodified and the result was a mediocre, self-conscious rip-off. A hollow style that denoted an era remained.

During the ensuing decades the emergence of other confrontational art and design movements, including Punk and Grunge, sought to unhinge dominant methods and mannerisms, but were ultimately absorbed into the mass culture. It has become axiomatic that fringe art, if it presumes to have any influence, will gravitate to, or be pushed towards the center. All it takes is the followers of followers to cut a clear path to the mainstream. Indeed the mainstream embraces almost anything edgy; although once the label is applied it is no longer on the edge.

Very little emerging from the underground fails to turn up in the mainstream. Pornography, once the bane of puritan society, is used by the advertising industry for edgy allure. Despite the occasional salvos by morality-in-media groups, all manner of publicly taboo sexuality appears in magazines and on billboards. Popular tolerances have increased to a level where shock in any realm is hard to come by.

Conversely, even before the mainstream began leeching off alternative cultures, the underground satirically appropriated from the mainstream. Today it’s called “culture jamming,” but in the twenties Modern avant-gardes usurped the fundamental forms of commercial advertising by making art itself into advertising. What were Dada, Futurist and Constructivist master works if not advertisements for their new ideas? In promoting themselves they further expanded the visual languages of advertising, which, not coincidently, was later adopted by mainstream advertising.

Advertising has been a favored target of social critics. In the 1930s, Ballyhoo, a popular newsstand humor magazine, and the prototype for MAD magazine, which in turn was the father of sixties’ Undergrounds and the granddaddy of contemporary zines, savagely ripped the façade off the hucksters on Madison Avenue. Ballyhoo took original quotidian ads for automobiles, detergent, processed foods, you name it, wittily altered the brand-names (a la Adbusters) and caricatured the product pitches to reveal the inherent absurdities in the product claims. Likewise, in the fifties and early sixties, MAD magazine skewered major brands by attacking the insidious slogans endemic to advertising. They came up with such classics as “Look Ma, No Cavities, and No Teeth Either,” a sendup of Crest Toothpaste’s false promise of cavity free teeth, and “Happy But Wiser,” a slam at Budweiser beer through a parody ad that showed a besotted, forlorn alcoholic whose wife had just dumped him. MAD was the influence behind Wacky Packs (created by Art Spiegelman), which came inside Topps Bubblegum packages, that used puns on mainstream product brand-names to attack society, politics and culture (i.e. Reaganettes, a take-off on the candy Raisinnettes that looked like the former American president). Paradoxically, Ballyhoo, MAD, and Wacky Packs were all mass-market products, but because of their respective exposure each had an influence on the kids who grew up to produce the icons of alternative culture.

Underground denizens attack the mainstream for one of two reasons: to alter or to join, although sometimes both. Few designers choose to be outsiders forever. Outsiders are, after all, invariably marginalized until the mainstream celebrates them as unsung geniuses. Outsiders may choose to join the mainstream on their own terms, but join they must to be able to make an impact larger than their circumscribed circles. This is perhaps one reason why so many self-described rebels enter advertising, and now viral advertising. “Its where the best resources are,” one young creative director for a “progressive” New York firm told me. “It’s also where I believe that I can make the most impact on the future of the medium and maybe even culture.” In fact, on the wall of his office hangs a sheet of yellowing old Wacky Pack stickers. “This is advertising at its best,” he explains. “Because it is ironic, self-flagellating and irreverent. The best advertising should be done with wit and humor, with a wink and nod. Self-parody is the thing.” Indeed the process has come full circle. Today, designers for mainstream advertising companies, weaned on alternative approaches, have folded the underground into the mainstream and called it cool.

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~ by eaesthete on 04/11/08.

One Response to “Underground Mainstream”

  1. Very insightful. Loves it.

    -Dom

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