the myth of underground versus mainstream, or: cool isn’t cool

February 6, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Posted in art, musings, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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I recently had the pleasure of rekindling contact with another former no-audience underground comrade: Dex, of Tapenoise.  Following what is becoming a well-worn path, he discovered the blog and dropped me a line.  I was pleased to hear from him as this effervescent chap always seems to have an exotic blend of sound/art in the cocktail shaker.  He also belongs to the elite group that donated an oTo tape too.

In a thoughtful message written in response to my recent musings he raised the point that (to paraphrase) the internet is altering the nature of the ‘underground’ as what is deemed ‘cool’ can now be instantly appropriated by an all-consuming, market-led mainstream intent on exploiting whatever hipness it can suck dry with its prehensile feeding tube.

I share his concerns: who wants their hard work stolen by a coke-addled ‘creative’ (oh, the irony of that job title) and used to shift units?  However, in framing my reply I was feeling mischievous and decided play Devil’s advocate.  Thinking on, instead of renouncing all his works, I started to find the Devil’s position to be more nuanced than I previously thought and occasionally quite attractive.  That’s how he gets ya.  Thus an email reply has spiralled out of control into this patchily argued blog post.  Here goes…

I actually quite like the way that anything can be co-opted and exploited to death.  At least it means that a) some artists get paid and b) it spurs the remainder on to create something even newer to replace it.  Without boredom and disgust would things change?  Sure, it is tempting to take the Bill Hicks / Stewart Lee line that allowing your art or integrity to be used in advertising is necessarily corrupting because, well, they are right.  But from this it doesn’t follow that getting paid, even becoming popular is necessarily bad for the art, nor does it mean that popular art and entertainment can’t be good and/or challenging, nor does it mean that all good stuff originates in the underground only to be stolen or watered down by the mainstream, nor does it mean there has ever been a golden age of ‘pure’ art unsullied by commerce.

The idea of the underground, or art free from commercial concerns, is a very new one.  The renaissance was paid for by wealthy patrons and the church, artists have always lived by commissions.  Even Pollock, the quintessential, paint-spattered, ‘pure’ artist had Peggy Guggenheim paying the bills.  In visual art the thinking has become hopelessly muddled.  Allegedly difficult, challenging, conceptual art is the mainstream and has been for 40 years.  ‘Challenging’ art fills galleries the world over, is awarded prizes, acres of press, public subsidy and is bought for government collections.  A recent issue of The Jackdaw revealed that the public now own four copies of Jeremy Deller’s amusing but art-free flow diagram History of the World (courtesy of The Arts Council, The British Council, The Tate and The Government Art Collection – see above).  Supposedly radical art is clutched to the bosom of the establishment.  Thus if you want your work to be ignored, if you want your funding applications to be torn up, if you want to be a truly radical outsider… then paint pleasant watercolour views of the Yorkshire Moors.

In music, attempting to define an underground in defiance of the mainstream is similarly fraught.  The grime scene seems to have cracked it as artists like Wiley produce both club-oriented tracks and those obviously designed to make money.  There is no need for cognitive dissonance here, no need to cry ‘sell out’ – this is just how savvy artists work nowadays.  I don’t want to get all postmodern but it could be argued that the idea of ‘integrity’, as introduced by punk, may have run its course.  The idea that it is the underground that pushes things forward is simplistic too.  Yes, in some genres, this is the case but in, say, R&B, the new new thing is more likely to come from a ga-jillion dollar studio in Los Angeles than a bedsit in Beeston. 

The notion of cool is suspect too, I reckon.  In fact: I hate it.  To be considered cool is to be considered part of an elite founded on (by definition) superficial principles – what you wear, who you know, what snippet of secret knowledge you are privy too.  Is there anything more punchable than early-adopter-smugness?  I was at a party years ago where today’s hipster was moaning about The Arctic Monkey’s blowing up.  They were ‘his’ band and he liked them better that way.  It was as if their newfound popularity actually changed the way the music sounded to him.  Why would I want to be cool?  It’s awful.  And from the very beginnings of cool as commonly understood (late 40s?  50s?  Miles?  Elvis?) it has been used to sell stuff: “whaddyagot?” sneers the leather clad rebel, played by a movie star in a Stanley Kramer produced Hollywood picture…  The same ‘attitude’ has been used to poochie-up anything ever since (see Alvin and the Chipmunks rocking a B-Boy stance).

When I use the phrase ‘no-audience underground’ it is meant as an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek, catch-all token encompassing an impossibly large array of experimental music – the only connection between these disparate artists being that not many people are interested in what they do.  Is this necessarily a bad thing?  No.  Sometimes it is helpful to be left alone to get on with it.  Is this necessarily a good thing?  No.  Being on the fringes is no guarantee of quality.  Would I mind if Ashtray Navigations became as popular as Justin Bieber?  No.  I would be delighted for Phil and Mel, and delighted that the world has come to agree with us right-thinking people as to their greatness.

All that matters is whether a piece of art – music, painting, whatever – is good or not.  Who decides?  I do.  This is not an expression of know-it-all arrogance, just a blunt way of expressing my confidence in my own taste which I have worked hard to develop through experience and open-mindedness.  Where a piece of art originates may be a concern, yes, but merely a secondary one.

EDIT: Groan!  Before I even finished typing this I discovered that a major exhibition of watercolours is due to open at Tate Britain soon.  Heh, heh – bang goes the thesis. 


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  1. hey rob – not really a comment on the post but just to say Hi and glad you’re back on the mend – sorry to have been so out of touch. replied to yr mail yonks ago but it must’ve got lost in the aether.mail me again. clough. x

    • Hey Clough! Great to hear from you – don’t sweat the silence, I don’t care. I’ll drop you a line this week some time. Hope all is well with your clan. Rob x

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