Scene, Not Herd: The evanescent underground

Chris Fleming, Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney and author of a book on Rene Girard, explores the evanescence of the underground. "Once the cultural products generated by the underground enter broader circulation (once scene becomes herd) the underground empties itself and is forced to regenerate."

"I'm not like everyone else and I don’t want to be...For me, piercing is a way that I can say to people, 'I don’t care what you think; fuck the establishment."
Student at California State College, Chico [1]

In his 1968 book 'Languages of Art', American philosopher Nelson Goodman carried out a characteristic 20th century philosophical move: he addressed a difficult question not by answering it, but by denying it was legitimate to ask. [2] Since the ancient Greeks, philosophers had agonised over the question ‘what is art?’. Goodman threw a curveball at philosophical aesthetics by suggesting that a better question might be not what is art, but when. [3] His reframing, even as minimally expressed as I have done here, represents a valuable ontological shift which gets us closer to the object of analysis.

Ironically, the considerable impact of Goodman’s hypothesis may have as much to do with the era of its publication as the coherence of his theorisations: the analytic shift he was advocating possessed more traction in the 60s and 70s era of conceptual art, street theatre, and ‘happenings’ than it would have a century before. And if we take the general orientation of his analysis rather than its specifics as a guide, then its power to illuminate might be even greater in the twenty-first century, especially with regard to what we call ‘the underground.’ The question therefore is not what is the underground, but when? We are not going to be able to arrive at any ‘essence’ of the underground by trying to take a snapshot of it or by devising a list of characteristics: its essence, if it has one at all, is movement. If we decide to carry out a sting and catch it red-handed, we’ll have found that it has moved on. To wait for it is to be the victim of a prank, like the sign in the pub that announces ‘Free Beer Tomorrow.’

We could say, overall, that the underground is something we can track but can’t trap, whose identity, paradoxically, is evanescence. Indeed, it could be argued that attempts to characterise the underground actually contribute to its relocation, its moving on, its evacuation. We’re not talking here about a drug bust at Warhol’s Factory. We’re talking about an artist such as Banksy whose identity is unknown and who practises an underground artform that is typically ephemeral and illegal. Banksy does not sell prints of his work, is not on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or Gaydar, and once named the West Bank the ‘ultimate holiday destination for the graffiti artist.’ Yet his 'Bombing Middle England' (2005) sold in February 2007 at a Sotheby’s auction for £102,000.

About a year later a Mr Luti Fagbenie sold a Banksy piece on eBay, which the artist had done on his company’s wall on Portobello Road, West London. The £208,100 final bid did not include the costs of removing the large piece of wall and repairing the property afterwards. [4] Another auction later that year netted about half a million pounds. Celebrities bought big at a show in Los Angeles, attended by A-list first-namers such as Brad, Angelina, Keanu and Jude. Jolie alone spent £200,000. [5] Banksy’s street work has attained such a canonical status that debates are had about the permissibility of covering it over. In 2008, Melbourne City Council moved to protect a Banksy work by covering it with Perspex, with the Council’s ‘Street Art Assessment Panel’ declaring the stencil ‘legal art.’ [6] So, given his increasing mainstream recognition and celebrity status, is Banksy ‘underground’? And, given the increasing definitional murkiness between the centre and the margins, does it even matter?

Let’s consider Tracey Emin’s notorious entry in the 1999 Turner Prize, 'My Bed' (1998). It was, of course, her bed - slept in and surrounded by all the things Emin had left there when she crawled into it drunk and heartbroken the night before. (This was also the night before the morning she decided it was art.)

Since Duchamp was fortunate enough to stumble upon his own readymade masterpiece, 'Fountain', in 1917, we’ve witnessed the regular trajectory of non-art to underground art to ‘legitimate’ art, and become at least partly inured to the minor scandals that predictably punctuate these transitions. Indeed, it seems that many of the major art prizes have as their chief objective provoking outrage, whose mildest expression is the posing of the question (often rhetorically), ‘Is this art? (Or rubbish?)’. Sometimes the question may not even be metaphorical; cleaners at the Tate Gallery caused a commotion when they inadvertently threw out a piece of art by Gustav Metzger, the appropriately named 'Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto Destructive Art' (2004). The work was, to all intents and purposes, a transparent bag of rubbish. Although the original piece could not be retrieved, Metzger was kind enough to whip up another, equivalent, work. The Gallery was subsequently also forced to revise its labelling practices so that such a thing would not happen in the future.

It’s interesting that an ostensibly ‘challenging’ piece of conceptual art such as Metzger’s should be so easily mistaken for nothing at all. Opposition in its purest form is not usually a relation of difference but near symmetry; after all, opponents must occupy the same terrain for their opposition to even make sense. [7] In this sense the underground doubles the establishment, feeds off it, is tied to it through negation. Anti-consumerist, anti-establishment, counter-cultural, the underground is the movement of the prefix par excellence. In this sense, it is also consummately modern. To be modern is, above all, to be against something; there is nothing we have learned better from the moderns than the idea that to oppose is a measure of intelligence, perhaps even the sine qua non of intellectual lucidity. ‘Down with moonlight!’ the Futurists yelled. We laugh. And then a moment later we raise our fists and curse our own moonlights. Like a member of the Lone Wolves outlaw motorcycle gang, the undergrounder is socially isolated in the sense of being equally social and isolated – or quasi-social and quasi-isolated. As with any group of outlaws, the implicit self-definition of the undergrounder is ‘scene, not herd.’

It is perhaps therefore not hyperbolic to call the potentialities of underground prophetic. The prophet, after all, is the one who is born too early, whose mother tongue is met with incomprehension – until it becomes a lingua franca. As a post WWII phenomenon, the underground borrows its name from those illicit networks and movements in Europe that resisted German occupation. Bookended by the rise of fascism on the one side, and the cataclysms of Hiroshima and the Holocaust on the other, the events of the mid 1930s to the mid 1940s became – and continue to be – determinative of the cultural landscape of the world that followed. The underground was the first of many symbolic homages to that era, a movement – if we’re still foolhardy enough to call it thus – which saw clearly the historical catastrophe WWII represented, and co-opted its symbols for its own ends.

Hyperbolic from the outset, the underground claimed an analogy between the autocratic regimes of the Axis powers and the postwar US ‘establishment.’ Forged in living memory of the barbarisms of ostensibly ‘civilised’ nations and propelled by a fear of their return, the underground directed its hostility towards aesthetic fascism. The enemy were not a group of institutional functionaries, like the Nazis, who denied their subjects concrete political liberties, but an ill-defined social ‘elite’ whose totalitarian ambitions were hidden behind crew-cuts and hula-hoops. In lieu of the kind of undemocratic repression seen in the forties, the new enemy was ‘repressive tolerance.’ [8] Marcuse’s absurd term well-captures both the paranoid excesses of the age, and signals the inauguration of a kind of Western auto-critique that has now perhaps become as automatic and unthinking as the regimes it hoped to target. The Establishment, according to Marcuse, distracts people with fairground trinkets, baseball, Andy Warhol, and other ersatz satisfactions, such that they are too preoccupied to engage with radical philosophies like…um…well, those outlined in Marcuse’s work. The underground sympathised but – realising that WWII represented not just a crisis of the far right, but a crisis of Marxism’s capacity to comprehend it – insisted there was more than one revolutionary game in town.

In an influential essay from the late fifties, before the word ‘underground’ had acquired an indefinite article, American film critic Manny Farber introduced the term ‘underground film’ to point to the work of ‘soldier-cowboy-gangster directors’ – people such as Raoul Walsh and William Wellman, who ‘played an anti-art role in Hollywood’. [9] Here again we see the importance of the prefix – but we notice something else: where the Establishment would make films about gangsters, cowboys, and soldiers, underground filmmakers would themselves become those things.

There is no substantive, no ‘what’ of the underground, because its aim is to preserve a communal scene and then repel imitation, governed by a desire which is repulsed by the models it engenders. Like in cool, in the underground truth is ultimately a right to say ‘you’re just copying me.’ Its enemy is not only the Establishment, but a degenerate form of itself; it must continually subvert itself, establish for itself rules for the express purpose of violating them. The underground cannot be anticipated or seized in advance, and its expressions cannot be specified in formal aesthetic terms. It does throw cool parties, though.

Look at a photograph taken at a Banksy launch party at Covent Garden mid last year, a layered image which contains both a reproduction of a Banksy work as well as a mirrored reflection capturing the scene of the launch. [10] Was The Underground there? Or is the ghostly image of the party perhaps a sign that it was already dead, that the protagonists in the photo had already ‘crossed over’ (as television psychics are prone to say)? And are we just talking about economic success? The people lining up for their Destroy Capitalism shirt do not look like they are in a state to destroy anything, even a good dinner. Is it a bad or a good thing that the market can so easily absorb people’s resentments, including those ostensibly against the market itself?

Undoubtedly, the imperatives that drive the underground can degenerate and resurface as a series of paranoid and temperamentally adolescent games of faux rebellion and automatic contradiction. As its best the underground isn’t primarily an ‘It isn’t’ to the mainstream’s ‘It is,’ but a ‘What if?.’ Does such an underground exist? Did it ever? Could it? Perhaps the best attitude to take here is a kind of gentle agnosticism. To mangle Voltaire, whenever the underground does not exist, we will have reason to invent it.

References-

1- Cited in Eric Gans, ‘The Body Sacrificial, Revisited’,
Anthropoetics, February 21, 1998 anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw127.htm>

2- Nelson Goodman, 1968, Languages of Art: An
Approach to a Theory of Symbols, The Bobbs-Merrill
Company, Indianapolis.

3- Nelson Goodman, 1978, Ways of Worldmaking,
Hackett, Indianapolis pp66-67.

4- ‘£208,100 eBay bid for Banksy wall’, BBC News Online
14 January, 2008, entertainment/7188387.stm>

5- ‘Record price for Banksy bomb art’, BBC News Online
8 February, 2007, entertainment/6340109.stm>

6- ‘Melbourne City Council moves to protect graffiti artist
Banksy’s work’, Herald-Sun April 18, 2008, heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/city-puts-banksys-art-into-
perspex-tive/story-e6frf7kx-1111116093646>

7- Few have made this point better than the French philosopher
and cultural theorist René Girard. See Chris Fleming, René Girard:
Violence and Mimesis Polity, Cambridge 2004, pp9-69.

8- Herbert Marcuse, ‘Repressive Tolerance’, in Robert Paul Wolff,
Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure
Tolerance, Beacon Press, Boston 1969, pp95-137.

9- Manny Farber, ‘Underground Films’ (1957), in Negative Space:
Manny Farber on the Movies, Da Capo, New York 1998, p12.

10- ‘Banksy launch party’, in Topright Blog July 15, 2009,

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.