Au Revoir, Underground by David Robbins



Once a potent cultural force, today the underground doesn’t exist, done in by the one-two punch of the entrepreneurial mindset and a chief instrument of its actualization, the Internet.

Of course the entrepreneur has been around forever. People have always had ideas for businesses and implemented them. Yet it wasn’t until the 1980s that the mindset took hold as the style of a generation; it’s not an attitude toward commerce that we associate with the rebellious, “revolutionary” sixties or the hedonistic, me-generation seventies but, instead, with the Reagan era’s me-first yuppie. The yuppie announced that something had shifted in the young, with pragmatism replacing romance. The yuppie phenomenon turned out to be the prelude to a subsequent proliferation of business schools, squadrons of MBAs, and a concomitant devaluation of the humanities. With the failure of communism, securing a place for yourself in capitalism became the only option.

The entrepreneur looks to transmute ideas into goods and services and bring these to market –in the lingo, to “monetize” them. To what purpose? Commercial success. What dreams the entrepreneur has are grounded in marketplace prosaics — practicalities, efficiencies, yields, returns. Thoughts that do not translate to viable business practices find no place in his portfolio. And because, at any given time, most ideas are “in the air” and competitors a constant, the success he aims to achieve is on a schedule, his efforts laced with an urgency. Speed matters. Getting a product or service to market first can spell the difference between success and some less happy result.

The spread of an entrepreneurial cast of mind corresponds to a gradual withering of the tradition of the artistic underground. The two are linked.

For one thing, in recent decades culture-making has evolved into an aspirationally bourgeois endeavor. (Even avant gardists desire good health insurance, it turns out.) The revolutionary claims of modernism are out and adopting the ways of entrepreneurs is in. Young artists have learned to add branding to their palettes. Today art is undertaken in order to succeed at making art. What is successful art? Successful art is art that succeeds, of course. And “success” is defined in an increasingly narrow way.

Velocity is another factor contributing to the demise of the underground. First chance they get, artists of every medium now put their stuff online to “reach an audience” and tempt some kind of career success, so as to map identity onto the contours of business civilization and, in that way, participate fully in our time. There is a dictatorial aspect to technology, commanding us to adapt or be left behind. If, today, we can communicate with “the whole world” simply by clicking, shouldn’t we be doing that? To create and distribute at any slower or more individuated pace reads, at least within the context of contemporaneity, as eccentric. The underground, by design a place of incubation, experiment, and gestation, has no place in such a process. An ideology of speed pulls undergrounds up to the surface.

Taken together these developments put to pasture the viability of the “underground” concept. Historically, underground ideas have been so situated — underground — for the very reason that something about them isn’t aspirationally bourgeois, readily consumable, or marketplace friendly. Underground ideas are not just one more idea about new product but often attach social, economic, critical, resistant, even utopian goals that doubt, contradict or oppose the status quo.

Undergrounds form in response to specific conditions of place and time. But the Internet, where so many of us spend so much time now, is placeless. Would the Beats have coalesced had the Internet been around in the 1950s? Would punk have sutured together its Frankenstein force if at any point during its gestation the (bad) attitude could have been dispersed, cleanly and worldwide, in an instant? (More recent collective “undergrounds” such as rave culture and Burning Man did offer immersive experience for those in attendance but, by design, they eschewed the kind of authorial thinking that transcending the entertainment calls for.) These examples just happen to be handy; the list of undergrounds is long and glorious, their contribution to human self-knowledge and possibility incalculable. Big, evolutionary, disruptive ideas need time to develop. In the past an underground would simmer away for years before surfacing. Who among us is willing to wait years before we pitch our stuff onto the Net? Traditionally the underground gained potency cloaked in invisibility. Today everyone wants attention, right now. In the age of social media, invisibility is perceived to have negative value only.

Are there truly “no more undergrounds”? Niche styles of culture, and their fans, abound, and they do network. There is the dark web. Yet the concept of the underground is no longer a force in the collective consciousness. It doesn’t map as it once did. An “underground” doesn’t seem like an answer. This may or may not be a serious development. Maybe the concept had usefulness as a style of community for one phase of human history and, for another, it doesn’t. Nothing lasts forever. Often, “undergrounds” had formed to skirt or challenge taboos that restrained freedom of expression, and a lot of those battles have been fought (in the streets or in the courts) and won. (The twentieth century may be read as a narrative of winning the freedom to say “fuck” before a paying audience.) The years of Pax Obama made undergrounds even less necessary; people could be who they were more openly and less fearfully.

If there is indeed a natural relationship between governance and the utility of cultural undergrounds, then it’s likely that the vastly more repressive tone of the Trump administration will re-seed the landscape. The Muslim travel ban may produce the advance guard here but other, less immediately vulnerable populations will likely be slower to act. Whether repressive “rule” will be enough to counter the erosion rendered by historical forces — the entrepreneurial mindset and the internet — is an open question.

What the long-term effects of the underground’s fade-out may be, we will gradually discover. Already, though, it seems evident that draining the swampy recesses in which undergrounds had formed and thrived yields a textureless mono-culture wherein all makers have the same success in mind. It’s enough to make a person wonder whether success is all it’s cracked up to be.


David Robbins has had forty solo exhibitions of his work and is the author of six books, most recently Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy (2011).