Underground yesterday and Underground tomorrow 

by Mihaela Manolache

Underground or underground culture linked under the same umbrella artists, philosophers, writers, or journalists who rebelled against the mainstream views to promote their own ideas. Their alternative approach towards the social norms differentiated them from the rest of the crowd and, for many of them, meant attracting loyal followers under the name of secret movements or spirit. There is evidence that throughout history several resistance movements occurred in different time periods, as old as Antiquity.


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Jean-François Bizot states in his Underground, l’histoire that Spartacus or Jesus may have been some of the oldest examples that define the term underground. This term is used to describe people or movements that “threatened” to open new horizons to an ancient world. One could say that the undergrounders were a modernizing element of the society, the ones that brought in front new ideas, revolutionary art, religious cults with modern (different) interpretations. Even today critics refer to the underground as a whole world that was born in secrecy under harsh political regimes. Thus, the need for them to be away from the spotlight was a necessity.

The evolution of the underground shows both positive and negative networks, allowing us to better understand the historical context and the reason which drove people to create them. Leaders of the underground are cataloged resisters to the mainstream of society and culture. From Spartacus to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Galileo, Benvenuto Cellini, Giordano Bruno or closer to us Baudelaire, Rimbaud, or Monet, their ideas redefined aspects of the society, designing various subcultures and making an impact on cultural evolution. Off-casts of their time, avant-garde personalities today.

Frank Zappa photo black and white by Norman Seeff
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Frank Zappa, 1976 by Norman Seeff via Artsy

“The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground.”

Frank Zappa

In 1953 scholars attested the use of underground as reference to specific subcultures from WWII. During the war there were several resistance movements against German expansion generally called underground. It has remained unmodified until today. As well, all the political, social and cultural counter-movements born later, beginning with the 60s were denominated as underground groups. Since then, the term has designated various subcultures such as mod culture, hippie culture, punk rock culture, techno music/rave culture and underground hip hop and many others.

Although there is a problem of definition regarding underground, it seems most critics agree with Zappa’s saying “The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground.” The interpretation assumes that the underground culture is the one that has not reached the mainstream but some members of the society considered it meaningful and promoted it in small circles. This created a loyal audience that does not exist publicly but clandestine. To an extent the underground (sub)culture is illegal and must remain hidden. The negative connotation of the movement as something illicit resembles current guerrilla activities of the oppressed. WWII is exponential from this perspective and in Europe many movements existed exclusively as underground movements.

Underground in the past : Index Librorum Prohibitorum

Historical studies show that the underground concept can also be related to certain habits not very popular in high society. For instance, in the past homosexuality was perceived as underground subculture, as well as heretics groups, or political dissidents. 

Since Christianity spread, spirituality was the centre of the world for most people. Priests were sent by God and their word must be respected otherwise the soul will be lost forever. During its domination, the Catholic Church kept in complete secrecy a list of prohibited books Index Librorum Prohibitorum, books censored for its theological content which was considered a danger to the faith and its members. Only high members of the church were allowed access to the books as normal priests could be easily corrupted. Usually, the editions contained norms implemented by the Church regarding reading, selling or censorship of the books. The material was thought to contain ideas that could threaten, embarrass, criticize the Church, or reinterpret the holy word. The very existence of this list is a demonstration of the concept of underground. Books censored or even burned for its ideas with the aim to put an end to information spreading.

The Last Judgment

Michelangelo’s masterpiece, The Last Judgment is indefinitely a universal art masterpiece that amazes viewers every day. Situated in the heart of the Catholic world, the giant fresco outraged upon its reveal in the 16th century and determined Pope Paul the III to alter the original painting.  With more than 300 figures, Michelangelo depicted nearly all masculine figures and angels as nudes which were covered with draperies afterwards. Recent restorations of the fresco have cleared much of the adding to the original artwork. But how would Michelangelo be relevant to the underground context?

As a matter of fact, Michelangelo is a perfect example of how the underground concept functioned in the art world in the past. Of course, the Italian artist was not clandestine or making illegal art but he was an avant-garde personality of his time and his art reflects a critical and modern thinking that disturbed the mainstream of the society, in this case, the Pope. Michelangelo has been accused of breaking the tradition, breaking the scriptural description of the event and of course, of pursuing a personal style of painting, with dramatic artistic effects.As one can also see later, throughout the artistic 19th and 20th century, tradition was contested at every step and the underground artworks created a fertile soil for the iconic revolutionary art movements that changed forever art history. Michelangelo was, in himself, the iconic revolutionary group, of marginal nature that inspired change in a niche. Paradoxically, the style, unaccepted by most, ended up being absorbed by it in a way that the underground features were integrated and became mainstream.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo in Museum of Vatican
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Via Musei Vaticani

Underground today

The term and the existence of any underground movements today have been dismissed due to the existence of press, television, and, especially, the internet. Simon Reynolds states in his articles that the development of the web “(…) has extinguished the idea of a true underground. It’s too easy for anybody to find out anything now, especially as scene custodians tend to be curatorial, archivist types. And with all the mp3 and whole album blogs, it’s totally easy to hear anything you want to hear, in this risk-less, desultory way that has no cost, either financially or emotionally.”

In comparison to the birth of the original underground as various groups which promote certain ideas, today the concept might have been replaced with a saturation and passive participation. The underground exclusivity was replaced by the instant social media, flat-lining the underground culture.

Others might think that the underground is not dead, but is transforming, becoming less demonstrable than in the past. Contemporary undergrounds could live within our world by avoiding direct detection, by being subverted and symbolic, by being a crack in the system. In itself the underground is presented today as a sustainable matrix that survives and is ever-changing. Once it becomes known, something else is going to replace it thus, stimulating the renewal of the underground environment.

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via ArtDiction

Ricardo Campos suggests that nowadays underground cultures have many activist traits, as many movements present a strong social and political dimension. Could the persecuted groups be a good example of contemporary underground culture? Or graffiti as a means of making a point and confronting the established powers? The desire of people to express themselves in a counter-way as opposed to the majority will never cease to exist. Regardless if it is due to sexual options, ethnicity, or art taste, from “(…) a sociological, anthropological and everything else point of view (…) lead to certain people coming together and forming niches”, states Campos. The digitalization of the world does not mean the death of the underground but rather becomes a rapid method of connection between people across the globe with similar views. Both the birth and death of underground movements could not happen faster than in our present digital days. 

As in the past, today as well counter-movements belong to the young ones, they seem to be the trigger to renewal and overall progress. They bring revolution, rage, and criticism but if the philosophy promotes justice and universal ideas, from subculture the movement will become culture and just like a circle, the line will never end. What will happen tomorrow? Hard to tell, we just hope to keep our minds open enough to see it through the fresh eyes of our children. 

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