Steven Heller | Essays

Underground Mainstream

"Psychedelic Dingbats," designed by Hendrike. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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.

Posted in: Business, History, Media

Comments [24]

A fine read! Trying to encapsulate this complex issue into a single post is a daunting task indeed - I work my fingers to the bone, hoping and praying for the day I too can be absorbed into the mainstream. For further enlightenment on this worthy subject, I recommend Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool, as well as One Market Under God, and any random issue of the Baffler.

A very good read that has left this marketer still thinking.

"The Pirate's Dilemma" is a decent business-oriented book that also covers this same appropriation process, mostly discussing "alternative" ideas like filesharing and the occupation and use of public spaces.

Minor detail: It´s Wiener Werkstatte, not Weiner

Minor detail – part II: It’s actually "Wiener Werkstätte". The "a" carries an umlaut (diacritic)

This is one of my favorite topics in design, although I feel like most of the time there is a negative value judgement placed on the mainstream appropriators. To me, each time these forms get their meaning twisted it simply adds another layer of meaning and identity to that form. (ex. Tide logo - Rave flyer - AOL promo mailer) But this topic always leaves me asking myself the same question as a designer. With the speed of this turnover potnentially being overnight, how do we create truly subversive art and design? OR is art simply a commercial endeavor and no longer an appropriate outlet for subversive thinking? OR can we take advantage of this process by crating images or ideas with hidden meanings that cant be stripped away when they're mined by the mainstream, like a graphic trojan horse? Just wondering.

@Byron, I would think of it this way. Art, as well as design, is contextual. Ideas will always be appropriated and, in fact, often don't come about without some form of appropriation to start.

Aesthetic appropriations are what we are talking about here, but the advertising world has seldom been able to appropriate appropriate context.

So, when you speak of subversive arts, they certainly do exist. Sometimes they even originate in commercial design. However, this is fleeting and easily missed and forgotten. It's part of what makes this all exciting to me.
Jeremy Anderson

Great writing!

I've wondered about the issue of appropriation for quite some time, and it was revealing to read a very clear and concise observation. A dominant source of evidence for me has been in the fashion industry. The subculture exists within fashion quite clearly, and it is often quite difficult to track down the innovators. Although the products themselves are intrinsically commercial from the start, the "trickle-down" effect never ceases to amaze me. From runways in France, to H&M shelves, to Canal St. (NYC) knock-off's the fashion economy depends almost entirely on the originators; they drive the demand.

This leaves me questioning the validity of such obvious behavior (as it is seen in most cultural markets), even in light of the progressive transformation of cultural artifacts through appropriation.

To quote Jeremy A. above; "the advertising world has seldom been able to appropriate appropriate context." Rephrasing that, I've noticed how rarely the fashion industry appropriates its own quality, or transforms an original form into something new and creative. It seems to me the knowledge that comes with creating the primary artifact is lost almost entirely when appropriated into a new context especially when transfered between cultures... No ?

Am I the only one who thinks that this sort of talk is so long gone? This idea of a 'mainstream' seems somehow incredibly outdated to me.

I suppose, yeah, in the sixties and later with grunge there was certainly a 'sub-culture' against a 'mainstream', but don't we all now belong to one of the million little sub-cultures, or 'consumer types', as they are now called.

Advertising has successfully made itself into something that completely differs from art, just like design has. As advertisers or designers we all borrow from the things we read, see and hear, but so does the artist.
There could be made a book on art derived from commercialism - starting with bits of Kurt Schwitters' collages, Barbara Kruger's Selfridges ads, Andy's Brillo boxes, and continuing to the hundreds of today's artists whose work would not exist if it hadn't been for the 'mainstream', whatever that may be.


the media is always in a state of usurping the avant-garde for its own corporate mechanism, but at the same time as this territorialization is occurring, the avant garde is contantly pushing the envelope a little further. The battle between mainstream and avant-garde has always been about this deterritorialization and reterritorialization at the fringes of art and culture, and it's no different now than it was back in the early part of the 20th Century...the corporate machine is just bigger and the underground gets exposed faster due to technological advances in communication media.
lauren scime

I have to agree with Taco. The good old sub-culture /mainstream cycle. So boring. I think a version of this post was taught to me in the first hour of the first class in my useless marketing minor in college. Mr. Heller's use of interesting words may have led a few to believe he's on to something new. I will file this post in the same folder that my marketing minor certificate is in. It's titled "Common Sense 101" and neither items in the folder were worth my time.
mike d.

An old saw has been taken out of the shed and the attempt is to update it for the ‘intellectual property’ debate. This essay rehearses the standards I read in a “1950–present: Modern Art” Art History class I took in 1993, so the point here has already found a home in academia for at least 15 years. The flavorings of this essay is different due to the examples sited-so thanks for the ‘mainstream update’ to read through over a Saturday morning cup of coffee.

The binary of ‘avant-garde vs mainstream’ is nothing new and has at least 100 years of dust on it. Andy Warhol’s ‘Brillo Boxes’ inspired Arthur C. Danto to write the ‘End of Art’ thus the end of this ‘avante-guard’ business. David Hickey’s ‘Air Guitar’, published in 1997 was the final word on this discussion for me. Here are a couple of axioms I have held onto from this canon of thought while I participate during the Post-Modern age: either you are a hobbyist fetching no interest from anyone in the public or you are participating in the market place of commerce and ideas; your song book can be filled with old standards, however it isn’t so much the song book that reflects your artistic ability, it is that feeling injected into the breath as you blow your horn. Breath, or in our case as visual artists ‘gesture’, can evoke beauty in some people some of the time.

The thesis statement of the essay, “commercial culture depends on the theft of intellectual property for its livelihood”, sounds more like an extension of the property and ownership debate that is in our legal system and our trade agreements in this era of globalization. The “original idea” premise to defend the rights of our “visionary artists” dies a hard death in my eyes by viewing the argument as another ‘Fallacy of Fundamentalist Assumptions’. Where do you legally draw the line of the origins of psychedelic culture, where did the beginning end, who has rights to a style vs those excluded to expressing the modes of the mannerisms? I look at cultural artifacts as flourishes of group thinking: I’m much more into linux and WordPress ‘open source’ than I’m into carving up the world into fiefdoms dominated by ownership. Some group thinking gains momentum and spreads into pockets of our society sustaining our cultural evolution. If you are an early-adopter, congratulations on your insight within a historical arc, but please don’t put a dollar sign on your rights of self declared genius.
Kevin Jennings

Regarding pushing the envelope with what was previously regarded as risqué, do you think we'll ever get to the point where we will have exhausted what was once deemed offensive?

Advertisers will always dumb down and appropriate art-for-self-expression, but will they have to stop using the language of explicit sexuality because it is no longer effective?
Paul C

Ah, Wacky Packs and MAD Magazine. Two fundamental artistic inspirations for me growing up. Good memories.

The absolute king of appropriation isn't Advertising though, it's the movie industry. I listen too and collect old radio dramas and I am amazed at how many rip-offs of old radio dramas there has been in the movies. Basically hollywood has been eating their own dead for nearly 80 years. I suppose this is why instead of creating new classics they produce "Scooby Doo III?"

Von Glitschka

John and Andrew mention The Conquest of Cool, One Market Under God and The Pirate's Dilemma.

Another book that tackles this subject is Anne Elizabeth Moore's Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity.
Ricardo Cordoba

I also agree that this isn't a new topic in any way. Although I found some of the details quite interesting.

We live in an age where it is literally impossible to coin an idea in design. Some critic will inevitably come along and say 'Oh well this is borrowed from Dada.' or 'Moholy-Nagy ripoff.' This leads to designers poking fun at their own borrowing-of-ideas, but then an article like this comes along and points out how that was already a movement too. There's no escape! So why don't we all give up? Probably because of passion and/or pride.

The bottom line is, if you use your brain and that is evident in the outcome (process), if you solved the problem, and if your solution is 'pretty', then you have done the job well in my estimation.
Rowen Frazer

In repsonse to Byron.

I think that the internet and digital reproductions of original artifacts have closed the distance of the traditional binary gap, to perhaps a few minutes instead of perhaps weeks or months in the context of the Sixties.

Any form of expression that cannot be digitised easily is going to have far more freedom, time to deepen its meaning and widen the gap once more.

Visualisation, representation and duplication are easily done in the streams of the visual and written arts, whereas spoken word (unrecorded), temporary sculpture (undocumented) and anything we can smell or taste (unrecorded) are all areas of the avant-garde that interest me at the moment.
Andrew Peel

I only read the top bit, but i just wanted to point out that not all commercial work is taken from some unassociated 'visionary', in fact i believe many of the great visionaries today are those working in the creative roles for commercial business. And to say that it is only this evil commercial sector that appropriates is silly, everyone appropriates, and always had. for example it could be argued that every art movement that has ever been appropriated elements of the one preceding it. You no doubt have appropriate who you are from who and what you have experienced.

I am not particularly opposed to what this post is saying (as i do think appropriation in commercial arenas take place) but it seems like a fairly morbid view of a natural process.

"The moment you cheat for the sake of beauty, you know you're an artist." - Max Jacob

Von Glitschka

In repsonse to Byron.

I think that the internet and digital reproductions of original artifacts have closed the distance of the traditional binary gap, to perhaps a few minutes instead of perhaps weeks or months in the context of the Sixties.

Any form of expression that cannot be digitised easily is going to have far more freedom, time to deepen its meaning and widen the gap once more.

Visualisation, representation and duplication are easily done in the streams of the visual and written arts, whereas spoken word (unrecorded), temporary sculpture (undocumented) and anything we can smell or taste (unrecorded) are all areas of the avant-garde that interest me at the moment.
Andrew Peel

Everything I have read above is true. Yes this is an old discussion, but still as fascinating now as it was fifteen years ago. All art forms have the 'avant garde', which is absolutely necessary to push the envelope. This output, which is usually too extreme for mass consumption, or elements/concepts thereof, trickles down into commercially acceptable products. This is particularly noticeable in music, which goes hand in hand with (particularly youth) sub-culture groups. Remember the slashed jeans of the punk days? Kids would cut up their jeans and other clothes, then use safety pins to hold everything together. After a while, pre-slashed clothes became available in shops (which where never quite the same, and you could tell the difference). By this time though, youth sub-culture had moved on to something new, I think it was make-up and new-romantics wasn't it?

It's fascinating to observe and think about. Very nice essay. Thanks.
Gustave Savy

"Grunge" was not co-opted by the "mainstream" by any stretch of anyone's imagination. "Grunge" did not exist until someone made it up. The entire thing was a pre-meditated marketing ploy which was wildly successful. Surprised that this even has to be mentioned because it has been pretty well documented and confirmed by those who were there.

In repsonse to Byron.

I think that the internet and digital reproductions of original artifacts have closed the distance of the traditional binary gap, to perhaps a few minutes instead of perhaps weeks or months in the context of the Sixties.

Any form of expression that cannot be digitised easily is going to have far more freedom, time to deepen its meaning and widen the gap once more.

Visualisation, representation and duplication are easily done in the streams of the visual and written arts, whereas spoken word (unrecorded), temporary sculpture (undocumented) and anything we can smell or taste (unrecorded) are all areas of the avant-garde that interest me at the moment.
Andrew Peel

I give my respect for the rhetorical skill of the writer and to many
of the responders, which is an art form in itself, but I disagree
with many of the points and claims made. Art is seen in nearly
anything the viewer would like to see it and can be expressed in
such a massive amount of ways and styles that it appears to me
that the fear of mass media is idea theft. Even if an idea is stolen,
borrowed, or changed over time the original meaning of art
should not be for the money, fame, or even credit but rather for
the joy, creativity, and skill that is involved, though money is
useful the stereotype of a broke artist plays true throughout
history because of this. I however have a huge issue with the
mass production of a single piece or style because it becomes
grossly overused and rather than meaning there is replication
solely for the greed involved in the marketing. I by no means
claim this statement but live by it if your an artist, or even a
marketer, "Art For Artsake!"
Kahlil Oysler

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