A Ramble on Shock and Subculture


Culture and subculture is produced through

complex networks of talking, gesturing and acting, through which meanings

are exchanged between members of a society . Objects such as images and media

texts come into play in this network of exchange not as statice entities…but as alive

agents that draw us to look and to feel or speak in particular ways…”
(Sturken and Cartwright, 2001)

Both the uplift in subcultures and the use of using shock as a factor in a piece of art, emerged strongly from the 19th century onwards. But what exactly caused the emergence? Looking in hindsight from the present day, I’ll be looking at whether subculture is an essential part of our visual culture, and whether we can still use the term subculture in our society, as well as seeing whether the ability for art and photography to cause shock lost its touch.

As Sturken and Cartwright explained “The term “culture” refers to a whole way of life, meaning a broad range of activities geared towards classifying symbolically within a society”(Sturken and Cartwright, 2001). Subculture is an extremely broad and forever changing subject, from a group of people defined by a shared interest, to a form of resistance that contrasts against the current norm, evolving through one generation to the next with visual impacts, music choices, fashion fads, artistic tastes, and many more. “Spectacular subcultures” are those that have stuck out amongst the rest and have played a strong aesthetic part in the 20th century. These consisted of the mods, the teddies and the rockers, and has evolved into so many different kinds of sub cultures, at present day we have emos, chavs, goths, urban tribes and hipsters as just a handful to say. They have marked themselves out from the rest of the world with a distinctive dressImage code, visible behaviours and a distinctive form of speaking. All of which are considered to have a form of shock or style. However, living in a world with a rapid amount of exposure to art, fashion and lifestyles, many different subcultures are created or evolving all the time, making it difficult to pinpoint just what subculture really is. On another note, these supposed original sub cultures and styles originally would have shocked the norm, yet it has shown throughout history that the shock will be followed by recuperation, leading into mainstream. This is shown by the fact that mainstream is very broad, with nearly every kind of genre or sub culture being “in” at one point or another, before moving into the next fad.

It’s seen that “spectacular subculture “ had developed due to the “rise of the teenager”. Social changes had lead to the youth having more money, thus more time to spend before they had to settle down into adulthood. There was also adolescence, and the need to either revolt or be apart of something. The first visible widespread subculture in the United Kingdom was the “Teddy Boy”, where the emergence of rock and roll music from the US finally arrived in the United Kingdom, Teddy Boys were closely linked to this beginning in London. However, It wasn’t long before the youth and the link of subcultures would be considered a menacing threat, and were considered to be having a negative impact on the mainstream culture. The question might not be whether the youth have been a threat to the mainstream culture, but what effect has mainstream culture had on the youth? It seems pretty obvious to me that when we were all younger, we were more naïve and ignorant. We have slowly grown out of this, learning wisely from our experiences and mistakes, which would have only been possible through the allotted time we have given ourselves to create our personal story. This is not to say we aren’t fully out of naivety when we approach adulthood by any means, as we are learning from our mistakes throughout our whole lives. I’m simply stating that when we were younger we were more susceptible. With this in mind, it is fair to say that most teenagers aim to “fit in” in one of the most crucial times in their lives. To fit in would be to be popular, which means to immerse yourself into the current mainstream. For now, lets take hip hop for example. This music genre is full of music artists that give themselves characters, these characters can claim to do drugs, get arrested, rebel and kill people, giving a since that they’re not to be messed with. Although many enjoy both the music and the artistic nature and poetry of this music, it is fair to say that to some extent, the youth can be influenced by such exposure, not from the artists but from the character, creating a criminalizing reputation for the hip hop genre. We can also look at Punk. When punk came around, they appeared to be rebelling against the norm – ironically leading to become the norm at that moment in time – this revolt also came with agenda of being rebellious, therefore once again, labelling punks as threatening to the rest of society. Member’s of subcultures also take pride in being part of something, considering what they belong to, to be best, and so bitter rivalry ensues between different subcultures, accompanied by a clash of personalities. Something that can appear tribal and barbaric to the outside world, to those who are not apart of a specific “clan”.

Looking at shock art, we can first ask why did artists want to shock people? Ingar Bergman answers by saying “I don’t want to produce a work of art that the public can sit and suck aesthetically… I want to give them a blow in the small of the back, to scorch their indifference, to startle them out of their complacency.”  (YouTube, 2014)This has certainly been the case for the majority of shock art, one faction as such being Dada. The Dada movement was a literary artistic movement born in Europe brought around due to the horror of world war I. Artists, writers and intellectuals found sanctuary in Zurich, and were collectively frustrated that the modern day European society would have ever allowed the war to have happened. The result of their frustration meant that they spat on nationalism, rationalism, materialism and anything else they felt contributed to the war, with the ideology that “if society is heading in this direction, we will have no part in its traditions”. This lead to the ideal that non artists would create non art, since art ad everything in the world had no meaning anyway. Dadaist used shock art, combining cringe worthy or vulgar humour, mild obscenities and puns, as well as everyday objects renamed as art. A noted Dadaist would be Marcel Duchamp, who created the most well known act of degrading a famous work of art. This would be the 1919 “Readymade” piece, drawing over the Mona Lisa, giving her a moustache and a goatee, before giving Imagethe art the title “Ella a chaud au cul” translated to “She has a hot ass”. Nevertheless, it is considered that Dada “self destructed” when it became an acceptable art form, no longer seen as a controversial revolt. Another form of short art is Avant-garde, which aimed to change the way people understood creative experiences. Modernist avant garde began in the 19th century, its name “epatar la bourgeoisie” translating to shock the middle class”. Avant-garde continued to reinvent shock and style throughout the 20th century, in a sense becoming their own subculture; yet the majority of this subculture appeared to be from relatively wealthy backgrounds, making the form seem to be more of a style than a statement. What we have learnt from shock throughout history is that “shock” as a strategy doesn’t last very long as it is ever evolving; what is shocking is always relative to a culture at that given historical era, and is irrelevant in the next. Just like with subcultures, the initial shock is followed with recuperation, and not before long, impressionists – like Manet – found their work on chocolate boxes.

A combination of shock and style has been an important feature in sub culture as well as avant gardes. In the 1970s, feminist researchers pointed out that subcultures appeared to be dominated by groups of men, as well as women finding it harder to escape a certain reputation from negative labelling. One rule appeared to be fine for men, whilst if a woman were to do it, they could be labelled a “slut”, which could be tied to their name for a very long time compared to the males. By the 80s, a key moment for subcultures was the emergence of “Punk”. Sociologist Dick Hebdige stated that “Punk offered woman an opportunity to confront the experience of being under surveillance and to turn being looked at as an aggressive act” (Hebdige, 1979). Punk was an alibi for females to express themselves, rebel and revolt, relating to aspects of Dada and Avant Garde as “nonsense” was used in a form of radical change. Hebdige pointed out that the most unremarkable and inappropriate items could find there selves in punk; from plastic bags and safety pins, to fake blood and shirts covered in graffiti. In 1971, Fashion Desginer Vivienne Westwood and musician Malcolm Mclaren opened their boutique shop “let it rock!” creating fashion/art that appealed to a subculture ; that subculture being punk . The fashion was considered to be very controversial at the time, with Mclaren being prosecuted in 1975 for placing a tshirt with homosexual content on it, on public display, as well as also creating items of clothing with a swastika on them. The latter is something I would have to say has not been recuperated, never will, at least probably not in my life time, as it is still a harsh, touching subject to many. However, In our present day society, where the world is finally being more susceptible to different gender preferences the former would be accepted, yet still shocked upon seeing explicit content.

Looking at where sub cultures could be heading in the future, David Muggleton asks the question whether it is still possible to work within the existing limitations of sub culture, or have we now reached the emergence of post subcultures, creating Neotribalism. This is the sociological theory that humans have evolved to live in a tribal society rather than mass society, forming social networks to constitute to specific tribes. Although we are now highly technologically advanced, it’s almost as though in a social aspect, we are going way back into the past to our primitive cultures of segregation into our relative tribes, much like Vikings, or any other old civilisation would have done. I think if this was to happen, it has the possibility of going two ways; one being that it will eventually go round in full circle, with humanity re entering mass population, or sub cultures will resume on an even more complex scale, with sub cultures inside their own initial sub culture.


In my opinion, the use of shock is on an infinite cycle, yet forever evolving, just like subcultures. They go hand in hand with what ever the new normality and the new shock culture is, before drastically contrasting against it when it converts to mainstream. There will be points where we can believe we have seen everything, and nothing can shock us, yet as our subcultures evolve, we have new ideals, resulting in new ways of being shocked, as long as it goes against the latest mainstream ideology.









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