Purple Magazine
— F/W 2011 issue 16

Aaron Rose

the death of subculture

an excerpt from the forthcoming book “Collage Culture: Examining the 21st Century’s Identity Crisis” by Aaron Rose and Mandy Kahn with design by Brian Roettinger

Published Fall 2011 by JRP/Ringier


The greatest ideas in history have always been first dismissed as the ranting of madmen. If someone is ostracized, unpopular, or even jailed for their beliefs, they’re someone to whom we should pay close attention. While some might construe our penchant for excluding our best thinkers as a negative, it’s exactly the opposite. The outcasts of our world know something very important. In fact, it’s just this exclusion that actually fuels their fire of dissent. From rebellion often come new ideas. As a result of this cultural segregation, society actually breeds lifestyles that can develop entirely free from common cultural influence. Within this netherworld of societal disdain, a schattenreich of immense intellectual freedom develops. Therefore, I propose that some kind of forced exile, be it real or metaphorical, from the popular cultural and media dialogue is key and absolutely necessary for the progression of human creative growth.

The 20th Century’s most significant subcultural developments matured in isolation. If you look at current Jazz culture, the common perception is that it’s been completely stripped of its countercultural roots. However, at its birth in the late 1940s, the musical form was the definition of derelict. It was centered around a small strip of nightclubs on 5th Avenue and 52nd Street in New York City, a neighborhood that “provided shelter for fringe denizens of Broadway-sign-painters and private detectives.” A decade later the Beat Generation developed around City Lights Books, a forgettable little shop in San Francisco, eventually setting the stage for what would become Haight-Ashbury, another small community — one which became the countercultural center of the 1960s. Although fraught with its own set of problems, the ethos of the Haight Street community seemed to be freedom and organic individuality. They felt one could only be free by “drawing the line and living outside the profit, private property, and power premises of Western culture.”

As Jazz was developing, a group of artists drank together at a rundown old watering hole called The Cedar Tavern in New York City. This group, which went on to be called Abstract Expressionists, quietly developed a major underground notoriety without drawing any notice from the surrounding mainstream culture. Today Abstract Expressionism is noted as one of the most important artistic movements of the 20th Century, but back then it was just a small group of people expressing new ideas. The Cedar Tavern was a dank, musty room where the dark side gathered, a place that respectable people were encouraged to avoid.

This story of cultural dissent — and subcultures developing in shadowy corners — continued throughout the 20th Century ad infinitum. In the 1970s it was the Punks. The Punk subculture associated with Southern California was an anomaly unlike anything I had ever seen. The first time I saw a kid with a mohawk walking down the streets of my suburban neighborhood my reaction was a combination of total inspiration and absolute fear. The sheer courage that it took to dress and act that way, in a fashion so completely adversarial to one’s environment, was mind-blowing to me. The Punks in California were complete aliens, strange and magical creatures that found hangouts in neon-lit convenience store parking lots and lonely tract community cul-de-sacs. These misfit kids and the culture that surrounded them became my Rosetta Stone.

There used to be an underground bookstore in Los Angeles called Amok. I can’t exactly remember how I found this place. It was on the corner of Sunset and Hyperion, which now hosts a collection of trendy eateries and hip shops, but back then it was a pretty rough neighborhood. If I remember correctly the store had no sign. Inside there were books about bomb-making, counterintelligence, civil disobedience, drugs, sex, devil-worship, and just about every conspiracy theory known to man. It became my own City Lights, another hub where my personal understanding of subculture was born. Every time I went to Amok I would come home with a stack of books, which I would then devour in my bedroom when I was supposed to be asleep. The information I was receiving became as important to me as the countercultural fashions that defined my look. The style and substance were inseparable. One could credit this store with educating an entire generation of young Southern Californian outsiders.

Why did almost all of the most significant cultural movements of the last hundred years end up developing in such squalid locations? Each and every subculture has developed in a place free from the prying eyes of the general populace. There was most certainly always an audience, but it was comprised of a small group of like-minded peers who were perpetrating the same crimes. In today’s climate, however, small communities that spawn influential subcultures would be impossibly difficult to cultivate. The world is simply too connected. It is virtually impossible to remain obscure in today’s constant information exchange. The incubator is broken, the audience is too big, and even if the baby is premature, it is quickly paraded in front of the cameras. But perhaps it’s not that the audience has grown that’s the problem — maybe it’s that the audience is missing. As consumers of cyber culture, we are continually dealing with what I would describe as an “invisible audience.” Meaning that while there may be thousands and thousands of people contributing to and viewing our collective history through their computers, nobody is actually present in that encounter. You can google your way to information, but you cannot google an experience — at least not yet. And perhaps this is where the real death of subculture takes place.
An Excerpt from the forthcoming book Collage Culture: Examining the 21st Century’s Identity Crisis By Aaron Rose and Mandy Kahn with design by Brian Roettinger.

Published Fall 2011 by JRP/Ringier.

[Table of contents]

F/W 2011 issue 16

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS

purple BEST of the SEASON





purple BEAUTY

purple TRAVEL

purple NAKED


purple NIGHT

purple WINTER


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