Subculture: shock and style

The term culture, in what is known as the “anthropological definition”, refers to “a whole way of life”, meaning a broad range of activities geared towards classifying symbolically within a society.

– Sturken and Cartwright 2009:3

Sub culture is a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture. [25]

One of the most important features of modernism was ‘avant garde’, which is the cutting edge in art, poetry and music that changed the way people understood creative expression. The combination of ‘shock’ and ‘style’ has been an important feature of avant garde and subcultures.

The modernist avant garde began in the 19th century. One of the main ideas behind it was to ‘shock’. The French artists and poets called it ‘Épater la bourgeoisie’ which means ‘shock the middle-class’.

In the 19th century the term bourgeoisie referred to the social class that had become wealthy due to their involvement in capitalism. Either through involvement in industry, or owning property.

Looking at ‘shock’ within art, it needs to be considered that what is considered shocking changes radically over time, and what is considered shocking is relative to a culture at a given historical moment. An example of this is ‘Olympia’ by Edouard Manet 1863.


The piece was considering shocking at the time it was displayed. It was met with jeers, laughter, criticism, and disdain and was attacked by the public, the critics, the newspapers.


But this painting Venus of Urbina by Titan, was considered to be perfectly acceptable. The two pieces are very similar, but there are very small difference that caused the ‘shock’ which can tell us something about the cultures that were shocked by Manet’s painting. To 18th century taste Olympia was an ugly painting. The woman depicted in the painting was shown to be a prostitute and the painting style was intended to appear crude to cultured taste. Also the fact the subject is looking at the viewer directly (the viewer at the time was more than likely a man) challenged the distinction between the nude (a convention in art) and nakedness (with it’s connotations of sex).

When the ‘shock’ is intentional, it raises one of the key problems of using ‘shock’ as a strategy, the shock doesn’t last very long. For impressionists, like Manet, who were shocking in their day, found their work on chocolate boxes before long. This type of pattern has repeated itself throughout the 20th century in avant garde and subculture. A moment of shock is followed by the ‘recuperation’ of shocking images and practices into the mainstream.

The technique to shock was evident is the works of the DADA movement. The Dadaists thrust mild obscenities, scatological humour, visual puns and everyday objects (renamed as art)  in the public eye.


An example of this is Marcel Duchamp posed as Rrose Sélavy photgraphed by Many Ray, both famous Dadaists. Rrose Sélavy, is the feminine alter ego created by Marcel Duchamp. She first emerged in portraits made by the photographer Man Ray in New York in the early 1920s, when Duchamp and Man Ray were collaborating on a number of conceptual photographic works. By creating for himself this female persona whose attributes are beauty and eroticism, he deliberately and characteristically complicated the understanding of his ideas and motives. Only a few prints of this photograph are known to exist. This version, inscribed in 1924 by Duchamp to the Philadelphian Samuel S. White 3rd, came to the Museum with White’s collection of paintings and drawings. It forms part of the Museum’s world-famous holdings of works by Duchamp and is central to a group of Man Ray photographs related to the life and work of Duchamp also owned by the Museum.


L.H.O.O.Q is a cheap post-card sized reproduction of the famous Mona Lisa, that Marcel Duchamp bought and drew a moustache and goatee on it. The is one of the most famous example of degrading a well known work of art. The title in French is “Elle a chaud au cul”, which translates to “She has a hot ass”.

Avent-garde continued to re-invent shock and style throughout the 20th century. They ere i a sense subcultures. But in many ways, they were subcultures who were already part of an elite They were usually from relatively wealthy backgrounds. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that popular subcultures began to play with style.

‘Spectacular Subcultures’ are those that are most well known and easiest to identify because they have highly visible, and played an important part in the aesthetic history of the 20th century. Examples of this are: Teds, Mods, Rockers, Punks,  Skinheads and various forms of Hip-Hop culture. These style or subcultures had all been spectacular , e.g. highly visible.

A spectacular subculture marks itself out using distinctive forms of dress, highly visible behaviours, and an ‘argot’ (a distinctive form of speaking). Often this has involved some element of ‘shock’ and ‘style.

A very well known example of this is the Punk subculture, which was prevalent during the 1970-80’s. Early punk fashion adapted everyday objects for aesthetic effect, such as: ripped clothing held together by safety pins or wrapped with tape; ordinary clothing customised by embellishing it with marker or adorning it with paint; a black bin liner became a dress, shirt or skirt; safety pins and razor blades were used as jewellery. This was all in order to shock and outrage others.

I feel that contemporary subculture groups have evolved from previous ones, but have changed dramatically. I think there are less subcultures trying to shock other people, but groups such as punks, although they’re not as popular as they used to be, are still within society, but may be less focused on politics and more focused of making a fashion statement.










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