From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Some have stated in our written histories that Spartacus or Jesus may have been the first to define the Underground. Or Socrates drinking his mix of the poisonous hemlock, François Villon inaugurating the zazou spirit of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Galileo, Benvenuto Cellini, Giordano Bruno, each threatened by or ending up at the stakes for opening new horizons to an ancient world.
Closer to us is Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his Notes from the Underground. Or the green hair of Baudelaire, or the fulgurating irritations of Rimbaud, the grinding teeth of Lautréamont and the voluptuousness of Huysmans and René Crevel." --Underground, l'histoire, Jean-François Bizot, tr. J.W. Geerinck
Underground culture, or just underground, is a term to describe various alternative cultures which either consider themselves different to the mainstream of society and culture, or are considered so by others. The word underground is used because there is a history of resistance movements under harsh regimes where the term underground was employed to refer to the necessary secrecy of the resisters.
These 1960s and 1970s underground cultural movements had some connections to the "beat generation" which had, in turn, been inspired by the philosophers, artists and poets of the Paris Existentialist movement which gathered around Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in the years after World War II.
It took a few years more, however, for the culture Kerouac describes to grow in numbers and redefine itself variously as the underground culture or the freak scene etc.
Applied to the arts, the term underground typically means artists that are not corporately sponsored and generally do not want to be. However, with the advent of the world wide web (or internet), many experts argue that there is no underground since so much art and so many political ideas, especially music, is far easier to locate and because so it provides artists and activists a means to promote their work and ideas without large, established corporate interests. Even the concept of obscurity is questionable given 21st century access to information about past or current artistic trends.
Perhaps the best way to define it is a quote by Frank Zappa:
- "The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground."
The use of underground as adjective meaning "subculture" is attested is from 1953, from World War II application to resistance movements against German occupation, on analogy of the dominant culture and Nazis  and, at least, as far back as the Underground railroad.
- "Ideas enter our above-ground culture through the underground. I suppose that is the kind of function that the underground plays, such as it is. That it is where the dreams of our culture can ferment and strange notions can play themselves out unrestricted. And sooner or later those ideas will percolate through into the broad mass awareness of the broad mass of the populace. Occulture, you know, that seems to be perhaps the last revolutionary bastion." -- Alan Moore
Problem of definition
It is not easy to define the underground. Zappa's quote "The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground." gives us an idea. The definition of underground culture I use, is, culture that has not reached the mainstream but that has gained popularity amongst a small and loyal audience [a subculture]. Actually, that is the same definition I give to cult as in cult movies.
One should should always remember that underground has a connotation of the illegal, the clandestine, the illicit; and a link with the adverse guerilla activities of the oppressed, most evidently displayed in the resistance movements of Europe during WWII.
- Underground as an adjective commonly refers to something that is either below the ground or outside of public consciousness. As a proper noun, the underground refers to subcultures.
Death of the underground
- "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." Simon Reynolds via woebot.
alternative - banned - censorship - clandestine - controversial - counterculture - crime - cult - drugs - economy - forbidden - grotto - hidden - illegal - illicit - independent - a glossary of the non-mainstream - overground - prohibition - resistance - secret - subculture - subversive - taboo - transgressive - underworld
- Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) - Greil Marcus
- Outsiders as Innovators (1998) - Tyler Cowen
- Underground comix, a term for non-mainstream comics
- Underground economy, commerce that is not taxed
- Underground film, cinema outside the commercial mainstream
- Underground literature, the history of clandestine publishing
- Underground music, music that has a certain following despite a moderate commercial success
- Underground press, the alternative print media in the late 1960s and early 1970s
- Underground resistance, nickname used for some resistance movements
- English underground
- French underground
- Italian underground, under construction
- Prague Underground
- Spanish underground
- UK Underground, a 1960s countercultural movement in the United Kingdom
- Alternative culture
- Cult following
- History of subcultures in the 20th century
- Underground music
- Underground comix
- Underground press
- Underground film
- Prague Underground
- English underground
- UK Underground
- Notes from Underground
- Underground Literary Alliance
- Official culture