Art History  •  Featured

The Importance of Capturing Youth Culture to Define an Era

Ah, to be young again. In a world where sometimes tactless figures make decisions, it is often the younger generations who prove to be the benchmark for where we are in society. After all, it is the youth who are expected to play a subservient role to those in power. Throughout history we have seen youth cultures and subcultures form as a retort to these restrictive measures being put in place.

The importance of capturing the truly historical moments involving iconic figures is huge. However, to really define an era, delve deeper into the working class estates where the actions of a community are more important than that of any one person.

The importance of all art is to tell something for future generations of how people lived … That is how we can learn through art about societies gone by. – Thomas Dellert

Street 07, 2011
Martina Chardin

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, society was littered with subcultures emanating from council estates which contained a youthful exuberance at its core. You had the mods and hippies of the 1960s; the punks and skinheads of the 70s; the array of alternative music scenes that came from the 80s (indie rock, techno, glam rock); and a rave scene that would lurk within UK and European youth culture in the 90s. All of these movements had one thing in common: anti-establishment.

However, not all of these subcultures can be defined as having the same impact on society due to the varying levels of political action imbued within these movements. As Singulart artist Martina Chardin puts it, “Whether the capturing of youth and subcultures is relevant to the description of an era depends, in my view, on the degree of politicization or rebellion within the respective youth and subcultures.” Certainly, the rave scene of the late 80s and 90s was anti-establishment, but was it fighting for political change in the same manner that the punks or the hippies were? Probably not.

Thomas Dellert, however, brings it back to a much more fundamental purpose that exceeds political motive and looks at these movements from a humanitarian position. He goes on to state that these movements are all crucial to society as they are the younger generation’s way of feeling heard amongst all the noise of world affairs. By attaching yourself to a movement or subculture, you have the power to exclaim: “We are here! See us! Feel us! Accept us!”.

For a lot of young people sometimes, it isn’t about directly fighting back at the opposition as such, it is about adopting a metaphorical guerrilla warfare tactic to beat the system. Certain youth cultures might not storm government buildings but they’ll find a way to outwit authority in order to fulfill a desired lifestyle.

Holi Colour / 06, 2013
Frank Lübke

We are now 20 years into the 21st century and it seems that the same vigor and willingness to act out against authority isn’t quite there like it once was. However, it could be argued that there is now a more united frontier among young people. The same ferocity in which young people speak out still exists – they haven’t gone passive – there are just less groups fighting or believing in different things.

Another reason for the perceived lack of youth movements is the visual element that comes with subcultures of years gone by. The iconography involved in the hippies, punks, mods and skinheads is at the forefront and there are never any mistakes about who belongs to which tribe. Young people are still very vocal on current political and social issues, but it seems the tribalism isn’t as apparent as before. The fashion trends that can become bigger than the motive of these movements themselves are romanticized within the documentation of these groups. This may make for a prettier photo, but the story behind it can get lost and therefore it is the role of the photographer to look beyond simply the aesthetics of youth culture.

The binary that now exists in the political landscape often pits young versus old as much as it focuses on left-wing versus right-wing. We have seen the results of referenda, elections and opinion polls see a complete generational divide. Therefore, different groups among the younger generations are often fighting for the same cause but without a definitive uniform that attaches them all. This lack of symbolism within the youth movements doesn’t detract from the importance of capturing this moment in time, if anything it enforces it due to the ambiguous tribalism.

Adolescence is an extremely intense, fast-paced time, when everything is constantly in fluxDaniel Seiffert

Youth culture is also a key way of defining an era as it is ever-changing. What the youth see as ‘cool’ or as part of a greater societal issue, will change from one generation to the next. It’s perhaps a natural progression of life that we all become subsumed within societal norms as we get older. The same can’t be said for younger people as this is exactly the time when fighting back against norms and restrictions is inherent. A ubiquitous stream of authority figures in your life, from parents and teachers to high school bullies and police, will only breed this need to break out from society’s constraints.

The evolving nature of youth culture is exactly why it is essential to incessantly document these movements because if you blink, you might just miss it.