Thursday, December 7, 2017

Andy Warhol Looks a Scream

The most recent pop art exhibition at the British Museum was called "The American Dream; From Pop to Present." A museum, according to Merriam Webster, is an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study and display of objects of lasting interest or value - well la-de-da. It's interesting that in the world of "art," Warhol is there with Rauchenberg, which by extension, puts him alongside Matisse and Raphael. Warhol, under whose supervision we have films like Blow Job and Andy Warhol's Bad, soup cans (actually created 65 years earlier by Dr. John Torrance and Herberton L. Williams) and silk screened Norma Jeans. Duchamp, Basquiat, Mapplethorpe and Pollack: this is art. You can tell. It's in a museum.

Nirvana - Jenny Holzer
But what about music? Art? Were we to put music in a museum, wouldn't it be Bach and Mozart, at its most eccentric Gershwin? I think its interesting to note that "artists" like David Bowie and The Velvet Underground, despite their rampant association with Warhol, aren't considered artists at all. No museum (don't get me started on the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, which fails to include Roxy Music, Yes, ELO, Deep Purple, The Smiths, The Cure - really? Roxy? One of the most influential bands in rock history?).

The argument exists that rock 'n' roll can't be contained, corralled, pent up in a museum; it's restless, frivolous, in your face (and of course, Duchamp is not). Don't get me wrong, this writer is a great fan of Warhol and Pollack, of Richter, Ruscha, Holtzer and Koons. The gripe, the grumble, the bleat is that Bowie and David Sylvian, Zappa and Waits are rarely considered with the same respect as Warhol or Basquiat. It's like Warhol matters; Zappa, not so much. It's an interesting, if absurd, polemic. (I was thrilled, by the way, this past summer to discover several classic concert promotion works for the Grateful Dead, Canned Heat and others at the Denver Art Museum (DAM). Perplexing, though, that rock promotion posters have seemingly more in the way of provenance than what it advertises.) Still, eccentricity and genius go hand in hand, or so we're told. Research suggests that peculiar habits and behaviors are quirky side-effects of the kind of clever thinking that begets art. Certainly, as far as artistic umph may go, Warhol tops the 60's list the way that Pollock topped the 50's. So why not Bowie? Indeed, the Spaceman begat Ziggy who begat the Thin White Duke who begat Jareth the Goblin King; there are iterations of the Elephant Man and vampires, and breakthrough videos from "Ashes to Ashes" to "★" , from poppets to Buttoneyes. These too are art.

So why the slight?

In the late 60s and early 70s, it seemed that musicians were more self-aware of this absurd notion that what they did was less than art. Brian Eno often extolled the idea that rock was an "art form," or at least that rock held this possibility; that it was stimulating as well as sensually accessible, intellectual as well as physical, conceptual as well as popular. Eno maintained, though, that this was merely hypothesis: "If I listen to the first album now," he said of Roxy Music's debut, "I still find it a bold statement. But what happened is what happened to most bands: they become successful." He stated that if you want to make a lot of money in rock, you develop one good idea and then do it again and again. (Sounds oddly like Picasso's Blue Period, or O'Keeffe's vaginal flowers). Essentially, though, Eno was wrong, or at least wrong in his generalization. Joni went from folk to rock to jazz; David Sylvian from new wave to new age to whatever it is that he does today (I am enamored by it, but I don't know what it is). More and more, the line between music, rock music in particular, and art is obscured. In the days of Mozart and Bach, essentially in the days that preceded recorded music, music was a performance art, something one experienced live, like theater. We have that obviously today, but it is recorded music, set in stone (vinyl, digital), that transforms music into an art form more conducive to contemplation, as if, in the 20th century, like Rembrandt or Van Gogh, music can be hung on the wall (a concept that contradicts the tenets of jazz, btw). 

AM takes offense to the notion that Kate Bush or Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen or Kurt Cobain are anything less than Warhol's soup can or Lichtenstein's comic ripoffs, putting great rock alongside great architecture (from Wright to Venturi), great dance and Mozart and Rodin and Hitchcock and Disney, like cans of soup in the grocery store, all red and white and next to each other. I leave you with a piece from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a "readymade" porcelain urinal purchased by Marcel DuChamp, signed as "R. Mutt - 1917" and displayed as a work of the artist under the title "Fountain."