Hot Topic is not Punk Rock!

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Reading Ben Street’s recent post Pop (and) Art, I started to consider links between music and art. It is easy to support Ben’s idea that the relationship between music and art was closest in the sixties, yet the music of the 60’s and 70’s seems to be a hot topic for contemporary art institutions today. Case in point, right now Malcolm McLaren is guest blogging about ArtBasel for “The Moment” on The New York Times. While art might not be comfortable with pop music, some curators are excited to draw on the nostalgia for rock and punk music of those bygone days.

Over the last year, there has been a wave of exhibitions that point to rock and punk music as inspiration for many artists’ practices. Double Album: Daniel Guzmán and Steven Shearer, currently on view at the New Museum, cites rock culture and male adolescence as strong influences on both artists. Music is a Better Noise, exhibited at PS1, looked at genre jumpers, “musicians who make art and artists who make music.” Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years explored the “vibrant art scene that emerged during these [punk] years,” at the Barbican; it included works by Art21 artists Barbara Kruger (Season 1), Raymond Pettibon (Season 2), and Jenny Holzer (Season 4).

It is Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967 that seems to be receiving the most press and perhaps the most scorn. The exhibition features work by Raymond Pettibon (Season 2), Mike Kelley (Season 3), and Laurie Anderson (Season 1) is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Sympathy for the Devil is described as “the most serious and comprehensive look at the intimate and inspired relationship between the visual arts and rock-and-roll culture to date.” This assertion is troubling considering omissions of influential musicians like George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Sun Ra, and Bad Brains which makes me wonder, would rock-and-culture exist without black culture?

Considering this trend of rock and punk influenced exhibitions, I am left with a question posed by critic Pedro Velez in his artnet review of Sympathy for the Devil, “How do you tame counterculture into the prepackaged pretext of High Art?” Responses welcomed.


  1. Ben Street says:

    I spent an afternoon I can never have back at “Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years”, which was the curatorial equivalent of saying that the work of Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter is “Art in the Huey Lewis and the News Years”.

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  2. dima says:

    It’s interesting that this connection between visual art and music is explored on such a surface level.

    I just had a talk with a painter friend of mine (he’s in his twenties) and we were kicking around the idea that contemporary painting is impossible to understand without understanding contemporary music scene. I am not talking about the latest top 40 offerings, or a historic nod to Sex Pistols or Stones… and yes, of course Pettibon. I am talking about the bands that we the artists actually listen to on regular bases in our studios:)

    For example, everyone who has listened to the “indy” scene in the last 10-15 years knows that shredding is a big no no. You don’t stop the song to show of how good (read fast) of a guitar player you are. Technical finesse is shown through crazy time signatures (math-rock), odd chords, or insanely complicated technique that’s masked by layers of distortion. Appearance of technique is VERY self-conscious. It’s main goal is to complicate listener experience not to show of performer’s abilities. Looking at the painters in their 20′s and 30′s today, I see a 100% parallel trend.

    Luc Tuymans (OK, 40′s but he’s idolized by all the 20 year old) and company are very Polvo in their aesthetic. Dana Schutz sneaks in complicated color games, making the actually process of viewing much more nuanced. One can make a slightly strained suggestion that highly technically proficient artist like her have their musical analog in bands like Don Caballero. Tons and tons of contemporary painters are playing all sorts of games with perspective, from Early Renaissance-type spaces to deliberate mix of flat abstraction with modeled figuration. I could probably make some other direct musical reference here, but I’ll abstain :) The more powerful parallel, and perhaps the core of what I am trying to point to, is the fact the technical and compositional innovation in contemporary art and music serve to complicate, slow down, and even sabotage the experience of AUDIENCE MEMBERS.

    It’s a complicated game in which the tritone replaces the fifth :) and the audience comes to expect a challenge.

    Sorry for such a long-winded comment, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

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  3. Marc Mayer says:

    Thank you Dima. I appreciate your well-considered comment. I do realize the post might have been a bit superficial, much in the same way that the exhibitions I mentioned seem a bit superficial in their treatment of the history of punk and rock. I would be interested to see how your hypothesis might create a more dynamic investigation into music’s influence on contemporary art practice.

    One bridge that I do think it is important to mention is literature, in terms of punk and rock and the legacy of William S. Burroughs on artists and musicians. Burroughs “cut up” writing style seems to influence both the visual and the sonic. The exhibition, Double Album: Daniel Guzmán and Steven Shearer, alludes to Burroughs, but does not develop this idea conceptually. If it did, perhaps the curators might see that Dennis Cooper already dealt with a lot of these conventions through his post-modern novels.

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  4. Pedro velez says:

    Thanks for the mention!

    The exhibit was hated in Chicago, in many levels of course, but now that it is in Miami I wonder how it will be received over there.

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  8. Su Zi says:

    Punk Rock is dead. It was antithetical to disco–disco has long been dead.
    When art that was not made at the time is described at punk, it is allusion.
    Hot Topic capitolizes on the look then for capitolistic reasons. Work made now that is only then, without thought of time, since is an effort to profit capitolistically on the allusion.

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