Rock snobs! Vinyl junkies! Looking for some high-end trainspotting action? Put down that fanzine, log off eBay and get to an art gallery. Rare grooves, obscure pressings and pedantic top-ten lists are no longer the stuff of record fairs alone. Contemporary art is riddled with subtle nods to classic albums, nostalgic paeans to teen idols and ironic allusions to long-forgotten lyrics.
The blues had a baby and they called it rock’n’roll; today’s artists are rearing the bastard child of Spinal Tap and art-house film. The line between a gig and a gallery show has blurred. It’s a weird mash-up mix fusing the macho bluster of rock and the arch musings of conceptual art. Musicians are now curators, running arts festivals. Set lists are treated as concrete poetry. And the merchandise booth is, like, an ironic postmodern commentary on the commodification of popular culture.
This phenomenon isn’t entirely new. The art and rock double-bill emerged back in the sixties when, through a weird combination of education policy and propinquity, art schools became holding pens for the kind of working-class bohemians who made better performers than painters.
Rock’s classic line-ups are littered with art school drop-outs: John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Freddie Mercury . . . Back then, before postmodernism started putting everything in quotation marks, art trafficked in ideas fundamental to rock’s mythology: the outsider, the radical, the primitive. Eventually, rock musicians learned art’s bohemian licks so well that Patti Smith declared, in 1977, ‘Looking at a Jackson Pollock or listening to Jimi Hendrix—it’s a very similar experience’.
For many artists, this is still the attraction of rock. Long after the art world deconstructed, stuffed and mounted the myth of the bohemian, rock musicians kept the faith. Preening and posturing as they prowled the stage, the great rock gods are a reminder that, as literary critic Perry Meisel put it, ‘Rock and roll is the crossing of cowboy and dandy’.
Art’s current fascination with rock is driven by this nostalgia for its lost ability to shock the bourgeoisie. Flamboyant eroticism and a life lived on the edge: art had it in spades during the golden age of the Parisian garret but somehow lost its mojo when the avant-garde went mainstream. (In fact, ‘The Golden Age of the Parisian Garret’ might almost be the title of a forthcoming Winter Masterpieces blockbuster.) If art could only borrow some of rock’s moves, we might find an artist who was ‘a rock’n’roll saviour with a cowboy mouth’. (Patti Smith again; she gets it right because she’s not afraid to believe.)
Revolting against the more scholastic versions of postmodernism, young artists are seduced by rock’s raw bombast. As punk was to prog rock, so neo-expressionism is to conceptual art. Lindsay Buckingham once said, ‘Dumb is a very important word in rock’, and for some artists discovering the painterly equivalent of a Ramones riff is a way of dodging decades of dense meditation on the tangles of cultural discourse. Another kind of dumb—Andy Warhol’s passive embrace of pop culture—sees artists celebrating the shimmering glitter of the disco, the glossy surface of the pin-up, and the momentary thrills of the one-hit wonder.
More than anything, rock appeals to art because it’s the full package. Rock is the gesamtkunstwerk; the total work of art. It traverses every level of aesthetic and psychic experience. Every aspect of the rock fan’s life—sound, vision, sexuality, language, sociality—is shaped by their engagement with music. It’s a total investment in idea and experience, driven by a deliberately uncontained desire. (Okay, a cynic would say that a rock’n’roll gesamtkunstwerk is just a fancy name for vertical integration but, to quote AC/DC, ‘Rock’n’roll is just … rock’n’roll’.)
Art has only ever momentarily achieved this fusion: the Romantics made it stick for a few decades in the nineteenth century, the dadaists and surrealists had their moment in the 1920s. That rock increases its reach and power with every new layer added to its economy makes the art world green with envy. Rock has an audience that art can only dream of; attendance numbers at most exhibitions are equivalent to a single beer queue at the Big Day Out. Rock makes instant hits out of the art world’s most tangled discourses: artists wrestle with identity politics for years only to be gazumped by a pop song titled ‘I kissed a girl’ (not once but twice!). Performance artist Karen Finley is hounded out of the business for shoving yams up her butt (true fact) while Lady Gaga gets rave review for waggling her illuminated Disco Stick suggestively (also a true fact, you can’t make this stuff up).
Rock will always outplay art. The smart artists are the ones exploring rock’s sinister combination of shamanism and commerce. The rest can join the wannabes in the garage.
Original publication: ‘Keep on rockin’ in the art world’, Like , no 15, 2001, pp 30–33.