Publications > Pop/Art: The art and music business - Art Monthly May 2004 | Lawrence Weiner > | Peter Saville

Pop/Art: The art and music business - Art Monthly May 2004; front cover detail
Pop/Art: The art and music business - Art Monthly May 2004; front cover detail

Pop/Art by Mark Prince

According to Raymond Pettibon, you should not assume from the album covers and flyers, which he designed for LA punk bands in the 70s, that the music can tell you much about the art or vice versa: 'It's a knee-jerk response to the company I happen to keep. It just shows the obsession that society has with rock culture, nowhere more so than in art.'1 His exasperation qualifies the recent eagerness to use pop music and art as mutual justification. Exhibitions, such as 'Sonic Process' at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, map correspondences between the two media, positioning them at convenient ends of an axis that supposedly enriches both. The current Berlin Biennale, with its recurring theme of assimilating music subcultures within a gallery mould, demonstrates how problematic this recontextualising can be. Tacking LP covers to the wall, alongside photocopied style magazines and monitors showing grainy performance footage, tends to domesticate the music and neutralise whatever was subversive in its original context. It emphasises the limitations of the musuem rather than dismantling boundaries. As Pettibon says, you're preaching to the converted.

There are also 'art bands', consisting of visual artists flirting with pop, such as Martin Creed's Owada, and Van Oehlen (incorporating the Oehlen brothers, Albert and Markus), which occupy the margins of established art careers. Last summer, Kunstverein Hamburg hosted a programme of performances entitled 'Stage' in which a number of bands - either containing artists or with visual art affiliations - played in the main exhibition space to a politely-seated private view audience. Whether it is a question of the academicism of art installation documenting music, or the special conditions accorded to the art celebrity in musician mode, these hybrids tend to re-emphasise high art/low art prejudices - long laid dormant by the history of exchange between the two media - in the guise of dismissing them as irrelevant. Pop is demonised and glamorised as art's socially suspect relation, but the frisson of the outré it possesses seems to dissipate as soon as the link between the two is given an official frame.

Meanwhile, the British press has been trumpeting the return of the pretentions of 'art rock' in Britain - as an antidote to the stodginess of Britpop - with the rise of Franz Ferdinand, a group who have advertised their roots in the Glasgow School of Art breeding ground of the late 90s. The story picks up the tradition of aspiring artists using pop music to flout institutional orthodoxy, when all other options appear to lead back to the academy. Roxy Music (Bryan Ferry was a student of Richard Hamilton), Mike Kelley's pre-punk noise rock group Destroy all Monsters, and Andy Warhol's production of the Velvet Underground are prominent examples.

And what, after all, are the virtues that the two worlds might have to gain from one another? Art appears to offer pop music a stamp of legitimacy, a ticket to the acceptance of a narrower but more discriminating audience, a freedom from commercial dictates, the possibility of a greater fastidiousness. Pop offers art the unquantifiable whisper of cult reputation along with the possibility of reaching beyond the circumscribed art world audience towards communication with a more heterogenous culture. Pop is glamour, celebrity, the obsessions of fandom, a freedom to dabble in the suggestiveness of a mythological past; it is an exemption from the obligation to integrity, a release to work unashamedly through the seductiveness of appearances. Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler's joint project for Documenta X, 'The Poetics 1977-1997', an open-ended documentation of the band they formed together as Midwest art students, made the mythologising of pop history its subject. The fan's nerdy accumulation of memorabilia was objectified. 'If you don't create your own history, someone else will', Kelley remarked. The retrospective archiving of the band outweighed its original significance, most of the credited work actually dating from its 90s period of re-actualisation rather than the 70s seed. Myth subsumes fact to suggest that presentation can be all.

The combination of myth and decoration in pop music's style vocabulary is especially amenable as fodder for culture's yearning for the past. The play of signs and surfaces is easy to retrieve, quote and reinvent according to the idealised, or at least biased, requirements of memory. It is interesting to speculate as to how these values have been adopted as artistic material. In the early 80s, Factory Records boss Tony Wilson commissioned Laurence Weiner and Barbara Kruger to design posters to advertise bands from the label who were playing in New York. Despite the radical shift in context, Weiner notably retained the conceptual tenets of his other work as much as he departed from them. As in his installations, text is used in a temporary site-specific situation to denote a thing or event occuring elsewhere, but whereas the installations purposely limit design to the efficient transmission of a concrete but finally ambiguous information, the posters are decorative, engaging with a form of neo-modernist abstraction which the functional text deflates. What you see is not what you get: nowhere more than in the realm of pop music is the invisibility of the emperor's clothes a staple condition of the medium's language. It is a sidestep into playfulness, from substance to style, a manipulation of effects without recourse to the rooted narrative of Weiner's art, but maintaining footholds of structural continuity: the imageless posters withhold as much about what they announce as his installations, with their total channelling of representation into the screen of typography, and their conversion of signifier into object. The contrast is between his usual rigorous empiricism - which can be generalised as reductively black on white and neutral in style - and his deployment, in this special case, of a currency of intentionally superficial design elements, aggressively primary-coloured and typographically quirky, which signify and embellish a scene, a style, a historical moment.

It is an intersection which demonstrates the gulf between the terms on which contemporary art and pop music operate, their relative unlikeness. TS Eliot characterised Modernism as something difficult which is conveyed as simply and clearly as possible. Pop reverses the terms, simplifying an object which is then to be decked in layers of aura and mystification. The dependence on the intermediary of design or performance is typical of the unlikeliness of the connection. They come closest to one another when they court charlatanism, using the inauthentic as a method, although this implies a moral foil which pop has long since divested itself of. The Weiner/Wilson collaboration was a serendipitous intersection of distinct cultural worlds which would largely have been ignorant of the other's movements, a question of the right people with the right intentions coming together at the right time: Wilson, the Situationist-influenced Northern eccentric with his high-cultural references, reaching across the Atlantic to Weiner, who designed the posters in conjunction with his own interest in the music of what were, at the time, mostly obscure bands from North West England.

The 100% yellow horizontal stripes of Weiner's 1985 poster for Section 25 fitted the aesthetic which Peter Saville had already developed in the first Factory posters from the late 70s, when he was still studying in Manchester. His career trajectory has taken him in the opposite direction, with the recent attempts from various sides to appropriate his design for an art context; his collaboration with John Currin for Pulp's This is Hardcore sleeve, and the introduction of apparently non-commissioned computer-generated abstract 'paintings' in the latter parts of the recent survey of his work at the Design Museum. But the early album covers for Joy Division and New Order, with their willingness to delve into the past for material to reanimate, now seem closer to recent design-based art, than Saville's later work. Dislocated quotes from art and design history were precisely positioned against the flat colours of the first Factory record sleeves and posters. The whole enterprise appeared to emulate the material and concept-specific terms of fine art practice: each Factory 'release', from an album to a badge to a letterhead, was allocated a number. Rough matt paper, expensive and impractical, was used for many of the record sleeves, and then left largely empty, with a cavalier disregard for imparting prosaic information like the name of the group or the record's title. The spectral glamour of the appropriated fragments made them ideal as pop façades. Divorced from their sources, they nonetheless exuded intimations of a past which remained as a veneer of unsubstantiated nostalgia attaching itself to the music. Indeed, without the coherence of music as context and catalyst, some of Saville's 90s designs are like an image forcibly separated from its referent and thereby impoverished. For Weiner, what was a lighthearted interlude in pop's hall of mirrors, was probably, for Saville, a once-in-a-career occasion to use a forceful musical event to mould a visual correllative. If the designs gave the music a face to facilitate the accommodation of its myth, the music bodied out this decorative veil through a long-term process of association. It is a journey into the past and back, and from art to music and back: the futurist, vorticist and neo-classicist models brought forward to assume the role of the music's image, then receding into the alternative cultural backlog of pop memory, through to Saville's current visibility in relation to artists, such as Cerith Wyn Evans, who share the ambivalence of his dialogue with appropriation, pivoting between kitsch, critique and tribute.

Another of music's graphic accessories which has gradually filtered into art is the desktop publishing ephemera of fanzines. The scruffy monotype layout of the amateur magazine is an alternative tradition to Saville's classical hard-edged geometries, and has its art equivalent, at first hand, in the graphic work of Pettibon and Kelley and, at the remove of painting, in Thaddeus Strode's mixtures of gestural abstraction and black cartoon drawing, or the Photoshop trickery of Albert Oehlen's inkjet plots. Oehlen courts information overload, as though, in the ivory tower of painting, chaotic collisions of font and photo are the only means of simulating the demotic irreverance of pop graphics. They are conduits transfusing the specific associations of a punk subculture into the enervated ether of abstraction. Oehlen is always knowing about the ways in which art is in awe of pop, sentimentalising it, attempting to sanctify it, but ultimately using it to buttress its own myth. A collage from 1999 remembers 'The Red Crayola Live 1967', referring to the brief heyday of an experimental US rock combo with which Oehlen played in one of their 90s reincarnations; another, with the headline 'The Catatonic Elves', 2000, advertises the world tour of an apocryphal band. His practice of producing one of these collages as a poster announcing each of his exhibitions, which is then included as part of the show, also mimics the concert poster format.

Glenn Brown's references to songs by The Smiths, and the repeated dedications to Joy Division's Ian Curtis, in the titles of paintings which have no ostensible connection to the music, comprehend the fundamental distance between art and a musical referent. The claustrophobic salon atmosphere of his installations, a hothouse in which art breeds incestuously with art, imitates the hermetic fantasies of the bedroom walls which adolescents plaster with posters of their idols. The music survives only nebulously as a morbid rumour, a necrophilic yearning for the past. Despite their basis in appropriation Brown's paintings are remorselessly self-referential, following the logical imperative of a method until it has generated every last morsel of content and the picture is sealed. They pore over and painstakingly reproduce every rivulet of an old painting's impasto, whereas their titles deal in the past's associations, like breaches in an otherwise tight circuit. It is as though they were an attempt to backtrack and open out the edifices of the paintings to ambiguity. The dialectic is between the forensic thoroughness with which art probes the past, and pop's rendering of nostalgia as a reservoir of style samples which the visual artist can utilise as source material according to the required effect. Christian Marclay has spoken of trying to find 'the new narrative that can be created by manipulating pop fragments'. Video Quartet, 2002, is a dense layering of old film clips, each in some way music-related, spread across four large screens. The cut-up technique of the edit creates a concatenation of samples, a collage sewn together by tenuous visual puns, while the corresponding soundtrack tends to blend the stark discontinuities of the source material into a new pattern with its own flowing logic. It could be a parable for music's malleability as recyclable matter, and its ability to draw images along with it in the mediating role of its performative costume, its palette of declamatory gestures.

Pop's facility for courting capricious modern attention with cut-out identities also has its influence in the performative roles developed by artists such as Matthew Barney, with his constantly changing but always recognisably athletic outline, or the shaman's theatre of Jonathan Meese. In Frankfurt this February, a collaboration was organised, against the background of Meese's exhibition at the Schirn Museum, with Dirk von Lowtzow from the German band Tocotronic. Meese read his favourite Grimm fairy tale, and von Lowtzow read a passage from a 20s symbolist novel. The meeting was meaningful given their shared preoccupation with the German romantic tradition, and representative of the longing of German artists, such as Kai Althoff and Cosima von Bonin, for an artificial version of the past which circumvents political history, except as it manifests itself through fable and folk imagery. Finally they combined forces on a song they wrote together, von Lowtzow strumming to one of Meese's heavily-intoned narratives. The result was perhaps an endearing compromise, but the combination of fable and lyric pointed to a tangential meeting ground of nostalgic myth between the two media.

Andrew O'Hagan has written that Morrissey turns Postmodernism into 'a matter of homage and nostalgia, as well as a matter of self-revelation'2. Whereas in the 60s, art looked to pop music for an injection of untamed contemporary culture, now it represents an escape into fictions of the past which romanticise an anodyne present. It is as though the Postmodern status levelling of cultural history has long become consecrated as cleanly academic, and pop is now needed again to repollute it with its tall stories.

1.'Raymond Pettibon', Phaidon, 2001. P.17
2. Andrew O'Hagan, 'Cartwheels over Broken Glass', London Review of Books, March 2004

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Thanks to Frederika Whitehead of Art Monthly and Mark Prince