Art Rock

Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is currently hosting Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967, a comprehensive and at times fascinating look at the meshing of visual art and rock and roll over the years. The exhibit, which runs until January 6, chronicles the relationship between artists and rock music across the globe while also tapping into a number of subgenres. 

Named after the Rolling Stones hit single offBeggar’s Banquet, a curious choice since the Stones are featured sparingly, the exhibition is broken up into several different wings, each paying homage to a different significant rock and roll hub. From New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, London and Manchester in the U.K., Cologne, Germany, the multi platform art displayed represents certain elements from the cities and their unique sounds. Album cover art, promotional poster sheets, music videos and video art, rock and roll photography, traditional 2D paintings and drawings, and even sonic art soaked in via headphones, surround sound loudspeaker rooms and even a makeshift sound recording booth that can be reserved by anyone out to make a demo tape. 

While true art snobs may find the exhibit to be underwhelming, rock purists may be unforgiving for the lack of attention given to certain genres and equally important music scenes, and casual rock listeners may become jaded after the first couple rooms, the exposition is affective at examining how art was once a major influence on the music world and vise versa. The one troubling aspect of the exhibit is how little there is about the use of art in recent rock and hip-hop movements.

Sure the exposition covers obvious art-house favorites such as avant-garde guitar shoe gazers Sonic Youth (band member Kim Gordon is featured heavily throughout the exhibit) but little more is covered post the early 90s alt rock and punk epoch. While this lack of attention given to my generation left me a bit baffled I began to realize that in many ways art is no longer as significant to rock music as it once was. 

I remember as a kid discovering my parent’s massive record collection and immediately being drawn to the dazzling visuals that were featured on the LP covers. From the famous Andy Warhol crotch zipper on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the mysterious naked children figures perched on the sea of rocks on Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy LP, the washed out distorted faces of Talking Heads on Remain in Light, the Dalí inspired surrealism of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, to the Beatles, an art conscious band that released some of the most noteworthy cover art in history. The use of art in rock albums was at one point as big a focus as the fine-tuning of sound, the poetry of the lyrics and appearance/persona of the band or musician. Lately though I think it’s safe to say that the link between rock music and the art world is growing thin. 

It could be said that the death of vinyl and the slow but steady demise of CDs are to blame for a downfall of album art, with more attention spent on the marketing and methods of selling and distributing music there is less attention or care given to the art (I mean iTunes packages albums with “digital booklets,” but I can’t help but think it is a noble but poor replacement for liner notes). 

This argument goes well beyond merely cover art, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best place to look for a band’s visual art influences. One of the most fascinating parts of the MCA exhibit dealt with underground punk bands of the 80s and their use of cheaply made and distributed promotional posters, many of which were artistically and politically creative. While the “do it yourself” underground music mentality is still alive today we rarely see promotional poster art, the kind that made you stop on a street corner, since we now have Myspace pages and websites (don’t get me wrong, one could make a strong argument for the advantages of the internet and the many artistically designed sites out there.)

Then there are music videos, which during the 80s and 90s became a controversial yet extremely popular way of mixing art with music. Some people argued that spoon feeding listeners images to go along with the lyrics of a song was a poor replacement for your imagination, however, there were many conceptual artists who used these shorts in creative and fascinating ways. 

Most people know about the handful of unique film directors working today who got their starts in music videos and commercials. There were certain videos that we as music lovers actually looked forward to watching, videos that took our favorite songs in extremely unique directions. I remember watching Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” song premiere after The Simpsons (corny I know) as a young lad, waiting in my friends basement for Nirvana’s “Heart Shape Box” video to come on, crossing my fingers for the VJ to play Beastie Boys’ hilarious “Sabotage” video or yearning for that next Beck video to come out, a musician who overlooked/visualized the majority of his highly stylized and brilliant videos.

Today it’s hard for me to remember the last truly great video I saw (Mark Romanek’s ultra bizarre but extremely wicked modern art museum inspired video for the Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” song may take the cake). Sure artists like Radiohead, Bjork, Muse, Missy Elliott, Beck, Franz Ferdinand or Jay-Z still put out fairly unique, eye opening videos and certain artists still take great album cover art seriously (I may be the only one who dug Pearl Jam’s minimalist avocado cover on their last album), but for the most part music these days seems more concerned with the “to steal or not to steal” debate than extending their creativity past simply the music. 

What struck me as interesting about the MCA exhibit was how important the use of art once was. To have your photograph taken by someone like Robert Mapplethorpe (he did Patti Smith’s Horses album) or be sponsored by a visionary like Andy Warhol (who himself was idolized by musicians and artists) was something to aspire to. Bands like New Order (there is a fascinating look at the design of Order’s Power, Corruption, & Lies floral still-life album cover on display at the MCA), Funkadelic, 70s era Miles Davis Frank Zappa, or the slew of progressive rockers from the 70s (ELO, Yes, Asia, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, almost all these groups relied heavily on visual art often using up and coming surrealist portrait artists like Roger Dean or ahead of their time graphic designers like Storm Storgerson) had a passion for art that went beyond the notes they played. Today though it seems like the biggest aspirations a musician can have is to work with a hotshot producer (uh hum, Glen Ballard) or have there song featured on whatever ridiculous “Laguna Whore” reality show is the fad that week (note that this statement does not cover every musician working today because there are some keeping the marriage of sound and vision alive. Just the majority).

Walking around the MCA I was curious as to what a similar exhibit might look like 20 years from now. How will future generations view the current state of music we’re in? Sure there have been advents in technology and I fully support the internet’s role in distributing music but I can’t help but think that we’re losing something with this change. There was something aesthetically pleasing about walking around the Sympathy exhibition. Seeing the full size carefully drawn posters, seeing how certain album covers were designed or walking over the room of vinyl records (you’ll see). The MCA exhibit is worth checking out (Tuesday is a free day so how can you not!) for anyone interested in learning about a fascinating piece of rock and roll history.