Impresario chic

While in Düsseldorf, David Byrne visits a Sonic Youth-curated art exhibit called “Sensational Fix,” and likes what he sees. He brings up some cool ideas:

It’s got the expected album covers and music paraphernalia, but given that it’s Sonic Youth, the show is split between their art collections and their own work. As such it’s a taste of their world—friends, influences, connections, collaborations and accumulated collections of artwork and ephemera. (I’ve heard that Thurston [Moore, SY’s lead guitarist] and some of the others are obsessively rabid record collectors–especially obscure “out” stuff like old Sun Ra vinyl and Japanese noise bands–but that trove might have to wait for some other venue to see the light of day.)

There is work by their pals Richard Prince, Raymond Pettibon, Tony Oursler, Mike Kelley and Rita Ackermann–some of which was used for record covers; work by those who inspired them–a video of John Cage on What’s My Line?, Ginsberg photos of his Beat pals, William Burroughs’ gunshot art; and some of their own videos, paintings, collages and installations.

The exhibit posits Sonic Youth more as an art/media collective than simply as a band—which is probably accurate, though most people know them through their more accessible recordings, of course. But this is closer to how they must see themselves—as the hyphenate legacy of both the Beat and performance art worlds, and the wacky fringes of pop culture—death metal, freaky cults, underground comics, vinyl junkies and the dark side of Madonna and Karen Carpenter. What’s nice about it is the thread that ties together the art world with the pop music world with the Beat poets and a million others—and it stretches through time, backwards, forwards and sideways. It’s also a world of fandom—in a way, Sonic Youth are impresarios presenting the work of others that they love.

I might be imagining it, but it seems to me that in Europe, the mixing of pop culture and high art—as evidenced in this show, put on in a big, state-run museum, as opposed to an alternative art space—is more accepted as an idea than in the U.S. It could explain why the show originated here, and might only reach the U.S. after traveling elsewhere for a while. Here, it seems that Sonic Youth can be perceived as an arts collective that happens to occasionally make accessible recordings, rather than as a pop band that dabbles in art.

I love artist-impresarios. Almost everything written above, though, could just as easily have been written about Byrne. He’s one of my cultural heroes. From his work as leader of one of the greatest American pop bands ever to his installations, books, visual art, bicycle rack design, and record-label management, Byrne’s built himself up as a cultural brand. Wherever he goes, so too travels his aesthetic networks of affinities and influences. It’s not that his music is incidental to his other art—he still composes, records, and performs regularly—so much as his music serves as a gateway to a wide range of cultural pursuits. He and Sonic Youth see themselves as parts of a broader cultural sphere; in itself, that’s not unusual. In fact, it’s true of every artist—no artist or art scene is sui generis. Few contemporary artists, however, go as far as to broadcast and promote the atmosphere from which they sprang. But Sonic Youth casts itself as a focal point for an entire scene—at once, the band is the lens through which we understand their scene, a representative of that scene, and a curator/historian/archivist of that scene.

I don’t particularly like Sonic Youth—well, let’s say it’s complicated—but I admire greatly its vision of itself as carrier of an entire cultural world. We see the pop-artist-as-cultural-community idea more in hip-hop—seemingly every successful rapper and R&B has a fashion line and/or record label, for instance; exhibit A: Jay-Z—than in rock. Why is that, I wonder? After all, the Velvet Underground emerged directly from Andy Warhol’s Factory, and that band is one of the most significant in American pop. Still, Byrne’s right. Here, popular artists tend to stick to one art form, and not aggressively advertise their aesthetic as part of a community that includes a variety of art forms, or as central nodes of an active scene.

I blame the Romantics, with their vision of the individual over (and in torturous conflict with) all else, and with the sloppy Beats, who perpetuated Romanticism in the 20th century, and who then greatly influenced… um, Sonic Youth, who are basing their art on a community, um, sense, and… and maybe I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about here.

Since I don’t have a clue, what say you? As Byrne might sing, is he right? Is he wrong? Which artist-impresarios do you like? What responsibility does an artist, pop or otherwise, have to the scene from which she emerged? And why is the concept of the popular-artist-as-collective acceptable overseas, and not as much here?



RELATED: I’ve written about artists who cross boundaries and scenes before.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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2 Responses to Impresario chic

  1. brian says:

    Artist-impresarios? I’d like to see the Drive By Truckers hop up on some stage in New York City and kick Sonic Youth’s ass. But in seriousness, no wait, I am being serious. Which is probably why I enjoy folk art, and why I like Sonic Youth when they are seen actually as they are– as folk art. Or everything that surrounds the Drive By Truckers as Fine Art. If Gerhard Richter was about 20 years younger, I’d also like to see his ass get kicked too, by a drunken Wes Freed, and then lifted from the ground so he could be bought a boiler maker. Responsibility? I don’t think an artist’s art has responsibility to anything, as art can’t be made without the culture it grows out from.

  2. I wish I shared your enthusiasm for Drive-By Truckers but they’ve left me cold–all that pomo Southern Gothic/Skynyrd-retread just rubs me the wrong way, partly b/c I actually live in DBT’s chosen region instead of see it from an aesthetic distance, and partly b/c I suspect I (and others of my skin tone) might have my ass kicked at a DBT show for simply being there. But that’s all irrevelant–you should note that this dichotomy perhaps exists only in your mind, and the latent racism/condescension may exist only in mine: Robert Christgau loves both Sonic Youth and Drive-By Truckers.
    Anyway, can you clarify the “Sonic Youth as folk art” argument? Because, from my admittedly limited understanding of art terminology, Sonic Youth is as complete an antithesis to folk art as I can imagine. The band’s ALWAYS consciously drawn its roots from contemporary art scenes, bohemia, “high” art and museum canons, etc. If folk art is a term (a heavily contested term, but a term in use nonetheless) that denotes art/culture that derives outside of, and in the absence of, a traditional arts canon and academic/critical world, how on Earth can Sonic Youth be considered folk art? Explain.

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