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'Has It Come To This?': A Rational Conversation About Music In Museums

An image from <em>Björk</em>, a show presented by The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
An image from Björk, a show presented by The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writerEric Duckerin which he gets on the phone or instant messenger with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

When the Museum of Modern Art in New York openedBjörk, the mid-career retrospective of the Icelandic musician, in March, art critics roundly met it with condemnation and ridicule. They said it was unimaginative and uninformative, plus a total mess to even experience. The reverberations have continued, with Christian Viveros-Faunéwriting in ArtNet Newsthat MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach could and should lose his job over the show, and theWall Street Journal running a pieceabout the fallout where MoMA director Glenn Lowry seemingly admitted that the exhibition was kind of a whiff. This intensive reaction from the art world came as a bit of a surprise to some Björk fans who were kind of just stoked to be able to see some of her costumes and watch her videos on a giant screen.

TheBjörkexhibition came a few months afterDavid Bowie Is... closed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, while currently up at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles isKahlil Joseph: Double Conscience, which showcasesm.A.A.d.,the filmmaker's interpretation of Kendrick Lamar's albumgood kid, m.A.A.d. city. If more musician-related exhibitions come to major museums in the future, music listeners should know what they're stepping into. To figure out why art critics took such issue withBjörkand whether there were larger issues at play, Ducker spoke withDave Hickeyfrom his Santa Fe home. The 74-year-old Hickey has written extensively about fine art and music, including the essay collectionsAir Guitar andThe Invisible Dragon, and has taught at the University of New Mexico and the University of Nevada.

Can you give me some context as to why art people have such a problem with these museum shows centered around musicians?

The people at the museums who are doing this are old people. They are a bunch of old guys, many of them Canadians, who think, "Let's do something for the kids." I can't imagine what a kid would get out of that Björk exhibit, but I didn't get much.

I haven't seen theBjörk show, but I know people who went. A lot of them love Björk and they grew up listening to Björk, so they enjoyed being reminded why they love Björk, but I don't know if they came away with any deeper understanding of her work. I can't tell who that exhibition is for. Could it help people who don't know who Björk is at all? Is it for people who have passing interest in her? Or is it just a mess that doesn't really do anything for anybody?

They're pretending to be shooting for the kids, but they're actually just shooting for celebrities. The parties that open these things are not exactly full of kids from Queens, they're full of celebrities. [The museums] think celebrity is going to help a sustaining institution like the Museum of Modern Art, and I don't know how. One of the reasons they pick musicians is that you hear characters and museum people talk about P.O. "Does it have P.O.?" "Does it have good P.O.?" P.O. being "party opportunities." I'm sure Björkhad a lot of party opportunities. That's what they want, because that's who they serve.

Also, art isn't news any more. There are no major changes, there are no major groups. During the pop revolution and the minimalist revolution, there were basically two tribes: There was Andy [Warhol] and Roy [Lichtenstein] and Jasper [Johns] and Bob [Rauschenberg]; and over here there's Don Judd and Dan Flavin, etc., etc. And each tribe could see each other. They formed a center of affection. And I don't know what's going on now.

We no longer have, in any of the arts, a ritual of intellectual accreditation. In other words, I was an art critic for many years and I still write about art, but I'm not an art critic any more because the only people who get to fly to the Istanbul Biennial work for Rupert Murdoch or they work for the Times or they work for New York Magazine. I can't invest $5,000 in just finding out what the Istanbul Biennial has to say.

Is the issue with these 60-year-old guys that they just want to be cool?

I think the issue is that they're kind of going crazy. They've all reached that moment. I can remember when my grandfather started putting the car keys in the icebox, or he'd get up in the middle of the night and pee in the hall. It's like Alzheimer's. You get demented in that world, and I think this is a kind of dementia. To have Marina Abramovic having people go around in white robes, the last time I saw that was Paul Newman in Harper. There's no validation to all this cult s---.

Based on most of the reactions I've read from the art world, what I can't totally tell is whether the actual Björk exhibit is garbage or if the concept for the exhibit is garbage.

The concept was garbage and the execution was garbage too. I felt more sad than angry or trapped. I'm an old rock and roller and I felt like, "Has it come to this?"

Do you find the museums wholly accountable, or does some of the blame go on the musicians? Should they be saying, "I don't want to get wrapped up in whatever game you're playing?"

"I guess you just play the gig." That's the musical response that I have gotten. Björk recommends herself to the art world by virtue of having been the [partner] of Matthew Barney, who is the cosmically most pretentious artist in the entire world. This is a great museum with a great collection that they never put up. I can't imagine why you would do Björk, except to have people talking about it.

I'm just kind of mystified. Let's say I've got this Björk show or I want to put together a Björk show. Where am I going to put it? One good place would be the Museum of Natural History, another good place would be the Smithsonian. Why would you do it in the Museum of Modern Art in one of those big empty spaces you can't hang art in? That makes no sense to me whatsoever. That's why I've fallen back on dementia as my explanation. That problem is in the art world. The music world is just a clusterf---.

That's just what it is by nature.

In a positive way, which is why I prefer the music world. Also you have a problem in the art world that you don't have in the music world, which is the music world is not age segregated. I've played with 15-year-old bass players and 50-year-old drummers. It's just everybody in there in the mix. The art world is not like that. The art world is a status system. When I lived in New York, I could have told you everybody in town that was as famous as me, and everybody who was more famous or less famous. That's the way the art world works.

I went to MOCA in Los Angeles to see Kahlil Joseph's piece m.A.A.d. that is tied to Kendrick Lamar and his debut album good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Lamar is a very contemporary artist and this is an original piece, which seems like a better approach for museums if they want to be involved with musicians. But at the same time, the piece is all about Lamar's last album, which came out in 2012, and now he has a brand new album. So you have a museum doing something involving a musician when they're possibly at their most relevant, but even then the museum isn't quite with the times. The pace that museums move can seem glacial when compared to how fast the music world is operating right now.

Maybe these guys are reading too many issues of W magazine. We have reached one of those points in the art world where what you believe is what the last person you spoke to believes. There is no long-term vision at all.

Instead of doing a mid-career or career retrospectives, should museums be looking for someone who is doing something really exciting right now and not look back at what they've already done, but help them realize something new that want to do right now?

That would be more of what I would go to see. Going to Björk is like going to see a rerun. How many times do you want to go see a rerun? In Björk's case it's almost like a celebrity roast: "You thought you were so famous, we can make you look like s---."

I've always felt that the art world went terribly wrong when they scoffed at Tommy and Diamond Dogsand all those Kinks operas. Diamond Dogs [the tour] had a cherry picker in it, you know? I mean, Jesus Christ! You had a great age of reductive, puritanical minimalism in the '70s in the arts. What did you have in music? You had this great theatrical moment in the history of rock and roll. And I saw those shows and they were great. So you have the art world and the music world in two different positions.

You're saying that if the art world had embraced contemporary music earlier, then they'd be working in tandem rather than playing catch-up.

Exactly. But [the museums] were so bound up in minimalist ideology that they couldn't figure out a way to do it. Also the art world, by that time, was cocooned by foundations and the NEA and the MacArthur grants and the universities. There was this vast bureaucratic exoskeleton around the art world. The best thing I remember as a kid when I first started writing about art was that if it sucked, it would go away, but now you have all of these foundations and grants and everything to keep people who aren't any good still in the spotlight. The art world has become so structural and so academic and so institutional.

And now we have the pleasure of skateboarding bond traders buying up works that are not worth a dime. All of this stuff is a sign of panic in the art world. When I lived in New York back in the late '60s and early '70s, I could go to the Met every day and stand in front of something that I liked, by myself and with the guard, and then go home. You can't do that any more.

Because it's too expensive?

Yeah. Whereas, I've walked into bars around here and heard pretty good bands, if you don't mind the accordion. If I have a guitar player who can't play, I say, "Go home and practice." Now if I have an artist who is putting out s---, what does he say? "I was going for that really s---ty look." There's no system of weeding out all of this crap and it's all so heavily invested with tons of money. I have nothing against money, but at the same time, my mentor always said, "The ideal art market is where what it's worth is how good is." And that's no longer the case.

What's going to be the aftermath of these shows? Even if the Björk show is financially successful, after the amount of flack they've taken, are the people at the MoMA going to say, "Our egos can't take another hit like this."

Because the guys who are doing this are so old, they are going to die and there's a lot of kids out there who have better ideas. There's not a risk in putting up Björk show, there's a built in audience who is willing go. These aren't picks that will really challenge people. All this Björk s--- and David Bowie, it's not important. You want to do something important. You want Allen Toussaint. You want a f---ing genius. And Allen has the sense to keep to himself.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Ducker