Sound and Flurry (on ART OF MUSIC VIDEO)

The following article appeared in the February 23, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

ART OF MUSIC VIDEO

For people like myself who have conflicted feelings about music videos as an art form, the four-part series Art of Music Video—playing for the second time at the Film Center this weekend—offers lots of material to consider. Even so, this presentation of a hundred videos assembled by Michael Nash of the Long Beach Museum of Art involves a number of curatorial decisions that I have problems with. Before considering the videos themselves, let me list these problems; some of them are overlapping rather than consecutive, but putting them in list form will help to give some idea of how many boats this particular series is missing:

(1) Historical. Although Nash’s selection is media-specific—that is, generally limited to videos—one of his four programs, “Vanguard Re-visions,” has a subcategory called “Experimental Film: Invention and Intervention,” consisting of films made by Bruce Conner, James Herbert, and Jem Cohen between 1961 and 1989.

While I have no quarrel with the inclusion of these figures, it’s clear that this attempt to give a foreshortened art-history perspective rules out a lot more of the history of music videos and their precursors than it includes. Perhaps the major absence here is Oskar Fischinger, the extraordinary German animator who made remarkable abstract films with music from the 1930s to the ’50s; musically oriented animators such as Norman McLaren and Harry Smith should have been included as well.

And moving beyond the boundaries of so-called high art, what about the Soundies and Scopitone, the obvious forerunners of music videos, which are not only excluded but unmentioned in Nash’s catalog? Soundies were short black-and-white films produced during World War II and exhibited on tiny screens in jukeboxes; some were merely straight performances, but many others had fully articulated narratives to go with the tunes. Scopitone was a similar system developed in Europe about 20 years later that generally employed color and larger screens. The style, the form, and the very concept of music videos have their roots in Soundies and Scopitone, but as far as this series is concerned, neither of them ever existed.

(2) Geographical. The series is called “Art of Music Video,” not “Art of American Music Video,” but if you’re curious about what’s happening elsewhere, forget it. To be fair, there are a few English videos, one Australian video, and another that is French, but these appear to have sneaked in by mistake; there’s certainly no pretense that these few exceptions are intended to somehow represent the wealth of foreign material that’s not even being considered.

Obviously, this gaping hole in the collection is a matter of expediency, but I’d be a lot happier if Nash had bothered to point this out. The degree to which non-American culture is routinely ignored in this country seems to grow every year, and succumbing to this xenophobic bias without acknowledgment also seems to be routine practice, which doesn’t make it any more excusable. Even with my own minimal acquaintance with non-American music videos, I’m rather astonished that a major English figure like Julien Temple— who directs many of the Rolling Stones’ videos and whose related musical inventions can be seen in his features Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy—is completely unrepresented. (I’m less astonished that the rock videos Raul Ruiz incorporated into his rarely seen 1984 feature Régime sans pain are omitted, because they clearly aren’t even in the running.)

The series makes a few random stabs at seeming “international” by including excerpts from a documentary about Soviet rock by Ken Thurlbeck and a fascinating abstract piece done in Japan by two American artists (Kit Fitzgerald and Paul Garrin) working with the Japanese musician-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. But it’s not the same as showing in any general way what music videos are like elsewhere in the world.

(3) Musical. For Nash, apparently, “music” is synonymous with “rock,” so there’s no jazz here, no classical music or opera (apart from an electronic reworking of Wagner), and practically no pop music other than rock. To be fair, he does sneak in a bit of new music here and there, most of which is electronic, and this provides welcome relief from the rhythmic and harmonic monotony. (If he had let any jazz creep through, he might have included Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton’s sensationally rendered Miles Davis video, Decoy, or Norman McLaren’s dazzling 1949 film collaboration with Oscar Peterson, Begone Dull Care.)

The problem is there’s not a whole lot going on in rock that’s musically interesting. It also appears that musical quality hasn’t figured at all in the criteria for selections: bad rock is apparently just as valuable as good rock, if the visuals are sufficiently fancy.

(4) Visual. This brings us to the issue of whether fancy images are necessarily better than simple ones when it comes to music videos. In this area, Nash has tried hard to make his selection varied and even comprehensive, but when push comes to shove, it’s generally the pile-driver montage extravaganzas that get most of the attention. In keeping with this bias, the more technologically assertive these videos are, the more Nash seems to like them. It’s the kind of aesthetics espoused by the film industry in relation to special effects when Oscar time rolls around: ugly sound plus ugly image crossed with nifty technology—the sort of dynamic trio that you can usually find behind the credits of a James Bond movie—is somehow supposed to add up to state-of-the-art, which usually means cost-of-the-equipment.

(5) Range of selection. To round out my list of gripes: Nash saw around 500 music videos, from which he chose the hundred included in the series. A ratio of five to one might not seem too bad, unless you consider the fact, cited by Nash, that “approximately 2,000 clips” are produced each year “for over one hundred programs and networks.” (I assume that by “programs and networks,” Nash means exclusively those in the U.S.; as noted above, the rest of the world isn’t supposed to count.)

A generally held aesthetic principle in Hollywood is that movie scores are supposed to be felt, not heard— a bit like surgery under anesthesia. Music videos aren’t literally the reverse of this, but it nevertheless might be argued that they usually proceed in the opposite direction: the music, not the visuals, furnishes the main text, and the most and the best that the images are expected to do is provide a sort of obbligato.

The first program in the series, “Audio Auteurs,” illustrates this point with a vengeance. The three subsections in this program are “Rock Visionaries” (David Bowie, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel), “Audio/Visual Concept Bands” (Devo, the Residents, the The), and “Performance Crossovers” (Laurie Anderson, David Van Tieghem); one reason I prefer the third category to the previous two is that Anderson and Van Tieghem clearly view their techniques as means toward specific and graspable thematic ends. After the onslaught provided by their predecessors in the program, one begins to appreciate minimalism simply as a form of clarity.

Bowie, Byrne, and Gabriel may deserve to be regarded as “rock visionaries,” but if these videos are anything to go by, they’re about as visionary as the “Ford Revolution” was revolutionary. The earliest Bowie video included, Boys Keep Swinging (1979), has some modest sense of proportion and even a theme (cross dressing), but the scattershot, overkill effects that predominate in his other videos and in Byrne’s and Gabriel’s seem to aim mainly for indiscriminate density—filling the frame with anything and everything and not allowing any of it to linger or matter.

There’s something resembling a narrative in Devo’s In the Beginning Was the End (Secret Agent Man and Jocko Homo), directed by Chuck Statler in 1977, albeit not a very interesting one; but even this eventually gets overtaken by surreal interjections. A similar process seems at work in Byrne’s Burning Down the House (1983) and Gabriel’s Shock the Monkey (1982): a good if simple idea gets delineated, but the video artists can’t leave it alone, forcing in so many show-off digressions that everything eventually collapses into affectless incoherence.

The usual idea—expressed most literally in Devo’s 1981 Love Without Anger—is that whatever the stated theme happens to be, if somebody suddenly turns up in a chicken suit for no reason at all, it’s got to be real hip. (Judging from his art-crit babble in the catalog, Nash seems to agree, after a fashion: “In Gabriel’s tapes, the divorce of action and dream becomes a nightmare of cyclical repetitions and “mediafied’ memory, as humanity’s loss of instinct and anima is seen through a series of persona projections and ritualistic self-confrontations.” But if it were up to me, I’d simply say that Shock the Monkey is self-referential, full of eye-catching but self-canceling effects, and edited pretty well to the simple beat of the music, to little avail.)

The second program, “Ad Art,” includes the subsections “Pop Deconstruction,” “Media Arts Inroads,” and “Directors Showcase.” The best in the first bunch is probably C’est comme ça (1987) by Les Rita Mitsouko (the same group seen rehearsing periodically throughout Godard’s last feature, Soigne ta droite), directed by Jean Baptiste Mondino. Like the videos by Anderson and Van Tieghem, it scales down its ideas and effects for bite-size consumption (most of the images are seen on an old-fashioned TV set with a rounded screen, which is being watched by a chimpanzee), in contrast to the customary visual overload of Fishbone’s ?(Modern Industry) (1985), a video about rapping disc jockeys, which follows. Some others in this set are conceptually audacious but not much else: Christmas’s Stupid Kids (1989) offers a script for an imaginary video—parodically overblown—rolling past multiple exposures of the band that are totally uninteresting; the Replacements’ Hold My Life (1986) parodies the minimalist alternatives to the overblown models by holding for its entire duration on a stereo playing the record.

The worst parts of this program are undoubtedly those that reek the most of “art”: especially the ugly colorization of an edited-down version of Buñuel and Dali’s Un chien andalou by G. Brotmeyer—the sort of stupid, tacky vandalism that would be offensive anywhere but is unspeakable in a program called “Art of Music Video”—and the square piety of Paul Simon’s Réné and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War (1984), directed by Joan Logue, which is light-years away from the elegance of a single Magritte painting, and never even allows us to see a single Magritte painting undistorted.

Much better are a couple of animations (Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton with music by Elvis Costello, Olive Jar with music by Grandmaster Flash), and better still are three live-action videos by Robert Longo, all of which manage to cope with the overload principle through formal and thematic coherence. The object lesson in this trio is Megadeth’s Peace Sells, but Who’s Buying? (1986), which presents almost a thousand cuts in a little over four minutes without ever giving the impression—a frequent one in the videos of Byrne and Devo—that a garbage can is being emptied onto your head. There’s also a conceptually interesting and technically adroit reading of John Lennon’s Imagine by Zbigniew Rybczynski as a life moving through an endless succession of adjoining rooms, followed by a single, nonstop lateral tracking shot.

“Unseen Music,” the third program, is devoted to independent work, and includes something Nash calls “Agit Pop,” as well as the subsections “Spoken Words,” “Rock as Revolution,” “The New Underground Film,” “Concept EP,” “Reverse Crossover,” and “Directors Showcase” (Kurt Kellison and Nigel Grierson). “Agit Pop” addresses the question of whether music videos can be political–raised more pointedly elsewhere in the series by such videos as Jem Cohen’s Talk About the Passion (about the homeless) and an excerpt from Tony Cokes’s powerful and provocative Black Celebration (about the 60s ghetto riots)–without shedding too much light on the matter. (How much interest is there in Black Flag’s Henry Rollins urging us not to drink and drive?) Nash opines in the catalog, “Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of independent production is its political and social commentary, subordinating formal concerns to clarity and conviction.” This assumes, of course, that formal concerns are somehow opposed to either clarity or conviction—a notion that most of “Art of Music Video” unfortunately illustrates, but which is less true in much of the world outside it. It also seems to be a tactful way of saying that the seven so-called “Agit Pop” videos aren’t formally interesting, which is basically true. The problem is, they aren’t politically interesting either.

The final program in the series, “Vanguard Re-visions,” is in many ways the most captivating. I can’t say, however, that all of the best work here necessarily or invariably enhances the music; in the case of James Herbert’s Left of Reckoning (1984), which uses music by R.E.M., it actually works better without the music. (Watching this on tape, I was able to test this premise; to do the same thing at the Film Center, you’ll have to use earplugs.)

For me, the most exciting video in this program—apart from the aforementioned collaboration of Kit Fitzgerald and Paul Garrin with Ryuichi Sakamoto called Adelic Penguins—is Bob Snyder’s Hard and Flexible Music (1988), one of the very few videos directed by the musician and composer. Significantly, the images as well as the music in this video are both hard and flexible, a split that’s expressed visually in terms of urban architecture versus softer textures in nature (smoke, leaves, drops of water) and aurally in terms of contrasting and blending sound textures in the music. (It’s not all a matter of dialectics, however; at times, patterns resembling transistor radio circuits overlap both kinds of images, and there are comparable ambiguous crossovers in the music.) For once, we have a video in which neither sound nor image predominates; the two work together without any bullying on either side. It’s a kind of peaceful but creative coexistence that also figures in Carole Ann Klonarides and Michael Owen’s Cascade: Vertical Landscapes (1988), which uses music by Christian Marclay and a lovely series of downward camera movements across stretches of urban architecture that are allowed to sing both with and against Marclay’s music.

After sitting through nearly eight hours of these videos, I happened to stumble by chance upon the last half of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation on MTV: nothing special, just a nicely choreographed, crisply and inventively edited video in black and white and ‘Scope. But it made me aware of the kind of everyday entertainment virtues that are missing from “Art of Music Video,” a somewhat pretentious assembly of selections that excludes the kind of art that won’t end up in museums. Like the false complexity of the overloaded videos, Nash’s selection doesn’t give you the whole story: the relative absence of good, clean dancing in these tapes is perhaps even more unfortunate than the total absence of jazz. But at least you become aware of some intriguing possibilities kicking around in this limited form, and in that respect the series performs a welcome service.

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Letter to the Editor (published in the Chicago Reader on May 4, 1990):

To the editors:
While I am flattered to have received so much personal attention in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of the Art of Music Video (February 23)–a nationally touring program I organized that was presented by The Film Center–and find much to consider in it, I am also reminded of a line from Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories: “Intellectuals are like the Mafia, they only kill their own.” Actually, I feel like Rosenbaum shot himself in the foot in an awkward episode of friendly fire. Despite his list of the five “boats this particular series is missing,” his criticisms don’t constitute a meaningful critical position with respect to Art of Music Video, many of them are surprisingly shallow for such a perspicacious writer and a few of them     are embarrassingly misdirected.
Rosenbaum’s critique mirrors one of his principal criticisms of music video as profiled in the program: he forces in “so many show-off digressions that everything eventually collapses into . . . incoherence.” Rosenbaum is quick to demonstrate his knowledge of the field in terms of the program’s “omissions,”     while failing to offer a genuinely comparative perspective, one that would assess how other selections   would make for better coverage of the subject. I think this is primarily because he fails to understand       the intention of the series and the basis of music video; music video, as a cultural category that has achieved a prominent identity, is rooted in rock music, with which he clearly has problems. But, this is       the cultural fact from which any meaningful critical overview must begin and then depart. The primary points of departure this selection chooses are some interesting intersections provided by media art as a specific area of activity. The effort to provide an inventory of media arts influences necessarily emphasizes experimental visualization and neglects certain areas of music and culture, not as “a matter of expediency,” but for the sake of clarity.
Rosenbaum finds fault for not including Fischinger, McLaren, Soundies and Scopitones. In the first two instances, the inclusion of contemporary examples of visual music is ignored by Rosenbaum, but this line of analysis just barely begins to beg the real question. Why not include Busby Berkeley musicals, Richard Lester Beatles films, Bugs Bunny cartoons, Monkees episodes, Snader Telescriptions or opera? All have their historical significance. The reason is that this is a survey of 100 videos—intended to actually be viewed by an audience in standard program blocks rather than listed as titles—focusing on the history, present      and future of music video as a specific cultural category related to media art. For the sake of argument      and critical inquiry that history can be usefully pinpointed as beginning in the media art world with Bruce Conner’s Cosmic Ray, the first collage film cut to a pop song, made in 1961, and beginning in the audio    art world with The Residents’ Vileness Fats project, initiated in 1972, the first audio-visual concept work by recording artists shot on video. These are useful demarcations because they yield coherent formal distinctions that define the principal tributaries of music video per se, delineate aspects of the form that constitute artistic practice and result in the inclusion of most of the good work of which I am aware.

Most of his suggested alternatives are inferior to similar work included in the show, would dilute the curatorial agenda or would simply constitute another show. He thinks there should be a Julien Temple   video, without mentioning which one; the most experimental clip by this fairly mainstream director is Bowie’s Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, and there are a half-dozen more interesting and historically significant Bowie clips including the three presented in Art of Music Video. He singles out Harry Smith’s work as a telling omission; Smith’s work is great, but to call it “musically oriented” and therefore indispensable is     not only ridiculously reductive, but applying this standard also opens up for inclusion a huge body of   merely related experimental and narrative film and television that couldn’t possibly make for a coherent      or manageable overview of music video. He finds that there are so few non-American videos that “these appear to have sneaked in by mistake.” Rosenbaum should have been guided by his own admission that     his “acquaintance with non-American music videos” is “minimal” and shouldn’t have pretended he had     any idea what nationalities were represented, because here he is laughably wrong. Nearly one-third of the music videos involve a recording artist or director from another country (often both are), and many of them are English, precisely the “omission” he singles out. In any case, music video is, for better or worse, substantially grounded in the American record industry. Having nailed this territory down, maybe next     time around I’ll structure part of the presentation as an international sampler. But since when is it a significant criticism of a given selection of work that another selection of work would also be interesting? The festival makes no claim to being totally comprehensive, just the most comprehensive such survey organized by a museum, and it is. Rosenbaum’s “guilt-by-dissociation” strategy is an example of the lack of meaningful comparative perspective mentioned above. The overview that would lend integrality to his observations is simply missing.

By taking so many scattered shots at the program, his assessments tend to be “self-cancelling.” For example, he laments the “customary visual overload of Fishbone’s ? (Modern Industry)” and harps on this tendency in a number of other tapes, while praising Robert Longo’s maniacally frenetic works. Longo’s clips are obviously the heaviest “pile-driver montage extravaganzas” in the show—his Megadeth video contains nearly 1,000 edits—and Rosenbaum merely dismisses the blatant contradiction with the casual assessment that Longo “cope[s] with the overload principle through formal and thematic coherence,”   without any indication of what constitutes that coherence. I don’t disagree with him with respect to      Longo, but since “coherence” is the crux of his distinction between the success of this work and the    failures of Fishbone’s, DEVO’s, Peter Gabriel’s and David Byrne’s, one would think it essential to provide a few coherent words describing the unique focus in Longo’s work that makes for the crucial difference.     This lack of specifics characterizes his dismissal of much of the program. Apparently opinionated-    modifier babble is held to be preferable to the “art-crit babble” he ridicules because it doesn’t offer any aesthetic analysis that can be objectively challenged.
Two of his objections make the shallowness of his dismissal of the series particularly clear. Rosenbaum writes, “The worst parts of this program are undoubtedly those that reek the most of ‘art’: especially the   ugly colorization of Buñuel and Dali’s Un chien andalou by G. Brotmeyer–the sort of stupid, tacky vandalism that would be offensive anywhere but is unspeakable in a program called Art of Music Video . . .” How could Rosenbaum possibly miss the fact that this MTV Art Break is lampooning the Ted Turner “colorize-it-if-it’s-a-classic” mentality with comically grotesque pigmentation, or that it is a commentary on the commodification of media art in contemporary culture? Rosenbaum’s reaction is Brotmeyer’s point, and if anything, the tape can be accused of being a little too obvious. Somebody wake up the critic.

In the last of his list of five curatorial sins, Rosenbaum offers his most “technical” complaint: I only   watched 500 tapes to come up with my selections, and therefore am not qualified to have selected this survey from a form that generates 2,000 videos a year. There are the obvious “boomerang” implications of Rosenbaum making criticisms that depend on him having a broader perspective when there is every indication that he has seen less work; and there is also the fact that in some ways a version of this    criticism applies to any programmer; but, the real idiocy of this position is its myopic rush to judgment. I told an interviewer, in an article included in the press kit that Rosenbaum apparently read (he never spoke with me), that I had considered around 500 tapes for inclusion in this exhibition. That’s about right for the period from February through July of 1989. Add to that well over 100 hours monitoring MTV and related television programs during that time, and a significant portion of five years in research connected to    writing criticism, organizing exhibitions or producing television programming specifically related to music video. All researchers proceed somewhat on intuition, and in addition to the quantity of work seen, I have a strong sense of where to look for creative work. I talk to dozens of contacts in the field and I have a pretty good hunch that it’s not essential to watch every Bon Jovi or Richard Marx video to catch the good stuff.     So, the approximately 500 tapes I formally considered were comprehensively pre-selected. By any     standard, this was an ambitious undertaking, the largest survey of its kind organized by an arts institution to date; by comparison, The Museum of Modern Art’s excellent music video survey contained less than     half as much work. Rosenbaum’s facile use of such a specious argument as a major criticism of the program’s scope is a rather obvious indication of his eagerness to disparage Art of Music Video. That     he resorts to a quantitative indictment confirms his insecurity about the lack of substance behind his judgments.

Rigorous criticism of media art is desperately needed and always welcome. However, Rosenbaum ultimately thinks too much of his own opinions and knowledge of the field to take the exhibition, the artists’ work or his own readership seriously. We all deserve more from critics than self-congratulation.

This is the first letter I have ever written to a publication in response to a negative review of an exhibition with which I was affiliated. I appreciate the Reader‘s independence and integrity, and I have respected Rosenbaum’s writing, but this review absolutely demanded a response.
Michael Nash
Media Arts Curator
Long Beach Museum of Art
Long Beach, California

Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:
I don’t see much difference between G. Brotmeyer’s “comically grotesque pigmentation” and Ted Turner’s, and, given Mr. Nash’s perspective, I suppose that Turner’s upcoming colorization of The Magnificent Ambersons could be celebrated in postmodernist terms as “a commentary on the commodification of media art in contemporary culture.” I’m sorry that I got wrong how many music videos Mr. Nash looked at to select his touring show. I’m also sorry that he got wrong my ignoring “contemporary examples of visual music” in my admittedly rather breezy survey. And I regret that he makes no distinction between what I said about the show and what I said about the catalog; while I can understand, for instance, his reasons for omitting soundies and Scopitone in the show, I still can’t understand why they go unmentioned in his catalog.

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