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In a 1998 interview in the New York Times, David Bowie remarked on the prevalence of British musicians who went to art school:
You know, 25 years ago there were a whole crop of us that tried to drag all the arts together and create this potpourri, a kind of new essence for English music. It started even before us, in the mid-60s, when so many of our blues players and rhythm-and-blues bands came out of art school. In Britain, there was always this joke that you went to art school to learn to play blues guitar.
Bowie, who studied at Bromley School of Art in southeast London, belonged to a generation of kids who attended (and, in some cases, dropped out of) art school before becoming the pop and rock legends many of them are today. In his book How Art Made Pop and Pop Became Art, out from Tate Publishing, Mike Flowers Pop frontman and Chelsea College of Art alumnus Mike Roberts charts the evolution of this extraordinary reciprocal relationship between art schools and pop musicians from the early 1960s to the present day.
Art schools gave people like John Lennon, Keith Richards, Brian Ferry, Marc Bolan, and, of course, Bowie an alternative to the humdrum jobs that awaited many after high school. While they may have become musicians anyway, Roberts suggests that art school played a significant role in what kinds of musicians they became. He breaks down the influences these art school students absorbed, exploring how Gilbert and George inspired Kraftwerk’s “anti-romantic” aesthetic and how artists from the Independent Group not only influenced the art-school pop musicians but collaborated with them — famously, with Richard Hamilton’s cover for the Beatles’ White Album.
However, Roberts suggests it’s not just the influence of art movements that helped shape so many musicians in the second half of the 20th century. Art school introduced the romantic idea of the artist, impacting how these burgeoning musicians conceptualized themselves and their music. He quotes Paul Simonon of The Clash: “The Buzzcocks were very Mondrian, and we were Pollock.” Art school fostered for the idea that musicians were not merely entertainers but were also artists.
Throughout the book, Roberts proposes that a keen sense of self-awareness about artifice and ego is at the heart of art school pop’s creativity. This manifests in different forms: in the multiple personas of Bowie; in the albums of Roxy Music, which synthesized their broad and geeky knowledge of art history and pop music history into “vinyl-based dissertations”; in the winking humor and camp of Sha Na Na and the B-52s; and in the violent plundering of art pop’s own history, which Roberts describes as “Oedipal self-harming.”
One expression of this castigation is “Beatle-baiting,” a tendency of self-conscious bands to mock the ubiquity of the Beatles. He analyzes the work of the avant-pop band the Residents, whose 1974 debut album cover and title, Meet the Residents, parodied the Beatles’ second album. Roberts describes the Residents’ 1976 album The Third Reich and Roll as the pop-music equivalent of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 drawing “Erased de Kooning” for the album’s appropriation and annihilation of 1960s rock music through its “cover versions.” Such insights demonstrate the author’s skillful weaving of art history, music biography, and cultural commentary, which makes a study of various musical styles and genres spanning a half-century an easy, enjoyable read.
In addition to the innovative, world-shaping energy that art-school pop from the UK, US, and Europe brought about, Roberts also explores the unintended consequences of pop’s self-referential tendencies. Musicians began to see pop music as a “repository of historical pop culture” as opposed to a current, ever-evolving “cultural organism.” The reserve of readily available references led to pop’s increasingly nostalgic and backwards-facing character. Roberts suggests the art-school pop bands of the 1990s, such as Britpop bands Pulp and Blur, reacted to their feeling that music was “all about previously digested pop” by trying to “find humor in their inevitable recoupment.”
As we progress into the 21st century, Roberts posits that this historicization of pop has become a “museumification of pop.” Retrospective exhibitions and performance programs at museums, including Kraftwerk’s The Catalogue performances at the Tate Modern, the hugely popular exhibition David Bowie Is… organized by the Victoria and Albert, and Bjork at the Museum of Modern Art, saw the art world aggressively reclaiming pop as Art.
While Roberts is not the first to explore the relationship between pop and art schools (for example, Simon Frith and Howard Horne’s 1987 study Art Into Pop is a key text for Roberts), How Art Made Pop chronicles the phenomenon into the present day — closing with Lady Gaga’s Artpop and Jay Z’s art collecting — and its tone is less academic than Frith and Horne’s. I was surprised Kanye West didn’t get a name-check as someone who briefly attended the American Academy of Art, and whose self-image and approach to music is most definitely in the art-school pop mold. Nevertheless How Art Made Pop is an erudite and thoroughly engrossing book on a cultural exchange that played a pivotal role in creating pop culture as we know it.