July 5, 2016
by Nikki LoPinto
Mark Mothersbaugh has created more than 30,000 post-card sized drawings and collages. His music production company, Mutato Musika, has scored hundreds of films, television shows, and commercials, including Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and Paul Reuben’s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. He also makes rug art. He is an artist, a musician, a writer, and an inventor. It is difficult to categorize Mothersbaugh, though most people synthesize his diverse career under his most famous work, the art band DEVO.
This popular band arose from the tragedy of the infamous shootings at Kent State in May 1970, when the Ohio National Guard killed four and injured nine students protesting America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The Kent State Massacre bolstered the already burgeoning national outrage against the war. Hundreds of universities and high schools shut down to quell a nationwide student strike. With the Kent State campus closed for six weeks, Mark Mothersbaugh and fellow student Gerald Casale collaborated on an art project: DEVO.
Described by Mothersbaugh as “Flintstones meets Jetsons,” DEVO was created by him and Casale in order to explore their concept of de-evolution: the theory (strengthened in the aftermath of the Kent State massacre) that instead of evolving, mankind is actually regressing, or devolving. DEVO explored its thematic purpose through a variety of media, including lyrics, musical composition, avant-garde costume, and alter ego such as Mothersbaugh’s Booji Boy.
Arriving at the Grey Art Gallery in May 2016 to begin my summer internship, I was perusing the Grey’s advance exhibition schedule and discovered that Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia is one of the gallery’s upcoming shows. I immediately grabbed the exhibition catalogue of the same name, edited by Adam Lerner. Mothersbaugh’s cheeky, comical art appealed greatly to my sensibilities, though I was most strongly drawn to his band, DEVO.
I set out to find more avant-garde alter-ego rockers who resembled DEVO. The use of avant-garde costume and alter ego in rock music is not uncommon; I researched sixteen solo acts and bands that fit the mold and found quotes that underscored their interest in the avant-garde. At first glance, Mothersbaugh and DEVO are unique in comparison with the other musicians I found; most of the others were not responsible for their own ideas, did not construct their own costumes, and used alter ego as a shallow gimmick or one-time trick. To me, DEVO demonstrated a sense of purpose in every decision; soloists like Miley Cyrus wear costumes because they believe, “It’s funny to see people try to look [them] in the eye.”
When I took a second, deeper look at these other performers, however, my conclusions changed: some bands bear striking similarities to DEVO. Klaus Nomi, for example, whose act exuded an air of otherworldliness; known for his eccentric makeup and costume (described by some as a “Kabuki robot”) and penchant for singing pop songs operatically with his countertenor voice, he wanted people to think he was from another planet, an alien from outer space. Nomi performed in the same era as DEVO, and was considered to be more performance artist than pop star.
Another act whose connection to DEVO surprised me was Marilyn Manson. Marilyn Manson is artist, actor, and journalist Brian Warner’s alter-ego, the monster to his Frankenstein. Instead of exploring a global theme, like de-evolution, Manson focuses his music on personal shortcomings, fears, and opinions. He rejects the commercialism of rock stardom, and has said that his “decisions are based on art … [and he’s] not going to sell [himself] out anymore.” DEVO had a similar motto in regards to their relationship with Warner Brothers, their record label. After the success of “Whip It,” the company pushed for more hits; in retaliation, Mothersbaugh and the band decided to sign John Hinckley Jr.—the man who shot President Ronald Reagan in a misguided attempt to impress Jodie Foster—saying they wanted to make lyrics out of his love poems.
After finding these similarities, I began to look for more patterns. Acts like Klaus Nomi, DEVO, and Marilyn Manson lean toward abstraction, while other avant-garde performers, like the animated band Gorillaz, and singer-songwriters Tori Amos and Bjork, share a penchant for narrative. For each album Bjork releases, for example, she curates new universes, characters, and sounds.
I soon saw this essay becoming more complex than I initially planned; I now had enough evidence to argue a position on these comparisons. I shifted to hypothesizing a new conclusion: what acts could be considered performance art? I must now admit that at that point I had a rather narrow definition of what performance art could be; I thought only DEVO and Klaus Nomi were worthy of the term because they had been written about by art historians and art critics.
To gain a better understanding of the practice, I read RoseLee Goldberg’s book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (Thames & Hudson, World of Art). After taking in her chapter on performance artists who created art purely to entertain, I was uncertain as to whether I could or could not call all the musicians on my list – from Elvis, to KISS, to St. Vincent – performance artists in their own right.
Writing this essay has been a lesson in the pitfalls of categorization. My notions about what makes a band avant-garde are no longer so simplistic; I have come to realize under the right circumstances a band’s lack of meaning may be purposeful. Art, or being an artist, is a loosely circumscribed activity, to say the least.
In the course of researching this essay, I was drawn to the case of Lady Gaga. In an article in The Guardian newspaper, “Pop star or avant-garde artist? Lady Gaga wants to be the next Warhol,” Vanessa Thorpe reports on the unresolved debate over Gaga’s position in the music world. Thorpe quotes Terence Koh, Spencer Tunick, Jeremy Deller, Camille Paglia, and even Marina Abramovic, all weighing in to either defend or criticize Gaga’s “artistic credentials.” Whether or not she is an artist is a matter of opinion; the case of Lady Gaga demonstrates that it is not easy to define contemporary art.
As I arrive at this conclusion, I look back on how appropriate it is that it was Mark Mothersbaugh who first sparked my curiosity and inspired me to write this piece. He is, after all, a kind of patron saint of diverse art practices.