DO YOU WANT NEW WAVE, or do you want the truth? So asked the punk band Minutemen in 1984--and the verdict is still out, especially in art. The prominence of pop music in recent art, from rock and punk to noise, techno, and hip-hop, is one of the most ambiguous developments of the past five years. Music figures centrally in the practices of significant and established contemporary artists such as Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, and Rodney Graham. It is a conspicuous influence for artists otherwise as disparate as Elizabeth Peyton, Jeremy Blake, and Nick Relph and Oliver Payne. It is employed as semiotics, performance, metaphor, structure, sound track, attitude, and target. Within the past two years alone, a slew of museum exhibitions have expressed art's new interest in pop. from "Sonic Process" at the Centre Georges Pompidou and "Rock My World" at the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco to surveys of work by Christian Marclay and Patti Smith to the New Museum of Contemporary Art's homage to Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti. But zeitgeists are messy and often transcend institutions' ability to reflect them. Beyond the museum, art is now scattered with new categories: artists who play in bands (or in groups that function like them); bands posed as art projects; artists working with sound; musicians making installations; and art that works on pop music's codes and mass memory.
Discerning the manifestations of this hydra-headed beast requires first seeing through the thematization or illustration of pop music one now experiences in works by, for example, Dario Robleto or Fischerspooner--to mention only two artists who seem to take pop's glittery subjectivity and hot-wired style as ends in themselves. The reassembly of pop signification this work hinges on (the beat, the hairstyle, the album cover, the stage move), while perhaps making Robleto's installations or Fischerspooner's performances more legible to audiences already familiar with these kinds of objectifications from music itself, does little to distinguish their art from its object, celebrating pop as an endlessly configurable set of codes with no history save nostalgia. One would do well to remember that pop music has been synonymous with cultural and technical miscegenation--mixing and scratching--from its inception in the nineteenth century. At our late moment in the appropriationist arc of postmodernism, in which memory can be synthesized with the drop of a needle or the flick of a mic, the need to make a few contextual distinctions about art's relationship to pop music is pressing, to say the least.
Pop music is most interesting in art when it enables contradictions specific to art itself, rather than simply providing art with a new palatability, theme, or style. For a first distinction, witness the rise of the band as a disaffirmative artistic model. At the moment, actual art bands have never fared better. Buoyed by the widespread "return" to rock, with its distorted nostalgia for the '80s motifs of pastiche and punk, groups such as Black Dice, Angelblood, and A.R.E. Weapons have gone from playing galleries and demimonde gatherings to releasing albums, touring, and finding niches in the commercial music landscape. More complicated, however, is the band metaphor seen in the recent crop of youth-oriented art collectives like Forcefield, Space 1026, and the Royal Art Lodge--or in the scenes around Scott Hug's K48' zine in New York or Barry McGee and Chris Johanson in San Francisco. Seemingly in defiance of the academization and professionalization of so much art in the '90s and symptomatic of the broader artistic turn away from theory, such groups have cohered around a renewed aestheticism directly connected to youth and music culture: cartooning, graffiti, skateboarding, DJing, psychedelia, and club fashion. If the street or bedroom subjectivity of these aesthetics suggests an outsider take …