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Art of Music Video



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 Bunuel 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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