“Hey, make something hip for us!”
Jörg Heiser Talks about Art and Pop Music

When artists become pop stars and rappers performance artists: In his new book “Doppelleben” (Double Life), Jörg Heiser investigates the crossover between art and pop music since Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono. The result is not only a meticulously researched genealogy, but also a critical homage to pop. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf spoke to the author.
In your book “Double Lives,” you investigate a phenomenon that began in the 1960s—hybrid careers between art and pop music, with artists like Yoko Ono asserting themselves on the music scene in a highly professional way and musicians like Kraftwerk establishing themselves in an art context.

My book traces a kind of genealogy of this development. It’s organized into four chapters. The first is about Andy Warhol’s cooperation with The Velvet Underground, the second Yoko Ono and John Lennon. These are the protagonists I used to investigate the founding moments of this double life in art and music, so to speak. The third chapter is mainly dedicated to Dusseldorf in the ’60s and ’80s. This “Germany chapter” addresses a kind of missing simultaneity. It’s amazing that while many krautrock bands of the 1960s were very open to art, they didn’t forge the closer connections to it that developed in the 1980s, with artists like Markus Oehlen and Michaela Melián. The fourth and final chapter is on electronics and bodies. These constellations emerged from the course of my research.

Which took almost fifteen years, didn’t it?

Yes, but this had the advantage that I was forced to take newer developments into consideration. Things have completely reversed over the past 15 years: now it’s the music industry that finds itself in a deep crisis as a result of the download and streaming culture, while art has undergone an unprecedented boom, even though it’s only a certain section of the art world that profits from it. I had to reflect on this too, of course.

You painstakingly researched these historical developments. The chapter on the way Warhol and The Velvet Underground were intertwined actually reads like a detective story. At the same time, “Double Lives” is anything but a celebration of the symbiosis of art and pop á la “anything goes.” On the contrary. You demand that artists reserve the express right to connect the areas of music and art at certain points, and not at others. Why is this so important?

Because you have to guard yourself against the exploitation of pop music and art for purely economic reasons. People keep claiming that all the walls have come down, that there’s a continuum between the various different arts. This is a strange fantasy of autonomy in dealing with an array of different contexts that repeatedly fails when it’s confronted with reality. At the very latest since the late ’90s, and then increasingly in the 2000s, there’s this push for the museum event, this invocation of large public spaces where a kind of worldliness and entertainment quality are orchestrated and, to put it bluntly, where artists and musicians are turned into fools, to certain degree. They’re supposed to deliver background sound, a lifestyle feeling so that the people who consume this stuff somehow feel hip. I can perfectly well understand it when people don’t want to subject themselves to all this.

At the same time,  Double Lives also makes it clear how subversive and political it once was to overcome the separation between art and pop.

Yes, with The Velvet Underground Warhol was shooting for more than just a little expedition into pop music. He was a highly conscious producer, and especially around 1966 he was very closely involved with the band and organized things with them, tours and so on. I was especially interested in the connection that took place here, because Warhol incorporated the press in his approach to all kinds of contexts, for instance with the film industry, or later with his Interview magazine. He published a book titled a. A Novel. He left no stone unturned. I’m fascinated by this artistic attempt to succeed in another context, but on his own conditions.

Where does this urge come from?

Certainly, it’s also about being frustrated with the conditions of production you’re faced with. Another example is the British artist’s group COUM Transmissions that went on stage for the first time in 1976 at the ICA in London as the band Throbbing Gristle, and then moved out of the art context. They were a fairly extreme artists’ group, noticeably influenced by the Viennese actionists, who were known for their radical performances. Similarly to Warhol, they were interested in certain notions of transgression, of bringing other images of gender and sexuality into art and turning against the consensus culture of the beautiful and civilized. Instead of keeping themselves afloat with another Art Council grant and performing for a fairly small art public, as the band Throbbing Gristle they tied this goal to the principle of pop music. They said they were now starting their own label, making records, putting on concerts, connecting to the subculture that exists in music, but under their own conditions, and with their own aesthetic.

Which was militant. Throbbing Gristle are considered pioneers of Industrial Music. Their concerts were like electronic thunderstorms, in which the group showed films of vasectomies, sang about the ritual murders of the Manson family, flirted with Nazi symbols, and performed in uniform. They printed pictures of concentration camps and cans of Cyclone B on their record covers. And at the same time, they wrote pieces you could dance to, with riffs on disco and ABBA.

For the world of music, it came as a shock. You can’t really imagine it today. In 1976, when they arrived on the scene, Demis Roussos was at the top of the English charts. This was shortly before the Sex Pistols became famous. I’m interested in these cases, where artists and musicians dare to take a step into another area altogether, beyond a mere “flirt,” to establish themselves “professionally,” to make records or put on exhibitions in galleries.

The professionalism with which these “double lives” are lived today has a totally different taste than it did at that time. A pop star like Lady Gaga borrows the shock aesthetics of the legendary performance artist Leigh Bowery or has her cover designed by Jeff Koons. We always act as though this is a “bold” or “artistic” step, but the crossover between art and music has become a common component of mass culture.

In the performance by Jay Z and Marina Abramović, which is accompanied by a nine-minute pop video that has been clicked on millions of times on the Internet, the combination of different arts is merely a banal marketing strategy. You borrow a certain aura to stand out on the market. With Jay Z, this means, okay, I’m no longer the underdog, but a rich hip hop mogul who raps about how his daughter can lean on Basquiat in the kitchen, if she wants to, which is actually quite charming. But when he stands on a gray sculpture base and raps, that’s not very charming. A Benneton-like jointly curated series of artists, musicians, and film producers who are said to admire him parade past the rapper. The highlight is when Marina Abramović comes and rubs her forehead against his, as though in this way she can rub off the saint’s aura. At the end of the video, Abramović says she thinks the crossover between art and music is terrific.

But you don’t find it so terrific in “Double Lives.”

No, I’m not enthusiastic about it because it leads to a kind of false sovereignty. It is not simply about crossover or indiscriminate mixing, but about a change of context that is actually quite intense. That applies to all fields. When Yoko Ono founded the Plastic Ono Band with John Lennon, she probably said, okay, now I have to measure myself against the canon of pop music and no longer against the canon of art history. In the double life between art and pop music, you can’t simply disregard the context of the respective different area—especially when such context-ignoring attempts at total works of art are considered opportune economically because they open up new markets. If, inebriated a little by your own creative potential, you put the cart in front of the horse, this will result in rear-impact crashes like with Jay Z and Abramović.

Or with Kraftwerk.

Or with Kraftwerk, who played at MoMA and thus put themselves at the mercy of a system that represents them the wrong way. For example, the fact that a concert is apostrophized as an exhibition leads to absurd consequences. In the case of Kraftwerk, the exhibition consisted of eight parts, from eight concerts, of which you were only allowed to see one due to the limited number of tickets.

That’s like only being allowed to enter one room of an exhibition.

Exactly. As though you were only allowed to see an eighth of a Gerhard Richter retrospective.

Is it still possible to escape this marketing-oriented crossover?

Escape might be the wrong word. And there’s no outside, and so no protective zone in which you can lumber around totally free and uncorrupted. As it’s already been observed many times, art can consist of basically anything—it can be writing a book, or creating a situation, or making dinner, or whatever. But the question arises over how these interdisciplinary border crossings are legitimized within art itself. To me, it’s not enough to say: yes, artists reserve the right to make music or a film, or musicians reserve the right to do something performative or work with artistic strategies. You also have to ask yourself where that leads—in art, in music, but also in society. As an artist, you’re in a position to decide from case to case, to say “I’ll go along with this shit, but I’m not going to take part in this other shit.” This is a skill we all have to develop. To learn to behave politically despite all these presumptions and seductions that contemporary society presents. That you reflect on what is right or wrong in this special case. Can we deal with it or not? What do we include, exclude? Do we refuse, or do we enter into an alliance?

Basically, you’re also talking about restrictions and limitations, aren’t you?

Absolutely. Also in the sense that there are certain achievements that have to be defended. Since modernism, art is no longer entirely dependent on the patron, the collector, the sponsor. It has the support of civil society, an audience, public funding. Conversely, the subcultures have created their own economies that are their own form of independence. You’re not only dependent on applications for funding; you’ve created your own economic structures, even though they’re extremely precarious and have been swallowed up by large companies over the past several years. Here, too, you have to say that it’s our collective duty to ask ourselves how we deal with this, how we can either save or set up our own structures. Something’s been created that shouldn’t naively be given up again the moment the pop industry comes along and says, “Hey, make something hip for us!” We should be careful, we shouldn’t sell ourselves short with these things.

In your book, you also describe the extent to which this process is already well underway and how it’s already changed pop culture.

In the final chapter, I cite a number I read in something by the English music critic Owen Hatherley. He wrote that in 2010, in the English charts, of the top ten spots, nine were held by musicians who’d attended private schools. Around fifteen years earlier, the exact opposite had been the case.

It used to be that British pop stars mainly came from the British working class.

Yes, in the course of social change—neoliberalism, New Labor, and then the Tories—education has become so exclusive that the possibilities that once enabled subculture to emerge are dying out. The art schools, where people used to be able to study for free, and where the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, Queen, the Rolling Stones, and Roxy Music were formed, are today almost only accessible to those who have the financial footing—in other words, come from a good home. And this totally contradicts the spirit that pop culture once held high.


Jörg Heiser is joint editor-in-chief of the art magazine frieze, and publisher of frieze d/e. He is visiting professor at the Kunstuniversität Linz and teaches at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste Hamburg.

Doppelleben: Kunst und Popmusik
Philo Fine Arts, 2015
ISBN: 978-3-86572-691-9