This list is dedicated to my Modern Art students.1. Art Brut, “Modern Art” This group takes their name from Jean Dubuffet’s post-WWII avant-garde movement, which was inspired by the “brut” or “raw” artworks of the mentally ill. “Modern Art makes me want to rock out!” Obviously.
2. The Modern Lovers, “Pablo Picasso” Critics have praised Pablo Picasso as an innovative genius, a man personally responsible for dramatically changing the world of art multiple times. Jonathan Richman, however, chooses to engage the romantic notion of the modern artist as an omnipotent being through a series of demented – and invented – biographical vignettes. The core of his argument is that “some people try to pick up girls and get called an asshole, but this never happened to Pablo Picasso.” While this might be true, I’m pretty sure Picasso was called that and worse by his ex-wives, jilted mistresses and Henri Matisse, among others. If you ever have the chance to see Jonathan Richman live, take it! More fun than Picasso.
3. The Magnetic Fields, “Meaningless” Stephin Merritt named his band after André Breton’s Surrealist automatist novel, which advocated a style of art-making that was later promoted in the 1924 Surrealist manifesto. It’s possible that this is the only thing Stephin Merritt remembered from his Modern Art class, but if this is the result, I’m just fine with that. The existential lyrics that close the song are perfect for lamenting a relationship gone sour, a frustrating night of studying, or maybe even modern art itself: “Yes yes yes how deliciously meaningless, Yes yes yes effervescently meaningless Yes yes yes it was beautifully meaningless, Yes yes yes it was profoundly meaningless Yes yes yes definitively meaningless, Yes yes yes comprehensively meaningless Yes yes yes magnificently meaningless, Yes yes yes how incredibly meaningless Yes yes yes unprecedentedly meaningless, Yes yes yes how mind-blowingly meaningless.”
4. The Pixies, “Debaser” For some reason, every alt/punk band has to release at least one song about surrealism. This one references a favorite of mine, the 1929 film “Un Chien Andalou” by Dalí and Buñuel. The lyrics joyfully allude to the film’s unforgettably disturbing opening sequence where a woman’s eye is slit by a razor blade. Well, it’s really a cow’s eye, but you get the idea. “Slicing up eyeballs, ha ha ha ho.”
5. They Might Be Giants, “The Statue Got Me High” I’ve so far avoided spontaneous combustion when moved by great works of art, but it’s always going to be a risk. Honestly, this is why I rarely teach sculpture.
6. The Plastics, “Copy” Walter Benjamin warned of the effects of mechanical reproduction in 1936 – the creation of a passive, mindless viewer – but The Plastics make the simulated future seem totally fun. This song gets special consideration for appearing in “Downtown 81,” a movie starring the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat as a fictional version of himself.
7. David Bowie, “Andy Warhol” “Andy Warhol, Silver Screen, Can’t tell them apart at all.” Bowie ended up playing Warhol in the film “Basquiat” 25 years after he recorded this song.
8. Michelle Shocked, “Graffiti Limbo” Jean-Michel Basquiat had gained worldwide fame and fortune as a graffiti-based artist by 1983, the same year that the subject of this song, Michael Stewart, was killed by NYC Transit Police for writing graffiti on a subway wall. I’ve been listening to Michelle Shocked since I was 14 and I can’t imagine I’ll ever stop.
9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Art Star” This angsty song reminds us that being an artist might not be all fun and games. This is why I’m an art historian. There seems to be less screaming involved.
10. Rubber Band Banjo, “Max Ernst’s Red Nightmare” So I just found this to complete my thematic list, but I’m loving it anyway. This creepy, elastic drone of a song makes the perfect soundtrack for one of Max Ernst’s surrealist paintings, and the incomprehensible growling and gurgling vocals only add to the wonderfully unsettling mood. Can’t you just imagine one of his monstrously disfigured creatures slowly emerging from a strange, terrifying landscape? Okay, maybe it’s just me.