Well aware of my fascination with the phenomenon of air guitar, a friend from across the pond sent me this link last week (note: it’s a large streaming QuickTime movie file, so you’ll need some serious bandwidth in order to view it). Let me explain what you’re about to see.
As part of the recent open studios event at the Higher Institute for Fine Arts in Antwerp, Finnish artist Kristofer Paetau decided to create a rather interesting tableau by extending an invitation to Belgium’s 2004 air guitar champion, Bucketbutt (a.k.a. Ron Van den Branden), to perform within the context of a group exhibition. Bucketbutt’s brand of gimmicky hijinks indeed conjures up the heyday of performance art circa 1970, a vital motivation behind Paetau’s scheme to organize this spectacle in the first place.
Here in New York City, art lovers are commonly treated to displays far more outrageous. It’s commonplace. Despite this town’s overabundance of exhibition space, it seems that not even gallery walls can contain certain renegade performance artists. Times Square is a mainstay for another underwear clad—albeit sans bucket—guitar yielding chap, known as the Naked Cowboy. But for the consummate hybrid of music/performance art just stroll through Central Park. Somewhere near the Boat House you’ll encounter Thoth. Be warned, his eccentric attire is way skimpier than the Naked Cowboy, but the sheer intensity of conviction behind Thoth’s ritualized violin performances is utterly mesmerizing.
It’s funny. I’m one of the few composers I know who has actually performed nude in front of an audience. Yeah I know, it’s been done to death. Although not so much at Carnegie Hall—say hello to the strategically placed fig leaf during all matinee performances, as mandated by administration. We musician types don’t like to ruffle any feathers you know. I’m sure Paetau’s presentation of Bucketbutt (a wink-and-nod to Buckethead I assume…) didn’t raise too many eyebrows among the seen-it-all art crowd. I shudder to think what sort of reaction new music audiences would reserve for Bucketbutt. The obligatory polite applause I’d assume. I’m not suggesting that new music practitioners and coinsures are prudish or more susceptible to shock tactics than the typical museumgoer.
Quite the opposite, our audiences are way more complacent in their jadedness, passively listening, unresponsive, then clapping at sanctioned intervals—doesn’t matter if you love it or hate it. Yeah, there’s clearly an audible difference between apathetic applause and outright cheering, but creators and presenters can construe both as positive reinforcement. So everybody is happy then, right? Nobody out there is craving something a little edgier or more extreme.
Heaven forbid if the Emerson Quartet decided to strap buckets to their butts, or worse, stage some sort of “wardrobe malfunction” as it has come to be known. But let’s face it, shock and awe is one of the oldest tools known to artists. Yet the so-called world of serious music is above all that, and maybe that’s a problem.
Between Matisse’s Femme au chapeau and Picasso’s Guernica came Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. 4′ 33″ coincides with Pollock’s breakthrough. The Viennese Actionists and Fluxus crowd and gave us music that still makes heads scratch in the conservatory. But what about now, almost a half decade later, has art music hit a wall? Artists like Andrea Fraser and Laurel Nakadate still manage to shock us, using perversion as a form of profound communication. When are symphony orchestras going to start exploring the scatological? We see it in museums and galleries. We see it in the city streets. Could this be one of the reasons why new music is always playing catch-up to other contemporary art forms?