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Bad Thoughts on the Death of Mike Kelley

Tony Herrington

mike kelley by robert gallagher

Mike Kelley photographed by Robert Gallagher for The Wire 235 September 2003

[This post was written following a conversation in The Wire office about the effects of the influence of the art of the late Mike Kelley, mainly as an attempt to clarify my own thoughts, and maybe confront some of my own prejudices. Many of my colleagues and associates at The Wire were longterm admirers of Kelley's work; indeed, some of them were friends of the artist – all have been shocked by the recent news of his death, reportedly by his own hand, aged just 57. In the circumstances, I doubt this post will be greeted in a spirit of critical debate. But as far as I can ascertain, Kelley himself never bothered much with matters of 'good' taste, let alone observed petty bourgeois notions of proper etiquette or knowing when to hold his tongue, so for what it's worth, I post it in a similar spirit.]

In the days following his death the tributes to Mike Kelley flooded in from the art press, broadsheets and online alt.rock sites, many proclaiming him the greatest American artist of his generation. That Kelley was a significant figure is not in doubt, which is part of the problem.

Born in 1954 into a working class family in the suburbs of Detroit, Kelley was one of a number of American visual artists whose aesthetic was formed during the 70s comedown from the failure of the 60s counterculture to actually change anything. Like his fellow art students at Ann Arbor's University of Michigan with whom he formed the performance/Noise group Destroy All Monsters, he was a blue collar freak rather than a Progressive hippy, and maybe it was the harsh realities in effect on Michigan's city streets in the wake of civil rights, rapid industrialisation and the 70s economic and spiritual downturns which deepened his cynicism and meant he saw through the facade of the corporate Prog-hippy ideal, sensing how its supine cultural politics actually buttressed the status of middle America and its ruling elites, reinforcing by other means existing hierarchies of class, race, gender, sexuality and aesthetics. As with Frank Zappa's recordings with The Mothers Of Invention a decade earlier, Destroy All Monsters seemed designed to confront apathetic hippy delusions head on, as much as it was an assault on bourgeois values, goading them from the sidelines via a series of guerilla art pranks.

In 1976 Kelley quit DAM and the boho Ann Arbor freak scene to study at CalArts, where he parlayed all his cynicism and disgust at the way the underground had been co-opted into a branch of Corporate Entertainment USA into an art world career which bowdlerised pop culture to such an extent that ironically (a double irony here) made it palatable to America's cultural elite.

Art critics, museum curators, private gallerists and major institutions all promoted Kelley's work for the way they thought it anatomised (by dissecting and rewiring pop cultural detritus) the uptight schizophrenia that reigned in America's public, private and domestic spheres (an aesthetic which reinforced their own delusions of panoptican superiority because in their eyes it articulated a process which they thought they were above and beyond). That's the macro view. At a much lower level, he was a symbol for all that could, and usually does, go wrong whenever the visual art world moves in on rock 'n' roll.

Kelley's background may have been mid-West working class but his sensibilities became those of a sardonic West Coast conceptual artist. The first rule of conceptual art is that it should be universally understood, that everyone should be in on the joke. This imperative was recognised by both Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, conceptual art pioneers who also produced its two greatest works (perhaps its only great works), Fountain and 4'33". As with Duchamp, Kelley's art was full of references to vernacular culture, was in fact constructed entirely from them. He dissed Duchamp's readymades for being 'obscure' relative to his own art of cultural appropriation and regurgitation. But despite this assertion, compared to Duchamp's subversive celebrations of materials which to the art world of his time were abject and abhorrent, Kelley's art constituted a series of bitter in-jokes and twisted asides executed on a grand scale, an aesthetic which made personal disjecta out of pop culture tropes in a way that would appeal directly to the class-based prejudices of detached art world snobs, who bought up the work in their droves.

Kelley's admirers have claimed many things for his vast body of work, the most grandiose being that it performed a total psychoanalysis of the state of the human condition, its inner space and exterior landscapes, at the close of the American century. But ultimately it was too solipsistic to perform any function other than offering an explicit tour through the conflicted realms inside Kelley's own head. Kelley had been abused by his father as a child, was an outsider lower class artist operating in an elitist establishment milieu, and he mistook the trauma and conflicts of his own personal experience for universal truths, resulting in an art which was like a perverted form of sexual and identity politics for sociopathic sick fucks (as in the entertainment industry, the more edgy and sensational art gets, the more the art establishment likes it, because it gives them something they can package and sell). It was no accident that Kelley became part of the cultural capital of Los Angeles, the most solipsistic and sick city on the planet, as well as one whose stratified topographies most thoroughly embodied and enacted the corrosive reality of the American dream that he was now living.

Destroy All Monsters proclaimed themselves 'anti-rock', which the cultural elite correctly interpreted as 'pro-art'. Barely known during its mid-70s incarnation, the group has cast a long shadow across the last three decades of DIY underground rock, and has been indirectly instrumental in the process of its embourgeoisement, abetting the migration of its milieu from the basements and the clubs to artists' studios and private gallery spaces. A conceptualised art school project, rather than a vernacular rock 'n' roll unit, DAM spewed out enough knowing references to cool underground scenes (avant garde jazz, post-Cagean experimental music, alternative theatre) to reassure the same freaks who had earlier mistook Zappa for a radical, because he namechecked Varèse and Eric Dolphy, of their superior taste to both the lumpen proles who still went out and partied hard with vernacular forms like black R&B, and the hippies, or heads, who were still zoning out to The Grateful Dead's inert/inept appropriations of American folk musics. (Mid-70s heads were hippy intellectuals who had temporarily dropped out from the bourgeois culture they were born into with impunity because they knew they would eventually be able to return to it in order to fulfill their class destiny. Freaks were alienated lower class autodidacts who hated the vernacular culture they in turn were born into – the culture of their parents, essentially – but rather than attempting to change that culture from the inside à la punk, they denied class realities by enacting the illusion of social mobility. They identified with the likes of Kelley and Zappa for the same reason the cultural elites eventually bought into them, because the work presented a grotesque parody of the vernacular culture they hated, and then put it on a pedestal marked 'art'.)

In that original incarnation, DAM dished up self-consciously inept rock noise designed to épater the very same bourgeoisie that would later commission and patronise Kelley's massive installation works. It satirised the Total Rock 'N' Roll Theatre of Iggy Pop and The Stooges to such an extent that it made Alice Cooper's cartoon take on the same material look like a profound expansion of it.

Where The Stooges presented America's ruling elite with a defiant 'fuck you!' symbol of the trailer trash they so feared (because it confronted them with the reality their mendacious dealings made inevitable), Kelley and DAM reassured it that all was well with the world by offering them a curated version of revolutionary working class culture that one day they might safely invite into their white-walled galleries and empty loft spaces. The group rechannelled The Stooges's raw power, via an ironic restaging of the feral energies of Dada and Fluxus, so it became a trash commodity the cultural wing of the ruling elite could accept and get behind, because they could contain and sell it.

It is for this reason that Kelley's art has had the most ruinous effect on rock 'n' roll since Colonel Tom Parker first dressed Elvis up in a monkey suit.

DAM emerged at the same time as the first wave of New York punks, whose music expanded on the earlier breakthroughs of The Velvet Underground, Suicide and The New York Dolls, not to mention Johnny Burnette, Bo Diddley and The Shangri-Las. But Kelley rejected punk as being too 'retro', not realising it was part of a vital and ongoing continuum, the 'changing same' (to borrow Amiri Baraka's phrase) of vernacular experimentalism and resistance that fought the system from the inside and on its own terms, rather than trying to provoke it from the sidelines via a series of impotent provocations. For a savvy and ambitious art school educated freak like Kelley, punk was simultaneously too volatile and sure of itself to be of any interest; as raw material it was too conscious, too historically right and exact to be moulded and manipulated to serve the kind of mutable aesthetic he wanted to pursue. But when the grass roots agitprop of punk gave way to the metropolitan radical chic of No Wave (just compare the existential rage of Patti Smith and Richard Hell to the solipsistic nihilism of Lydia Lunch and James Chance) the die was cast. The group that most fully absorbed Kelley's and DAM's sardonic sensibilities, then regurgitated them as PoMo gestures, started out as a No Wave tribute band, and they would go on to become the most influential outfit in alt.rock. The moment Sonic Youth signed to Blast First was the moment rock 'n' roll's vanguard became fully annexed to a wing of the art world.

Kelley objected to other people's subjective critical interpretations of his work so much that he attempted to control the debate around it by writing his own essays and critiques of it. Without irony he claimed this process was actually intended to advance discussion, and while Kelley was ferociously intelligent and a highly articulate writer, even for a conceptual artist, and knew his art history and critical theory as well as his pop culture, this was a classic piece of obfuscation. Subjective critical interpretations are the only ones human beings are able to make, and as Duchamp understood, it is via this process that art becomes universal, by bringing individual expression into dynamic contact with external reality. SY likewise shut down the discourse that had historically existed in rock 'n' roll by conceptualising the music in advance, rendering any further interpretation or discussion mute and moot.

Celebrated in the cosy ghettos of mid-80s indie thanks to their Blast First releases, SY only made a decent record after they signed to a major (one run by that ultimate corporate hippy-turned-head David Geffen). Suddenly, these Generation X pop artists were confronted with both the blue collar existentialism of Grunge, and the reality of the tensions that had historically animated vernacular culture's relationship with Capital (thus replicating the experience of The Stooges before them, who, as soon as they signed to Elektra, sussed that their original Psychedelic Stooges incarnation, a Cage/Coltrane inspired Noise unit that was like a proto-DAM, was indulgent playing-to-the-plukes that would never change anything). Goo, SY's first record for Geffen, immediately put a rocket under the oblique strategies of those Blast First albums, a niche UK indie with art world pretensions which instilled a smug slackness in the American groups that recorded for it and which they in turn mistook for punk rock insouciance. Suddenly, the songs were tauter, leaner, punchier, the sound more vivid, the arrangements more inventively compact, the delivery more direct and urgent. The exceptions were the contributions of Kim Gordon, a former conceptual artist herself and the SY member whose sensibility was most oriented towards the visual art world, as well as the cover, which was basically a Mike Kelley tribute trash-pop artwork.

Of course, SY's fans regarded their Geffen records as sell outs, and to some extent they were, though not in the sense that the fans thought. Goo and Dirty (hyper-ironically packaged in an actual Mike Kelley artwork this time) animated SY music by injecting some of the vernacular discipline and shake appeal The Stooges had developed on Funhouse (and which they had learned from listening to James Brown), but the fans had originally embraced the group precisely because it offered them a simulacrum of rock 'n' roll, a Minstrelsy-like parody which allowed them to edge close to a distorted version of vernacular culture but whose self-conscious detachment was guaranteed to protect them from the vulgar stench of the real deal. The fact that SY now seemed to be playing rock 'n' roll at its own game was just too much for the fans who yearned for the detached longueurs of Daydream Nation.

(As Eric Lott explained in Love And Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy And The American Working Class, Minstrelsy's practitioners enacted a double insult, embracing and appropriating a vernacular culture they loved but were distinct from then lampooning it by projecting a grotesque cartoon version of it. A similar process is in play right now in the realms of hipster House, many of whose practitioners came up through America's DAM-via-SY-educated DIY underground.)

During the Geffen years, to placate the fans and simultaneously court the attentions of the art elite with their chic-trash pop avant eclecticism, Kelley's and DAM's baleful influence persisted in the multiple side projects undertaken by SY's individual members, or which they issued on their own boutique label (whose releases were like a catalogue of historical avant garde gestures, all correctly labelled, framed and displayed, from New York School composition to structuralist film soundtracks), all of which paralleled the sardonic tone of SY's most Kelley-like project, The Whitey Album. Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label even curated a three CD box set of DAM material. In fact SY were now functioning like fully fledged art curators, rather than a vernacular rock 'n' roll outfit which produced work out of sheer necessity, assembling records as art projects and putting them on display as if they were items in a SoHo gallery space. And of course, eventually that is what they would become, touring the world as part of Sensation Fix, the multimedia retrospective that was effectively a restaging of the Poetics Project, the mid-90s international touring installation which 'represented' Kelley's 'experience' of being in a band, ie The Poetics, which he had formed at CalArts with Tony Oursler for the express purpose of generating new material for his work as a visual artist. Here the ironies twist around each other as if they were strapped to a Moebius strip: Sensation Fix was SY's most explict homage to Kelley's influence, and the ultimate expression of its art world pretensions; The Poetics were an SY-influenced pop art project, in which rock 'n' roll was subordinated to a conceptual art agenda, and the Poetics Project showed SY themselves exactly what they had to do in order to gain real art world credibility.

Compounding the example and affect of the Poetics Project, Sensation Fix once and for all pinned rock 'n' roll's primal scream, its raw vernacular power, under glass for detached contemplation by the same metropolitan art tourists who meandered numb through the world's major cultural institutions, staring blankly at the now inert relics of earlier avant garde movements with the same level of engagement they would display as they shopped for 'vintage' rock 'n' roll paraphernalia in the local branch of Urban Outfitters.

(The semiotic similarity between the title of that SY show and that of the exhibiton which launched the careers of a generation of solipsistic Brit Artists was surely no coincidence, and showed how SY had an insider's knowledge of the art world's junkie-like need for increasingly sensational, ie empty, pop cult gestures. And in yet another irony, the Poetics Project had initially been installed at Documenta, the international art show that would later make cultural capital out of the emerging 'politicised' art of globalisation and post-colonial theory, ie the very stuff that was supposed to sweep aside solipsistic Western-centric pop art but which merely restocked the world's art fairs with new goods for sale.)

Mike Kelley's sudden death is a tragedy for his colleagues and friends. His body of work is formidable, but his influence on the rock 'n' roll of the last 25 years via his impact on one of its most influential groups remains a pernicious one. Effectively, it helped to kill off rock 'n' roll as a vital force, compounding its cultural institutionalisation and social isolation. The only saving grace here is that this process paved the way for the emergence of other, less clubbable modes of opposition, hiphop, Jungle, Grime, to provide the context for vernacular culture's most dynamic future moments of resistance to elitist hierarchies.

No one should doubt Mike Kelley's sincerity. He wanted his art to expose and capsize established and oppressive value systems, to upend prevailing taxonomies and systems of classification, but ultimately, and just like the corporate hippies he hated back in the mid-70s, it ended up merely reinforcing them, by feeding the prejudices and sick appetites and desires of the privileged elite he had became a part of. Mike Kelley was not stupid nor complacent, and unlike his legions of laissez faire acolytes, couldn't settle for being so co-opted, or for making the increasingly empty gestures that inevitably go hand in glove with an international art world career. And that is the lesson here, as well as the real tragedy.

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I'll bite! I'll leave Kelley out of this, I'm sure there's someone more knowledgeable who can defend him. But I can't leave some of the historical assertions here uncontested.

Grass roots agitprop becoming metropolitan chic? You could easily say punk's arc moved in the opposite direction, away from metropolitan radical chic (which surely very slickly describes Patti/Hell/Verlaine/Mclaren) towards the grass roots agitprop of hardcore (which Thurston Moore was besotted with). Equally, 'existential rage' doesn't exactly sit wrong as a descriptor for MARS or Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. Some very unstable oppositions.

Did Sonic Youth start out as a No Wave tribute band? If so, only in the same sense that all those Manchester bands at the Lesser Free Trade Hall started off as Sex Pistols tribute bands (no bad thing in other words). In any case, by the time they recorded their debut, they sounded, if anything, with that clean, cool production and Richard Edson's African-influenced polyrhythms, more in debt to Talking Heads. If signing to Blast First = annexation to the art world, that would be pretty shocking news to Paul Smith, the label's founder. You might as well say signing to Rough Trade did the same for The Smiths.

As for 'shutting down discourse in advance by conceptualizing it'... well, how? They didn't exactly write manifestos or lengthy sleeve notes. I guess they had ideas and concepts that they self-consciously wanted to test out and work through, sure, but if that's a crime, you can dispense with Scritti, Patti Smith, Television, Blondie, The Pop Group, Gang of Four, PiL, The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, The Smiths, The New York Dolls, Roxy Music, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Mingus, Kraftwerk, Velvet Underground, Eno [continues on and on].

There's a strange Anglocentrism at work here: SY were annexed into the art world by Blast First? They let Paul Smith's project onto them and instil his own vision of American slackerdom? Well they had a surprising workrate and touring schedule for slackers. It's just wrong. Blast First basically licensed those bands, who were discrete, self-sufficient aesthetic entities unto themselves on the other side of the Atlantic: the UK were a secondary market to both SY and Dinosaur, who were Homestead/SST bands every bit as much as they were Blast First bands. As for grunge as a blue-collar wake-up call to SY - how could that be for a band who went way back with Mike Watt and Black Flag, who hooked up with numerous grunge forerunners before it broke, working with Green River/Mudhoney, touring with Nirvana pre Nevermind?

Suggesting they 'cleared the way' for jungle/dnb by ruining vernacular rock is just historically perverse. If anything you could blame them for giving that continuum a shot in the arm, nurturing Nirvana and other bands which gave it that 90s resurgence out of the Northwest. To the extent that rock withered and died to create cultural space, it was a case of cock-rock fizzling out like an empty can of hairspray in the shape of Def Leppard and GnR. Not that that gave much impetus to rave and its after-shocks.

As for SY as 'rock'n'roll minstrelsy'... Seriously, what? Find me a guitar solo from their 80s albums. Find me one riff copped from Chuck Berry. How on earth is Bad Moon Rising, Evol or Sister rock minstrelsy in the era of Stray Cats, The Cramps, J&MC, The Birthday Party? Nobody had that weird tonal palette, which is based on a disharmony totally antithetical to rock's earthed pentatonics. (Well, Branca did, but he was working in a different field).

You've also got the name of that multimedia thing wrong - it was Sensational Fix. I really doubt that was meant as any kind of reference to that 98 show.

The Geffen transition is tricky. I agree thay thought they could play the mainstream at its own game, but I think they miscalculated how that entryism might work: they assumed a bigger recording budget and major label distro and PR, applied to essentially the same musical forms they'd explored on Sister & Daydream Nation, would inject those forms *into* the mainstream - but they discovered you still wouldn't get playlisted for radio, and ended up in an odd limbo, releasing records like Washing Machine on a major.

As for the curatorial stuff, yeah, there's traction there. But as Reynolds' Retromania shows, they're hardly alone in that. I think all that looks very different from our standpoint, saturated with digital cultural data, than it actually did at the time, in the knowledge economy of the 80s and pre-broadband 90s. But that leads onto another discussion really...

Thanks for biting, Sam! I'm tempted to say with supporters like you around SY have nothing to worry about from the likes of me. But to address some of your points:

If you can't comment on Kelley's art because you are not knowledgeable enough, how can you comment on a critique of SY which depends on a conflation of both of their aesthetics?

I'm not sure how Thurston, who I know relatively well and whose enthusiasm for all manner of music is not in doubt, being besotted with Hardcore affects anything; he's also obsessed with Madonna and Sparks and Black Oak Arkansas. As in the UK, where punk begat New Wave, No Wave followed NYC punk as a self-conscious and, yes, solipsistic manifestation, in No Wave's case one which turned punk's working class outrage (there was nothing chic about it) inward as a form of personal psychotherapy. And just as in the UK, where anarcho-punk sprouted in opposition to 80s New Pop, so Hardcore emerged in the US as a righteous response to No Wave's inert diversion of punk energy. Your reading of the oppositions here feels in denial of the class realities in play which in turn suggests a certain false consciousness. BTW I've met Lydia Lunch (Teenage Jesus), and she'd floor you if you called her an existentialist. The fact is the active negative energy of punk turned to inert nihilistic gestures in the hands of No Wave. That's why SY were so enamoured of it: gestures are what the group was interested in adapting and adopting because they mean you don't have to pin your colours to any single mast, ie you don't have to make a stand in favour of or against anything, you can be Hardcore one minute, plastic pop the next, and avant garde the next, all with equal amounts of irony attached, and are the currency of the art world they were really always a part of.

Black Flag and The Minutemen were blue collar Prog rockers (just ask Greg Ginn or George Hurley) and were niche artists preaching to the converted and recording for their own boutique labels; Grunge operated in dynamic tension with the music-industrial complex, and had to up its game accordingly - no room for clever-clever oblique strategies or cosy and ineffectual 'alternative scenes' there. That is the crucial difference, and the lesson SY had to learn as soon as they signed to Geffen.

Pauil Smth is one of the smartest operators I've met, but his art world ambitions were clear from the get-go. He named his label after an edict by the right wing British artist Wyndham Lewis. If that wasn't enough evidence, there are the numerous projects he has instigated over many years to support the case, from the curated Disobey 'happenings' of the early 90s to recently putting Throbbing Gristle on at Tate Modern (a Pyrrhic bit of entryism that represented something of a comedown from the genuinely feral energies in play at the Rat Club, but that's where this kind of strategy has got us). When SY signed to BF, they were the most progressive rock group around, and it was the most progressive label around, and both had art world pretensions, therefore, that is why that moment was the point rock's supposed vanguard became fully subordinated to art.

I didn't say SY cleared the way etc, I said Kelley's influence on them and via them underground rock is what helped turn it into a flabby, self-indulgent mess-mass, creating a vacuum for other forms to come in and pick up the mantle of rock 'n' roll's historical position as a vernacular opposition.

My agenda isn't Anglocentric - it's class war, Sam, as I would have thought would have been quite obvious. But I am a Brit, I can't deny it, and my critique is subjective and relative to my own position, as everyone's is. And I don't care what label J Mascis recorded for, the man was such a smug slacker, even SY noticed it and wrote a song about him ("Teenage Riot").

SY didn't 'nurture' Nirvana, they hipped Geffen to them. Nirvana had no interest in becoming a cute little niche art brand like SY; they wanted to be "a cross between The Beatles and Black Sabbath", to quote Kurt Cobain.

Anyone who thinks SY's (or Branca's) disharmony and 'weird tonal palette' were somehow revolutionary needs to go and listen to some Blind Willie Johnson or Johnny Burnette or Johnny Guitar Watson or Pete Cosey or Keith Levine. Also: The Stray Cats were enthusiastic revivalists; The Cramps were voodoo reanimators; The J&M Chain and B Party were psychotic reformists. Just like Nirvana, they were all in and part of the tradition, which meant their relative positions or innovations had history on their side, and I would take all of them and their raw bloody noise over SY's detached avant gardisms any day of the week.

Go away and read Retromania again - it's not a neutral cataloguing of the cultural processes SY helped put in place, but a long lament for their consequences, which are only now becoming clear.

Did I miss anything? Probably. But nothing you say refutes the fact that SY (and Mike Kelley) subordinated a working class form of expression to a conceptual art aesthetic and in the process made it safe for bourgeois tastes (which is partly what my Minstresly parallel was about). If that's what floats yr boast, sail on.

As a member of the working class, can I just say I'm grateful to have patronising, slightly hysterical middle-class intellectuals like Tony to protect me from the embourgeoisement of pop music. It allows me time to worry about less important things, like lack of employment and economic insecurity.

I'll try to keep this brief (ish). Re Kelley, I didn't say I wasn't knowledgeable enough, I just know there are others more knowledgeable; and there's a defence for Sonic Youth that can be made on its own terms.

-- Re punk/NoWave/hardcore, my point is your oppositions are too schematic, all these borders are far far more porous than you're implying, as were the class realities. Hardcore was a response to Reagan and the Sex Pistols. You think Minor Threat gave a toss about Mars? No Wave was over so fast no-one needed to dethrone it, and its participants so few in number I'd be wary of lumping them all into one unifying demographic. Were SY really No Wave in *antagonistic opposition* to punk? No.

-- I just don't buy the Sonic Youth as dressing-up-game thing. It makes their discography sound like a patchwork quilt. The debut aside, it's a remarkably incremental development of a consistent sound. For all their enthusiasms for various scenes and subscenes, it's not like they've done a black metal album, or an acoustic 60s British folk album, or a hardcore album, or a free jazz album. The Whitey Album is meant to be their hiphop album, but then it's also meant to be their pop-covers album, or their Beatles cover album, and when you actually listen to it, it's full of oneiric instrumentals, automatically written in the studio, with loops and chiming guitars that sound like... Sonic Youth. They did Goodbye 20th Century but fuck it, you could name any number of other bands with more erratic genre-hopping, gesture-copping bodies of work.

-- Paul Smith is not the UK art establishment, whatever Disobey or a recent Tate event might mean. He just isn't. How could one band signing to his label submit all of rock to the art world? And the point about Mascis matters, because you identified Smith as the source of that slacker affect! What about the rest of Blast First's (imported, pre-formed) roster? Were Big Black were put together by a committee at the ICA?

SY took Nirvana out on tour, bigged them up all over, gave them advice about management and contracts, and Kurt also said his ambition was for Nirvana to be like Sonic Youth. I can dig out exact quotes later. And at that point Sonic Youth weren't yet a niche art brand. The assumption was they'd break (and the band wanted to). What followed post-grunge was their reconciliation with harsh 90s reality, and yes, a regrettable lapse into intense side-projection.

-- Those guitar players are all great, and you could throw in Graham, Jansch, Stills, Mitchell and Drake's various drone tunings, but how many of them would you ever mistake for Sonic Youth or vice versa? None of them played in a slightly out FFFFF#F# with a drumstick. And if SY are so 'detached', where do all these rapturous 80s gig reviews come from, raving about their intensity, recounting the bloodied fingers and broken instruments? They can't win really, cause you also argue re Kelly that the art-world can't get enough abrasive sensationalism, so even if you agreed they were a 'raw bloody noise', they'd just be cynical art-whore provocateurs I guess?

-- I think your argument that SY's art-world connections represent a form of submission requires turning a blind eye or two to a crucial art-school/pop tradition: McCartney, Lennon, Ono, Fluxus, Reed, Cale, Warhol, Metzger, Townsend, Byrne, Vega, Ferry, Smith, Mapplethorpe, Wire, Eno and so and so on. I guess what I detect lurking here ultimately is rockism. You don't think Sonic Youth are 'authentic' or 'meant it'. Well, I think they did. I never hear in their music - even at its most referential - anything but the sincerest love for those references. I just don't hear contempt. Does that sometimes put them 'outside' rock/punk, unavoidably recreating at times the separation of the subject from the love object? Yeah, but no more or less than any number of artists before them, be it Bowie, Dylan or The Stones.

"Nothing you say refutes the fact that SY (and Mike Kelley) subordinated a working class form of expression to a conceptual art aesthetic and in the process made it safe for bourgeois tastes (which is partly what my Minstresly parallel was about). If that’s what floats yr boast, sail on."

So until Sonic Youth came along, the bourgeoisie were too scared of horrible mucky old noisome rock and punk? Come on. You're drawing a line of battle in which the art-world and working class vernacular culture are utterly sundered, entirely mutually exclusive. In which being involved with the art-world in anyway voids your working class identity or radical credentials. God knows the art world isn't an unproblematic outlet for and reflection of working class culture, but the kind of division you're drawing here (art-world involvement = automatic bougie bore) implicitly damns such a range of working class art school kids, not to mention that it kills off hiphop at its source (thanks ot Fab Five Freddy). I'm all for class warfare, but why deny the working class its right to conceptual art! Conceptual art for all!

"Your post has been deleted,for excessive sarcasm"

You ask of Sam Davies: "If you can’t comment on Kelley’s art because you are not knowledgeable enough, how can you comment on a critique of SY which depends on a conflation of both of their aesthetics?"

Unfortunately I don't think you seem knowledgeable enough about art to make that critique either.

A few points:

1. Firstly all this stuff about "America's cultural elite" with their "delusions of panopticon superiority", and "the class-based prejudices of detached art world snobs who bought up the work in their droves".

Yes, undoubtedly there are many snobbish and/or disgustingly wealthy idiots that inhabit the arena of contemporary visual art. It's also an extremely middle-class area of cultural production too, although there are underlying assumptions that go with that could do with more examination. I think there are a lot of class realities and degrees of exploitation that are not talked about in art, and as far as that goes, I agree with you.

But - and this is an issue totally separate from that of Kelley and Sonic Youth - the language you're using is basically total boilerplate, really, isn't it? It reads like the fulminations not of a class warrior but a bored and jaded hack critic in the Sunday papers who gave up paying attention years ago. In making these generalizations you're completely ignoring the legions of people who operate under the umbrella of art with little recognition or compensation, those who have nothing to do with the Gagosians of the world. What your exchange with Sam reveals is that you're incredibly knowledgeable, obviously, about the nuances of your field - able to trade punches about whether or not Paul Smith's a sell-out or whether Lydia Lunch is an 'existentialist' (all the 'I happen to know so-and-so…' bits by the way make it sound like a pretty clubby world you live in), but capable of only speaking about people who work in the field of art in frankly cartoonish terms. Imagine talking about 'the music world' with its hordes of nerdish middle-class university-educated men with their 'delusions of panopticon superiority' on display as they split ever finer hair after hair about subcultural histories, their 180gsm vinyl purchases dictating which 1970s jazz-metal trio will finally find success and which spotty noise outfit from Brooklyn will grace the stages of the world's experimental music festivals … Not a very sophisticated picture of it, is it?

2. "Metropolitan art tourists who meandered numb through the world’s major cultural institutions".

You could probably say the same about any tourists visiting any tourist attraction since the dawn of tourism, couldn't you? And it would still be a completely flat and banal generalization.

3. "The more edgy and sensational art gets, the more the art establishment likes it, because it gives them something they can package and sell" and the art world's "junkie-like need for the increasingly sensational."

Oh come on, can't you do better than that? Again, it's like something you've cut-and-pasted from a Brian Sewell review in the Evening Standard. If someone who works within the art market wants to package and sell something, they don't need it to be 'edgy and sensational' any more than your average Wire reader 'needs' their music to be 'abrasive' and 'difficult'. The seller will have to find some way of commodifying it physically, financially and intellectually, sure, but sensation has bugger all to do with it, frankly. This idea of shock and sensation in art has a long history that's partly tied up with historical attitudes in the media as much as what artists have done; it's an idea that's amplified by the mainstream press and then in the echo chamber of articles like yours. As a percentage of what gets made, it's tiny. Sure there are historical moments when the 'avant-garde' has tried to 'shock' complacent bourgeois attitudes but we're certainly not living in one of those moments right now. If you actually look - you know, use your eyes rather than look through the shaded lenses of your, ahem, 'class prejudices' - at what fills galleries and museums these days there's a huge range of types of work and approaches to making things. The

argument about 'edgy' and 'sensational' art is a hangover from an outdated idea of how the avant-garde operated that, as far as I can tell, simply does not map onto what goes on in the heads of a lot of artists today. The matrix of forces and ideologies at play in the way artist's careers work and how work is sold is way more murky and complex (by which I just mean hard to pick apart, rather than 'intellectually rich') than you seem to think.

4. "The semiotic similarity between the title of that SY show and that of the exhibition which launched the careers of a generation of solipsistic Brit Artists was surely no coincidence, and showed..." etc


Whether Sonic Youth were interested in that Brit Art generation or not I've no idea although that seems to be a fanciful connection to make in my mind - much Brit Art remained fairly parochial in terms of international interest. But if we're being historically accurate here, the exhibition I think you are referring to is not 'Sensation' in 1997 but 'Freeze' in 1988 in London's Docklands, the success of which was built on by 'Modern Medicine' and 'Gambler' in 1990. 'Sensation' garnered a lot of press attention but in career terms for some of those artists involved (and there are a lot of 'where are they now?' casualties from that era too) they were already enjoying some success.

As for them being solipsistic, well a) I would say that the degree to which the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin courted the press suggests something other than solipsism, though perhaps just as unpleasant and b) there you go tarring everyone with the same brush again. Are Chris Ofili's figurative paintings really comparable with, I dunno, a Hirst shark? Can you describe what qualities of solipsism are shared by both artists Would it be fair to say that you can lump Onehetrix Point Never in the same basket as Rustie just cos they use synthesizers, or that Sun Ra is the same as Sonny Sharrock, or that Dinosaur Jnr are the same as Sonic Youth…? No, thought not.

5. "The first rule of conceptual art is that it should be universally understood, that everyone should be in on the joke…"

Where on earth did you get that from? There did persist the idea at a certain point many, many years ago that 'conceptual art' should be characterized by a sort of elegant, pure transparency of ideas, but that's not the same as something being 'universally understood', and certainly has nothing to do with jokes. (Or when it does they're often lame ones.)

6. "This imperative was recognised by both Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, conceptual art pioneers who also produced its two greatest works (perhaps its only great works), Fountain and 4’33″."

Hmm. Well, Duchamp couldn't have 'recognized' it as an imperative because even if it did exist it didn't at the time he was working. The first work Duchamp became known for was Cubist-influenced painting which he was exhibiting before WW1. Yes, he would later argue that the 'non-retinal' should be more important than the visual in art, which many have taken to be one of the earliest flowerings of what would in the 1960s be termed 'Concept Art', but the term 'conceptual art' wasn't around when Duchamp produced 'Fountain'. You're also wrong in Duchamp's case with your assertion about 'conceptual art' being 'universally understood'; 'The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)' (1915-1923) and ‘Étant donnés’ (1946-1966) have puzzled scholars of art for decades and are incredibly inscrutable. They are way at the other end of the spectrum of Duchamp's work from 'Fountain' which was something of a one-liner as a physical object but the idea of the 'found object' (which he was developing some years before the urinal) had huge ramifications for art. As an aside, 'Etantes Donnes' is arguably more an early example of installation rather than conceptual art - and yes, the two terms

are distinct; one is a mode of display, the other is an historical art movement that's happened to have a big influence on subsequent art-making.

7. I might be misunderstanding you here, so apologies if so, but the cover of 'Goo', which you describe as "basically a Mike Kelley tribute trash-pop artwork." was by Raymond Pettibon, was it not? He is/was an exact contemporary of Kelley, who came up - as I am sure you know - making zine art work and flyers and LP covers for SST, Black Flag etc. I'm sure he'd love to hear you describe him as a pusher of "Mike Kelley tribute trash-pop artworks" although given the trajectory of his career I can also see that he's the sort to which you might apply a similar argument about rock'n'roll class betrayal as you would Kelley. As far as I can see, Pettibon's cover for 'Goo' looks just like something he'd have made ten years previously for Black Flag, which sort of renders your point a little shaky.

8. "Mike Kelley was not stupid nor complacent, and unlike his legions of laissez faire acolytes, couldn’t settle for being so co-opted, or for making the increasingly empty gestures that inevitably go hand in glove with an international art world career."

Well, that depends on whose 'international art career' you are talking about. I assume you are using the phrase 'international art career' as a sort of shorthand for being represented by blue-chip galleries, churning out work to be sold at art fairs, making a nice comfortable living and hobnobbing with some nebulous jetset crowd. Well, there are many artist who have had 'international art world careers', a good many of them whilst making piss-all money, refusing the social life and just making what they want to make. And there's nothing inevitable about anyone's art careers anymore than there is about the music career of some bloke with an old analogue synth and some Radiophonic Workshop samples.

9. It's refreshing to read a critique of Sonic Youth coming from The Wire, since your magazine has arguably championed them consistently over the years. That doesn't mean every review you've given of something that SY do has been positive, but you have given over one heck of a lot of column inches to them as a band and as individuals. Doesn't that make your publication somewhat complicit in the institutionalization of rock'n'roll, and in your thorough and exhaustive coverage of music's sometimes overlooked forgotten corners, in the curatorialization of music?

10. Hasn't The Wire functioned as a kind of super-conductor for hipsterism - a kind of 'lonely planet' guide to diverse and (to use your word) "vernacular" music cultures with a potentially banal and homogenising effect on the culture it pertains to explain? The Italian film maker Pier Paolo Pasolini - who was himself from a very bourgeois family, observed a phenomena he termed "bourgeois entropy" - the idea that all culture is rendered banal and middle-class through the effects of consumer capitalism - isn't that, broadly speaking, the kind of role The Wire has played in music consumption? Is it not a consumer guide? Perhaps your magazine itself is the true subject of your essay, and Mike Kelley and Sonic Youth are just ciphers with some characteristics that you have confused with your own function? Is this 'critique' of yours a form of confessional?

11. Isn't this idea of the "vernacular" and "working class" culture as authentic and "middle class" culture as fake also a massive cliché? And maybe also a rather consumer-based, middle class view that implies the "real people" should stay in their place in order to retain this 'authenticity'? I think it's terrific that Mike Kelley could move from working class Detroit to the upper-echelons of the art world through his own transformative, creative power - there are simply no rules as to how that plays out. If you apply self-conscious class / authenticity clichés to that artistic trajectory you’ll get reductive social assertions and projections, like those of Sham 69 or Blur, instead of the transcendent weirdness of PiL or The Fall. Personally, I think Mike Kelley’s art belongs in the latter category. I believe he went to art school with Kim Gordon and did the "Plato's Cave / Rothko's Chapel” live performance in collaboration with Sonic Youth in the mid 1980's and then they used some of his art for an album cover, after they'd already used work by the artists Richard Kern and Raymond Pettibon. Personally, I would not speculate on the Kelley - SY relationship beyond that.

Surprising piece coming from the editor and publisher of a magazine that put regular Sonic Youth collaborator Christian Marclay on the cover last October.

How does your argument work when applied to The Fall working with Michael Clark for 'I am Kurious Oranj' or Mark E Smith putting on his play 'Hey Luciani' with Leigh Bowery at Riverside Studios? Was MES implicitly supporting the imperialist ambitions of the art-theatrical-complex that stops the honest, salt-of-the-earth proletariat from producing plays and ballets about working class life? Going back further, what about a band like Joy Division, y'know, doing things such as reading books and titling their songs after bouji literary establishment champagne charlies with international publishing careers like JG Ballard? Maybe there's some answer to this, involving Sonic Youth and Blast First?

class war??? hmmmm, not sure I can buy that, especially as the Guardian is starting to champion a lot of the acts The Wire is getting all jizzy over. I couldnt give a fuck about all the hot air/uni debate crap, i just think its undignified that you'd write this piece so close after Kelleys suicide, and thats got fuck all to do with "petty bourgeois notions of proper etiquette", you know me, Tony, loud mouthed cunt. But just saying...

Mike Kelley was not abused by his father. I wouldn't blame Mike Kelley for the sins of Sonic Youth, unless you're ready to throw Dan Graham and Glenn Branca under the bus as well (but maybe you're just waiting for them to die too?) Also, I'm not so sure there's a mandate in conceptual art for anything to be "universally understood". The concept of universality itself is a contentious one in conceptual art circles, or at least in the Los Angeles conceptual art world. There are a few things lost in translation between America/L.A. and Britain. These are not the same art worlds "on the ground", though some of the "macro view" stuff in this piece are well put.

As Sam Davies quite rightly points out the touring exhibition that you refer to as Sensation Fix was indeed called 'Sonic Youth etc. :Sensational Fix'. This somewhat changes the context of your argument, especially as you reference the Saatchi collection show of '97 at the Royal Academy as being the show that launched the YBA's, which is patently untrue. Also Sensational Fix didn't tour the world, in fact it didn't leave Europe, as the host town and cities were: St Nazaire, Bolzano, Düsseldorf, Malmö, and Madrid. It is however true that there were plans for the show to reach the UK and America.

While I thoroughly disagree with a lot of your points it has certainly been an interesting read and has highlighted for me just how misunderstood SY are.

This is great, truly fantastic. Fighting talk.

I really like the reading of Sonic Youth that "Goo" and "Dirty" are superior statements than their earlier LPs, even if I struggle with it as a judgement on a purely visceral basis.

I also don't quite share your antipathy to the insectoid art world, or at least music's relationship with it - not just because (as David Stubbs talks around his book) that by its very lack of singularity and tangibility music has denied itself commodification in this sphere.

The great art rock, from No Wave and the early NDW to The Velvets and Can never quite plays the art world's game. I believe it often does little more than take the best of what there is to offer.

In the wake of Mike Kelley’s death, I read numerous publications discussing the affects his work on the art community. Many careers involve work that reflects an individual’s beliefs formed from life experiences including childhood and their family’s financial status.

Sadly, not a single publication recognized that he was a human being and had family that loved him. He was NOT abuse by his father. My grandfather was one of the two kindness men to walk the earth. My father, Mike’s brother was the other. I suggest that you verify information prior to libeling those who have died.

I share the same iconoclastic and unconventional views about the religious and cultural dogma force on children

He was not an icon, when was simply my uncle Michael.

Re: the comments of K S Kelley, in writing the post I feel I did try to hold onto the incontrovertible fact that Mike Kelley was a human being with family and friends who loved and admired him. But I also believe it would be doing him and his art a disservice if such sentiments were allowed to get in the way of anyone attempting to engage honestly with his work and its wider influence or implications. With regard to the statement that he had been abused by his father, I was merely repeating what I took to be the facts of his own biography. Perhaps I should have been wary of taking such things at face value. Perhaps I am guilty of overlooking in this instance one of the defining aspects of the kind of conceptual art practiced (or maybe fabricated would be a better way of putting it) by Mike Kelley, ie that facts are mutable, reality is mendacious, and nothing is exactly as it seems. If that is the case, I sincerely regret any distress caused, while standing by the thrust of my wider argument (despite all the opprobrium poured on it by the earlier comments).

Wheres he sposed to go tho? There no longer even more ideological + dumm

as a lay person, I am just curious to know if abuse of any kind actually happened. I only say this because, in educational complex the book, the writers really work hard to convince you that it did not.

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