The Medium Is The Message: Art & Music
Music and art have had a solid, long-standing relationship since 1938, when at the tender age of 23, Alex Steinweiss — the so-called ‘Creator of the Album Cover’ — decided record sales might skyrocket if one ousted brown paper covers in exchange for intriguing visuals.
Well, he was right.
Artists like Andy Warhol, Mike Kelley and Robert Mapplethorpe have collaborated with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, and Patti Smith on what are now considered iconic album covers. Such a relationship between artist and musician fostered a journey of creative transcendence, one in which we the consumer get the unique experience of owning not just an album of music, but a bona fide work of art.
But, in an age-old process that would make Darwin blush with pride, the appearance of the 8-track, cassette tape and compact disc diminished vinyl’s popularity. Furthermore, iTunes has decreased sales of all mediums. And while some of these forms haven’t gone the way of the dodo, album art has, admittedly, taken a hard blow to the gut as a result of a less tangible product.
Enter Kanye West, a musician we admittedly love to hate. However, West makes up for past transgressions in the way he continues to evolve beyond music. He has already shown a penchant for artist/musician album art collaborations — Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami teamed up with West for his junior effort Graduation, and for the 2010 single release, ‘Power’, West turned to painter George Condo. This time around, it is his partnership with Italian born Canadian artist Marco Brambilla that has had the Internet buzzing for weeks.
The Brambilla directed video for ‘Power’, from West’s forthcoming as yet untitled fifth studio album, is a single, slow motion shot detailing a renaissance portrait of the musician looking to retrace his steps and deliver on his promise. It is a cataclysmic moving collage of epic proportions sprung, you might say, from the torrid affair of Dante’s Inferno and a wanton kaleidoscope. It’s typical Brambilla.
But with an added dash of Bosch hubris and neoclassical iconography reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Judgement, Brambilla’s work is an ode of dark religious spectacle and decadent Surrealism that initiates an entirely new realm of artistic possibility within West’s vision. It is a truly mesmerizing piece which, much to my disappointment, clocks in at just over ninety seconds.
And while it would seem more of an art piece than music video (though does it really matter?), I have to say, it is pretty intriguing stuff. For someone who has never watched any rap/hip-hop video in its entirety, I wanted more than was dished out. That’s a good sign, no? Mini blockbusters brought to us by the likes of Lady Gaga aren’t exactly necessary to get tongues wagging; if anything, the bar, I should think, is raised.
While Brambilla has enjoyed a lot of attention from his collaboration with West, so, it should be said, is his contemporary Will Cotton. We have the Los Angeles based painter to thank (and thank you, very much) for Katy Perry’s exploding whipped cream bra in the video for her still popular summer anthem ‘California Gurls’.
Cotton, an artist known primarily for his oddly tasteful, hyper-realistic confectionary portraits of ladies in the buff, was an artistic consultant for the colour saturated, eye candy ode to summer sun, girls from the West coast and, as if it wasn’t already obvious, Candyland. The result, though perhaps not on par with ‘Power’, is shamelessly fun. It is an alliance that has seen Cotton’s name and work increase to the kind of artistic fame only a select few are privy to. And if it couldn’t seem more perfect for the self-proclaimed Katy Perry fan, the singer sat for a personally commissioned Cotton portrait that has since been immortalized on the cover of her yet to be released sophomore album Teenage Dream. A cover, I might add, that features our God-fearing pop tart resting seductively (and rather naked) on a cloud of fluffy pink cotton candy.
Teenage Dream indeed.
This sort of work, in my opinion, is the very kick-in-the-pants the relationship between artist and musician needs. Completely forgoing the argument that all music videos and album covers are considered art, regardless of who is responsible for them, one cannot deny that the stakes are higher than they have ever been.
Or maybe not.
All I know is, the music starts to have a lot more meaning when paired with intriguing, thoughtfully produced, artist based visuals. I think Alex Steinweiss just might agree.