An analysis and history of an interconnected space: popular music and its relationship to the art school.
Kim Gordon, a founding member of Sonic Youth and a graduate of the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California, once supposedly remarked that “art obsession is ideology … ideology can be made sexy, but it’s easier in music.” This could, perhaps, explain why so many of music’s greatest pioneers were once, like Kim Gordon, art school students. The spectrum of creativity and its many disciplines are undoubtedly interlinked; however, for many, when it comes to the transmission and expression of creativity, music is the clearest and most direct method of expression. This article will, therefore, explore the interconnected history between music, art, and the art school.
The story of this interconnected relationship began in the 1960s. Liverpool College of Art’s most famous dropout, John Lennon, spearheaded the British Invasion as well as the birth of experimental rock, while London’s own art schools would aid in the formation of The Rolling Stones and The Who. Across the pond, the influence of New York’s growing art scene on rock music, made clear through a particular Velvet Underground album cover, would go on to birth a genre explicitly highlighting the connection between art and rock.
The release of The Velvet Underground and Nico in 1967, along with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, brought art-rock into the mainstream. This gave musicians the ability to use the format of the album as a canvas, with the 1970’s becoming a musical era shaped by the art school graduate. This began with Pink Floyd, graduates of Regent Street Polytechnic and Cambridgeshire Art School, and their seminal 1973 record The Dark Side of the Moon. It would also lead Ealing Art College student Freddie Mercury to write Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975, whose influence in popularising what was once considered absurdity, especially in the form of pop music, cannot be understated.
After 1975, the line between art and music became blurred, motivating those caught up in the sonic world to shift their canvas toward truly defiant sounds. 1975 saw Winchester School of Art graduate and Roxy Music dropout Brian Eno create Another Green World, a record utterly synaesthetic and immersive in its ambience. This sonic blueprint inspired what may be art-rock and the art schools’ greatest achievement in music: David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. Still, one may choose to refute this, considering that Maryland Institute College of Art dropout David Byrne and his band, the Talking Heads, would release another album called Remain in Light in 1980.
The influence of this period on Western popular music as a whole has been staggering, with art school graduates, prodigies and dropouts continuing to shape music over the next 40 years. Think of Thom Yorke, graduate of Fine Arts at the University of Exeter, Tupac Shakur, student at Baltimore School of Arts, the entirety of REM, Karen O, and lastly Travis’ Fran Healy, graduate of Glasgow School of Art.
When considering the impact of the art school on music, one must also consider the impact of art itself. One must consider whether music and art are in fact the same thing. There are those who consider the innate commerciality of music a form of art, or others who consider its ability for popular transmission and communication a form of expression. While this argument will remain subjective, it is an objective fact that those immersed in creativity will continue to create, whether what they are doing is considered art or not. As the great Virgil Abloh is meant to have said: “I don’t have the patience to be a non-creator.”