- Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko but Don't Get Stockhausen
David Stubbs has undertaken a gargantuan task in this slim volume, that of asking and addressing a simple question: "Why has avant garde music failed to attain the audience, the cachet, the legitimacy of its visual equivalent?" (p. 1) In the process, the book also tersely summarizes the major ideas and developments in music and visual art over the course of the twentieth century, no small undertaking. Fear of Music is, of course, the title of the third studio album by the (appropriately) art rock band Talking Heads, whose members were themselves visual artists turned musicians. A music journalist since 1986, Stubbs has written for Vox, Melody Maker, NME, Uncut, The Guardian, and The Times. He has also written books on Jimi Hendrix and Eminem, as well as on Arsenal footballer, Charlie Nicholas.
Stubbs makes no pretension that this is an entirely defensible or even finished work. "This text isn't intended as a sealed and finished piece of academic work—it's as much a matter of questions, suspicions and impressions as answers, historical facts and conclusions. It's intended to tease and provoke further reflection, debate and disagreement rather than to settle any matter" (p. 2). That said, what would make this volume more useful to scholars and music and art enthusiasts alike would be lists of selected visual artists, as well as works and playlists or selected discographies. This is because, though Stubbs' book is vital and highly recommended, it also covers an enormous amount of historical ground, especially when one considers its modest length. A further challenge to the reader is hinted at by Stubbs' writing for The Wire. Those acquainted with that magazine will have some idea of what to expect: references to works and artists who are not household names, or who are completely unfamiliar.
Something modern letters and visual art have managed more successfully than art music is to foster cults of personality. Art has its Jackson Pollocks and letters has its Jack Kerouacs, figures whose notorious lifestyles and temperaments were as famous as their works, if not more so. Classical music has nobody comparable to offer, and within the world of jazz, vital innovators such as John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra were all [End Page 105] African Americans who struggled just to have their works accepted in a virtually all-white music establishment, let alone gain acceptance or even tolerance of their works by the general populace. Their work was as ground breaking, their personalities were certainly charismatic, yet they were not celebrated in the musical world to a degree comparable to that of their visual art counterparts. To this day, though Coltrane is given lip service, they remain what one could only refer to as underground artists who have yet to be celebrated in the way that visual artists such as Pollock and Warhol have been for decades.
Another thing to consider: Because Stubbs' argument rests on a comparison of art worlds, are his choices of correspondences between visual artists and musicians always the most appropriate? For instance, might the minimalist artist Donald Judd be more parallel to Stockhausen than Rothko or Pollock? Judd deliberately set up operations in Marfa, Texas so that the works at his Chinati Foundation would be permanently installed and not be part of the constant revolving door scene of urban galleries. Doing so also had the result of making the Foundation's featured artists and works distinctly inaccessible to the masses in large cities. As Judd looked outside the canvas and pulled in elements from outside the traditional realm of visual art, Stockhausen did the same with music. Or perhaps Warhol and Pollock have more in common with Paul Simon and The Who than they do with Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. Warhol in particular, like Salvador Dalí before him—possibly the first modern artist to seek out celebrity status—thrived on public attention. Although Warhol and Pollock seem to...