“Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll” at the Metropolitan Museum showcases hundreds of instruments that were either owned by, played by, or are just like those owned or played by famous rock and roll musicians throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. As I walked into the uncharacteristically contemporary, sleek space in the American wing that houses the show at the Met, I found myself suddenly wondering: where is the art here?
WHAT: Play It Loud:Instruments of Rock & Roll
WHERE: Metropolitan Museum of Art
WHEN: April 8-October 1, 2019
Isn’t this a bit like having a show of Flemish paintbrushes of the 16th and 17th centuries? Because while we can discuss whether the twangy intro riff on “Ticket to Ride” or the kinetic guitar solo that kicks off “Hot for Teacher” are “art” or not (they are), or whether or not they are high or low art and what that might mean (especially in the context of Eddie Van Halen’s virtuoso technical prowess in contrast to the mass appeal of his music), neither of these most obvious questions sheds much light on the question of whether John Lennon’s custom twelve-string Rickenbacker or Eddie Van Halen’s patched together axe are, themselves, “art.”
Having said that, there is something moving about seeing the Rickenbacker, created for Lennon in the early 60s, sitting on a miniature stage beside a legendary set of Ludwig drums, or seeing guitars (and shards of guitars) played at various watershed moments of contemporary music by the likes of Jimi Hendrix. This is less true of the pieces, educational though they may be, that are models of instruments similar to those played by certain musicians or on certain recordings. Adding to the layered question, there are also artifacts that are undeniably art—paintings specifically created for album artwork by George Condo, James Grashow, Tony Fitzpatrick and others.
For me, there is something particularly astute about Georg Lukács’s argument that the experience of art is not some immaterial thing between the work, the artist, and the viewer. The work of art itself, he argues, is the total, materialized experience. This show certainly complicates that assertion. After all, these instruments are sitting silently behind glass, many unplayed for years, their original owners long dead.
While the custom Rickenbacker is a unique artifact, the hybrid Van Halen piece a personal tether between artist and artwork, and other pieces such as virtual pile of analogue synthesizers or Kim Gordon’s bass guitar from the “Bad Moon Rising” days are historically significant, these pieces of “art” stand divorced from both their creators/owners and the music that they were used to create.
I agonized (sort of) over these questions as I wandered past several of Steve Miller’s guitars and another miniature stage setup, this time featuring instruments once played by The Who. Regardless of these questions, I asked myself if it felt like art that I was seeing, or experiencing, or whatever. The first answer, before even thinking, is an emphatic “yes,” almost too obvious to warrant a second thought. Of course I wanted to see artifacts from Prince’s stage shows. And honestly, who wouldn’t be interested in a bunch of Peter Paul Rubens’s paintbrushes?