Where it's Art

Sound Salvation is a biweekly music column by Sarah Vowell. Beck puts his collages onto canvas alongside those of his late grandfather, Fluxus artist Al Hansen

Published June 1, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

After four centuries on the North American continent -- four centuries of self-made men and women, breaking out, breaking away, on their own, away from the family farm, the family business, the family itself -- it has become startling, almost subversive, to carry on the pursuits of one's ancestors. With the possible exception of the impending George Bush dynasty, family traditions are appearing more and more attractive as Americans grow ever more rootless.

I am trying to figure out just why it is that people are so delighted to discover that pop music's great hope Beck Hansen is the grandson of the late Fluxus artist Al Hansen. Because if you know anything of the work of either artist, the similarities are a little too perfect, a little too amusing to enumerate. Beck Hansen creates songs that are, at times, more montage than music, incorporating found sounds, counterintuitive poetic rapping and genre bopping between funk, folk, punk, rock and hip-hop. Al Hansen made playful, poetic collages out of found objects, often shoving words (like the "Her" in a Hershey's chocolate bar wrapper) out of their context onto a dance floor of canvas, referencing art traditions while thumbing his nose at them, often in the same picture.

The Santa Monica Museum of Art is currently sponsoring an exhibition of Al and Beck Hansen's art called "Playing with Matches." The show is fabulous yet flawed, mostly thanks to Beck's contribution: lame collages employing magazine cut-outs of body builders and ad slogans and food attached to paper with what could only be Elmer's Glue. You might call them high school art class rejects except that figures like "Special Police," in which a portrait of a cop is constructed of toy pistols and toy badges stuck onto burlap, are downright fourth grade. Is this the Beck of "Odelay"? The slap-happy sophisticate of "two turntables and a microphone"? Apparently tape-splicing and toy gun-gluing require completely different, nontransferable talents.

Beck's real contribution to the show is that his name will probably introduce a larger, younger audience to his grandfather's work and, by extension, Fluxus, a movement that is only beginning to be taught in college art history courses -- despite the fact that its insistence on comedy, the absurd, the found and the free would be a useful inspiration for contemporary thinkers. Fluxus teaches a way of living in, and loving, the world. By offering small, profound performances where, say, a person eats an orange like an apple, or slowly tears a piece of paper in half, or places a vase of flowers on a piano, it highlights the beauty and humor of everyday life.

Al Hansen's collages, the real jewels of the Santa Monica show, are hilarious examples of that life-lovin' impulse, especially his series of Venuses. These silhouettes of voluptuous females, inspired by Paleolithic goddess sculptures such as the famous "Venus of Willendorf," are made humorously humble thanks to their materials: cigarette butts or Hershey bar wrappers. "Cigarette Butt Venus II," of 1976, for example, is a beautiful, horrible antismoking ad. It is a woman's body composed entirely of dirty, decaying, spilled tobacco and rotting papers. It looks as though it was built for the express purpose of disintegrating -- not unlike the human body itself. The Hershey Venuses exhibit the same bombshell proportions as the cigarette-butt butts, but these are made more musical by the shouting words tattooed on the bodies: YES and HER and SHE and HEY. These are pop-song words -- short, simple, direct.

One of the thrills of Beck's songs comes from his infectious non sequiturs of such simple, frequently monosyllabic words: "Bottles and cans let's clap your hands." In Al's collages called "intermedia poems," newspaper headlines are simply glued horizontally down a page in no particular order. When you pick out headlines like "Hush Puppy hard man takes on apple terrorist" or "Wise men of Bath with a passion for ants" or, especially, "Writing the High Life into the Spy Life," they read as if they're straight out of Beck's album "Odelay."

The exhibit is about the conversation between Beck's work and his grandfather's. But there is also the simple and obvious fact that these two men were family, that they talked to each other, loved each other. According to the show's exhibition catalog, Beck visited Al at his Cologne studio frequently between 1989 and '91, where they hung out, as well as collaborated on art projects. The most moving artifact in the entire show is a poem Beck wrote for his grandfather after his death in 1995, "Masai Ticket for Al." "My rocking horse guillotine/My backseat rhyme-master," he calls Al. In the poem, Beck hints at Al as his inspiration and ally:

Constructor of invitations to the garbage life

The garbage moonlight

The garbage love

Digging on Al

Here's the letter I meant to sent

Here's the bent ticket and no more rent

Here's to you and your thing Al

Always Al

And always Al

And love to Al

Not two minutes after I read that poem, felt its love and loss, saw the results of freewheeling familial encouragement filling up a room, I was sitting in one of the beanbag chairs of the museum's video gallery watching films of Al Hansen's performances. A child walks in, a little girl. She sits down on the floor and watches Al in a combat helmet typing on a typewriter rigged with firecrackers. It is a comical, curious act and the girl giggles a little. Then, her mother swoops into the room, grabs her daughter and drags her out, harping, "You're not interested in this." Heresy here in this utopia of shared passions and shared blood.

In Carlo McCormick's thoughtful interview with Beck in the exhibition catalog (published by Smart Art Press), Beck comes off smart enough, and original enough and also kind enough to talk up his grandfather's work without denigrating his own. He says of the stuff Al kept in his garage as a child: "He'd have a pile of beautiful art book editions next to a stack of maybe 200 TV Guides. These things were equal in terms of some sort of neutered hierarchy -- or not neutered, but maybe a hierarchy trapped in a fog bank." It's a gorgeous image, that fog bank, and it speaks to some of the clichés that can hardly be avoided so late in this, the century of collage. There's the now-old saw: Taking something worthless (a cig butt, let's say) and making it art, "turning shit into gold," in Al Hansen's words.

Collage is a powerful idea, but not to everyone. Beck paid homage to Duchamp's you-call-it-art-it's-art urinal when he wrote a song called "Readymade." You get the sense, though, that he knows some people see that act as cheating -- as not so much making something as stealing it from somewhere else. As a composer who relies upon sampling, he's bound to be touchy: When McCormick asks him if he considers his work "assemblage," Beck replies, "I like to think of it as an orchestration. Just because when people tend to name something musical as assemblage or collage it cheapens it somehow. It kind of destroys the romance of the alchemy." Orchestration, which is not the most romantic of words, does imply the sweaty but skilled labor of old-school arrangers like Nelson Riddle.

Another idea Beck might be hinting at is simply that musical metaphors are more powerful than Frenchy art-historical ones like "assemblage." Al certainly picked up on this as well, partly because of his involvement in Fluxus -- the first and only art movement to use music as its primary metaphor, calling performances concerts, using musical instruments instead of paintbrushes and canvas, dressing in concert attire for the evenings in which they abused, dismantled and destroyed things such as violins as a way of attacking and/or celebrating music and musical culture. When Al speaks in a video of his Dada hero Kurt Schwitters (the first person to glue butts and call it art), he says, "Schwitters was very important to me. Above all he was a master composer, the way he placed objects in relation to each other."

Music, and pop music especially, is generally more immediate, more surprising, more fun than fine art. When people talk about the Beck-Al Hansen connection, the first impulse is to call Beck a collage artist, thereby "elevating" his work to a higher, snobbier stratum. But if Al were still around he might prefer his collages to be called songs. He even titled one of the Hershey pieces "Song Slice." Its lyrics are "HEY HEY HEY/SHE SHE SHE." You know, in case you want to sing along.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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