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Popular Music and the Visual Arts today: A Modern Dichotomy?


Popular music musicians’ venturing into other, perceived more serious and longer established areas of the visual arts is not unknown. The long, and well known relationship between the art school student, and the formation of rock ‘n’ roll/indie bands and musicians is somewhat of a tradition in the UK; made famous in the 1960’s by bands like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who and The Rolling Stones.

Having said this however there has always been much scepticism over musicians who try and practise these two disciplines simultaneously. It’s hard to disagree with these criticisms as they are usually correct. One just has to see a Ronnie Wood (i) or Bob Dylan (ii) exhibition as testimony to this statement. Now I have no issue with any famous artist - musical or otherwise - enjoying a spot of painting or other artistic pursuits. The problem as I see it, arises when the art world is wooed by fame and celebrity and attempts to ‘take seriously’ the work of second rate artists because of their status in the media. The granting of shows at galleries around the world to these musicians (which remember happens at the expense of superior, life long visual artists), is not a major concern, but will always stick in the artist’s ‘craw’ somewhat and is perhaps the single biggest reason for this annoyance over it.

Photo_PR_28_422941bi) Ronnie at work in his studio

LONDON - FEBRUARY 10:  A painting by Bob Dylan entitled 'Train Tracks .2' is shown for the first time at Halcyon Gallery on February 10, 2010 in London, England. The Bob Dylan on Canvas Exhibition debuts  the music legend's first-ever paintings on canvas. Open to the public from Saturday 13th February until 10th April 2010 at Halcyon Gallery at 24 Bruton Street, Mayfair - London.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for Halcyon Gallery)ii) A Bob Dylan show at the Danish National Gallery last year

It seems to me that there are perhaps three common areas to this discussion. One is, as was express previously; the established musical artist broadening their artistic scope while still practicing as a successful musician; and this has always proved to be the most problematic. The second modus operandi might be the musician who has some kind of artistic calling, or just bores of the undoubted creative restrictions which exist in popular music, and moves away from their initial occupation in order to fully concentrate on creating visual pieces. This also gives them a perceived better chance of being accepted by the art world. Two notable artists who have followed this example are Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart (iii) and Paul Simonon (iv) formerly of The Clash, who both quit music (in Beefheart’s case sadly never to return) in order to practice their painting. The third category; as I see it, are those musicians who use the visual as a secondary part of their musical work. This has the least problems associated with it as it never really leaves the musical arena; it just helps package the music and gives it a secondary dimension. One of the most famous individuals to use this approach was The Stone Roses John Squire (v) (who has subsequently become part of the last category), whose designs were used as record art works for his music. Morrisey (vi) could be considered as part of this group also, as he designed many of the record sleeves for The Smiths. I concede there may be some grey areas with regards these categorisations but this gives a brief synopsis of the topic.


iii) Don with artwork; Photograph by Anton Corbijn

Paul simonon 1

iv) A Paul Simonon painting 

Stone Roses artwork

v) Pollock inspired collage used on the bands self-titled debut album by John Squire 

The question of whether this fractured relationship between the visual arts and pop music can ever be successfully negotiated by an artist is the aim of this investigation. In order to ask some contemporary questions about this subject, and put the focus back on its relevance today, I will use a specific example.


vi) Album design for The Queen is Dead by Morrisey

I feel for the purpose of this task one must look to an artist/musician who is in the fledgling stages of their career. Being new to both creative fields, I feel is the only way that an individual might be able to successfully negotiate some of the poignant issues described in my previous categorisation of this dilemma.

Therefore the subject I have chosen is one John Bryden (vii). I believe he adequately fits this enquiry because of my previous background knowledge of his vocation, as well as my own feelings of solidarity towards this strive for an existing artistic duality, and a possible successful amalgamation of popular music and visual artistic expression; of which John is also trying to accomplish in his own work.


vii) John Bryden

John is the song writer, composer, arranger and overall band leader of new Scottish band The Machine Room (viii)( Based in Edinburgh, his band formed only a year ago and are about to release their debut single Girly (listen here: which comes out on the 23rd of May. They are also about to embark on a four date Scottish tour. As well as this, John is a photographic and video artist (and occasional curator) in the honours year of a Photography and Film degree at Edinburgh Napier University. He is a new exhibiting artist, and young, yet accomplished music creator and performer.

The Machine Room

viii) The band at work

John's Artwork

Artwork and music; an image created by Bryden

I will put several questions to John relating to this case study in an attempt to find out what relationships and problems he thinks exist today between these two contemporary artistic disciplines.

The questions and subsequent answers will be publish on the 7th of May; only at Pipe.


  1. Interesting and well illustrated piece. Made me think of Daniel Johnston who might get a category all to himself: the musician/artist who is in a way outside both camps. Johnston's artwork was recently included in a show at New Art Gallery Walsall, alongside Louise Bourgeois, Chris Ofili and Lucia Noguiera, (The Life of the Mind curated by Bob and Roberta Smith) so he must be doing something right.

  2. Thanks Mark,
    Yeah I know Daniel Johnston's work well but only really as a musician. Martin Creed, the Turner prize winning artist also currently has a band, not sure what it sounds like other than it being suitably avante garde. Then, as I was saying to friend on Saturday night, there is Billy Childish who I intentionally avoided as his case is much more complex.

    Anyway I tried to give some of the more better known examples, and as I say, I conceed there will always be grey areas and exceptions to my categorisations. However I just wanted to give a very general intro to the case study.

    I am very glad you apperciated the piece. Great you could comment also. This is one of the reasons why we started the blog so as to create a bit of a dialogue.

    Part two will be on the blog by the weekend with John's answers to our questions, hope you get a chance to read this to.





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