If the Hard Rock Cafe had a branch in SoHo, it could learn a lot from Sympathy for the Devil
The world needs another review of the MCA’s birthday party, Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967, like I need another hole in my head, and for this I apologize. But every review I’ve read is boring and excruciatingly balanced. All the critics seem to say different variations of the same thing: “This show is kinda good and kinda bad. Happy birthday.” Why is everyone afraid to hurt the MCA’s feelings? Why is everyone not talking about the boring, stupid, shoe-gazing elephant in the room? I fear no art, as the MCA would say, and I also fear no art institution; I will say it: Sympathy for the Devil is like a huge, sorta pretentious, cold, burgerless, Aerosmithless Hard Rock Cafe.
I had a friend in town from central Florida when the show opened, so naturally, wanting to strut my city’s stuff, I took him to the MCA’s much-hyped birthday kick-off First Friday. I had never been to one of these meat-market art gawkings, but it looked hip, right? It’s the MCA. It’s rock and roll. And hey, there would be free food and we could get drunk on stuff and look at art that would blow his tan, flip-flop-wearing mind, with shit he couldn’t see in Tampa. I couldn’t wait until his envy was the only topic of conversation. Oh yes, I would gobble up his envy and send him back home to tell all his friends how awesome Chicago was and how awesome I had become as a result of living here. His envy and jealousy would surely fuel me well into the following week.
But as soon as we arrived to the First Friday festivities, I knew I had made a mistake: Macy’s was having a “best dressed” contest. They had a bulletin board of polaroids of people they deemed in-the-running for best dressed (needless to say, we weren’t on it), and the superficiality of this celebration of decoration set us up for the show we were about to see.
Truthfully, we took in Sympathy for the Devil in under a half hour. We zipped right by the audio/visual recreation of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation cover, over Christian Marclay’s college-town-coffee-shop-esque record-covered floor installation, past the empty recording studio (which can be rented by the hour), and we poked our head in on the projected bootleg concert footage of the The Cramps, The Smiths, and the Rolling Stones. But we kept waiting for something to stop us from zipping up to the real show on the 2nd floor: Collection Highlights, which includes Rauschenbeg’s Retroactive II, and Other Vietnam Memorial, an amazingly huge, scary, brass book listing the names of vietnamese killed in the War.
Now, I don’t like being mean. It takes guts or arrogance to throw together a show as hollow and digestible as Sympathy. I’m going to give curator Dominic Molon the benefit of the doubt and assume he used GUTS to throw this together. Molon took a risk to get people to come into a museum to look at art. Sort of like when you sneak your dog’s medicine into a little piece of cheese. But the MCA’s birthday bash seems to be mostly cheese and not much pill.
Whatever the case, Sympathy missed an opportunity to validate both rock’n’roll- and music-related art as something that can be challenging and engaging. This could have been a show that said “Look, there’s a reason the White Album is white. Let’s explore that,” but instead, it was a show that said, “LOOK! Art is easy to look at! It won’t take that long! Come in! Look! You like Rolling Stones, dad! You like the Sonic Youth, kids! Mom, you like Morrissey! Oh wait, how’d that Morrissey video get in here? Who is this Morrissey video for again?”