Or do I? It occurs to me that one of my favorite musical conceits is the cover. Often you more clearly see musicians’ true virtuosity when they take something that seems utterly perfect and untouchable in the original and make it completely their own, Probably my all-time favorite is Tori Amos’ version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I love how Ryan Adams transforms Oasis’s signature “Wonderwall” into a tender ballad, Madeleine Peyroux makes a torch song out of Elliot Smith’s “Between the Bars,” and the way Elizabeth Cook countrifies the heck out of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”….this is a subject about which I could go on and on.
However while good musical covers can often seem like collaborations between greats, when it comes to visual art they tend to cancel each other out. Off hand, I can think of only a few examples of “art about art” that have ever blown me away. One was a series of Warhol paintings after de Chirico that I once saw at a Basel Art Fair and, of course, there’s Yves Klein’s “Venus de Milo” Most of the time, however, it sets up a comparison—with the viewer in the position of judge—where one side, usually the interpreter, inevitably loses. If you’re not as good as the artist you’re borrowing from or commenting on—David Salle appropriating Chardin, for instance, only makes us think about how much better a painter Chardin was—why bring attention to that? And if you’re better, why lower yourself with inferior material?