Bob Dylan, Visual Art, and Marketing

The recent Times interview with Bob Dylan has mostly gotten attention for the (characteristically cryptic) endorsement of Barack Obama that Dylan threw in at the end. The Times even published a news article about their own feature in order to expand on the point. As a Dylan acolyte, I am certainly glad to hear that the man himself likes the same candidate as me, but there’s more to the interview than that endorsement, and it relates in particular to the subject of this blog, which is art. Dylan has become a painter.

The particular point I want to comment on is the position of an artist with a reputation in one area crossing over into an unrelated one. Of course, the celebrity novel that rides on name recognition rather than actual quality is not an unfamiliar thing, and one could easily assume the same of Dylan’s visual art – that it would not be in a gallery if it were made by an unknown. (Dylan has published a novel, by the way, although it’s hardly the sort of thing you’d expect to come of a celebrity book deal – from what I’ve read of it, it’s reminiscent of André Breton’s automatically-written Nadja. It’s calledTarantula.)

But while a People Magazine-level actor would hardly have trouble getting a novel out there, the world of visual art is different from that of trade publishing. Sez Dylan, “The critics didn’t want to review it. The publisher told me they couldn’t get past the idea of another singer who dabbled. You know, like, ‘David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney…Everyone’s doing it these days.’ No one from the singing profession was going to be taken seriously by the art world, I was told, but that was OK.”

Perhaps this reflects well on the visual art establishment – that Dylan’s celebrity status turned out to be a hindrance to getting his art out there rather than a boon. Dylan himself compares the visual art world favorably to the music industry: “From the small steps I’ve taken in [the art world], I’d say, yeah, the people are honest, upfront and deliver what they say. Basically, they are who they say they are. They don’t pretend.” In any case, it shows that critics have a much more prominent place in visual art than in literature, which tends to listen much more to the market than to the experts. What complicates the issue is that it’s not just a matter of the difference between a gallery, which is a destination, and a book, which is a product: the first edition of Dylan’s art book, Drawn Blank, came out in 1994, while his first gallery exhibition, held in London, is just opening until this Saturday.

As regards the art, I’m reserving final judgment until I see more of it, but I haven’t been blown away yet. From the examples that the Times article provides, it seems to go for the same sort of mood that Dylan’s most imagistic songs convey, and it pulls it off fairly well. I’m not sure whether it really adds anything substantive to that mood, but I like to think that it’s getting attention for its own merits, and not just because it’s Bob Dylan. Even if it’s read as outsider art, which it probably could be considered, that’s a better position to be in than celebrity tie-in.


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