Mark Mothersbaugh: The Contemporary Devolution

by Vala Schriefer

Mark Mothersbaugh lives the life of an artist. He acts on spontaneous whims and encompasses what he believes is living “creatively”. Mothersbaugh has not only designed, but has expanded upon a contemporary art style, particularly influencing the 1970’s techno music style. One might describe his art as kooky or even awkward, as it can be hard to understand the “position” Mothersbaugh is taking in his art. However, it is this exact awkwardness and discomfort that he has learned to play with.

Mark Mothersbaugh attended Kent State University during the same time as the shooting of 1970. Mothersbaugh and a group of friends labeled these horrors as the “devolution” of society, and later, named their group Devo, inspired by the event. Many will know Mothersbaugh as the lead singer of this mid to late seventies band. Based in Akron, Ohio, Devo was part of “New Wave” music movement. Although they are often considered a band, they never placed the label upon themselves. They called their five-person group an “art collective” because they orchestrated new techno music sounds, striking short films and other bold visual art. These short films were essentially music videos; however, they did not actually exist during the time of Devo’s exploration.

Watching these “music videos” can leave you scratching your head thinking, ‘what did I just see?’ It’s not something you will easily forget. Mothersbaugh employs choppy vocals and unfamiliar “mechanical sounds” to create a masterpiece of bizarre. The group was unconventional, often wearing colorful costumes and peculiar masks in videos and live performances. The most iconic of their costumes were their bright red flower-pot-looking hats. One of their videos called “Beautiful World”, plays an upbeat tune over Mark Mothersbaugh singing “It’s a beautiful world for you, but not for me.” Mothersbaugh wears a strange mask and points to the camera as he says the word “you”. The video shows scenes of war, bombing, starving children and other vivid horrors. This video can be linked to the essence of Devo; the devolution of the world.

The music group gained popularity over time; some of their most famous songs being “Whip it”, “Satisfaction” (a Rolling Stones cover) and “Girl you want”. Mothersbaugh continues to make music, art, and inhabit a world he has created through them. His work outside of Devo has never been shown before. Adam Lerner, a curator at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, stumbled upon and became fascinated with the boldness of Mothersbaugh. Lerner was intrigued by Mothersbaugh’s artistic style and offered to curate a solo exhibition. The exhibition consists of similar forms of the raw creativity that the Devo “art collective” strived to produce. Mothersbaugh’s show is all about being different; being the change. The show is titled Myopia and is currently at The Contemporary Art Center which is located in Cincinnati. The show is coming to Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art in May of 2016.

The show encompasses the past and present development of Mothersbaugh and includes a little Devo here and there. Mothersbaugh’s art doesn’t immediately click with you; it’s a creative journey through his snappy artistic attitude that has no direct “bottom line”. Mark Mothersbaugh once wrote that to be an artist is not to make one great masterpiece, but rather to live creatively.