The Forlorn World of Album Cover Art: Was It Kitsch All Along?

Boogie Woogie, AlexSteinweiss, 1941

In 2008, reknowned art critic Peter Frank noted that, “nothing focuses the mind on a design genre like its obsolescence.”

Album art is indeed dead, part of an entire ethos that has also surrendered its vitality to Father Time. But what are we to make of the corpse? Were album cover designs ever “real art” or just kitsch marketing ploys to lure consumers.

Album covers, and later compact disc covers, were designed to sell the product within the packaging. It’s unlikely that anyone has ever purchased an album composed by a musician or group of musicians they detested merely because the album cover design was to their liking.

At its core, album art is almost automatically kitsch, creative endeavors for the purpose of selling product and of course for mass reproduction.

Legendary art critic and uptight asshole Clement Greenberg would perhaps argue that the “aura” (if there was one to begin with) of these pieces evaporated the moment they were affixed to a mass produced medium. He’s probably right.

But then again, should one entirely dismiss album cover designs out of hand? After all, they were designed to sell music, not toothpaste or mutual funds and some of the musical compositions they adorned were themselves avant garde compositions within their particular genres. Alex Steinweiss’s work on several cutting edge jazz albums, Peter Blake’s iconic imagery on The Beatles’ groundbreaking album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, even Stanley Miller’s work on posters and other imagery for bands like the Grateful Dead which capture the ethos of 1960’s counterculture, all contributed something noteworthy to pop art. The artwork here was intended to be part of the experience of listening to the record (or seeing the live performance). Is it far-fetched to think that in some instances where musical genius was brought together with innovative cover design, both the aural and visual experiences were enhanced?

Most album art is kitsch. (Some amazing and hilarious examples are included for your viewing pleasure below). However, I would argue that there are some instances in which designers broke through, despite mass production, despite the insistence on marketability, to produce meaningful pop art.

Album art was designed to sell a product. That much is undeniable. Frank notes that “Record-album cover design began as a relatively radical marketing ploy.”Radical or not, appealing to a mass market clearly influenced the type of imagery that would appear on the covers of albums. From the beginning it was a medium that almost inherently insisted upon kitsch for its survival. However, it is important to point out that the work of early pioneers such as Alex Steinweiss and Jim Flora might not be so easy to dismiss. Frank points out that Steinweiss was “a passionate music lover. He sought to bring the experience of the music itself to its package, as if illustrating the liner notes or even the sounds themselves; and he did so in a manner that balanced personal idiosyncrasies with contemporary stylizations.” Bam.

Frank goes on to argue that “Steinweiss’ career deserves a museum retrospective. So does record-album art as a whole.” Steinweiss created art for some of the most cutting edge musicians of his day. This alone does not make his work meaningful, but when coupled with Frank’s assertion that “Steinweiss’ deft, sensitive, and loving designs were genuine responses and reinterpretations of the music they accompanied,” it is clear to me at least that Steinweiss managed to create something worthwhile that rose above the boundaries of kitsch.

Of course Steinweiss is only one album cover designer, and as Frank points out, after his retirement Steinweiss wanted to “concentrate on his ‘real’ artworks.” However, pop artists like Peter Blake shifted from “real art” to album cover design, and back again. In doing so, he provided the 20th century with some of its most iconic images. Prior to, during and after his career as an album cover artist, Blake created celebrated pop art pieces. In the 1950’s, collage pieces such as On The Balcony (1957) made a name for Blake. More recently The London Suite series was displayed at the Paul Stolper Gallery in London. To be sure, there is no universal appreciation for Blake’s work, especially is later efforts. Richard Stone, in a review of a Tate Gallery retrospective of Blake’s work in the early 1980’s wrote, “in his embrace of the flimsy and the whimsical, his later work can only cause concern…in those who saw an authentic talent in those first rooms at the Tate.” Hardly high praise. But the point is, Blake is important enough that he must be reckoned with. He has detractors and admirers. His art, like that of other successful artists is scrutinized. Should critics and the public alike ignore his work on Sgt. Pepper’s or Do They Know It’s Christmas? simply because it appears on the cover of record albums? Sgt. Pepper’s was seen by the Beatles themselves, music critics and the public as a work of pop art (and avant garde at that). Blake’s participation reinforced this notion. Why? Because Blake was seen as a serious artist involved in the act of making serious art even though it would appear on mass produced cardboard sleeves.

24 Nights, Peter Blake, 1991

Ian Inglis argues that “album covers are an advertisement for the recordings they contain,” which would support my assertion that a large quantity of album cover imagery is kitsch (or not even important enough to be kitsch). But Inglis also argues that “album covers function as an accompaniment to the music…the sleeve is not a superfluous thing to be discarded during the act of listening, but an integral component of the listening which assists and expands the musical experience.” Although perhaps always somewhat restrained by concerns about marketability, those specializing in or lending themselves to album cover design were in some cases able to move past the inherent limitations of that medium, particularly in instances when the marketability of the album was not an issue because the musicians cared little about album sales (like the early Grateful Dead who considered themselves performance artists), or in cases such as that of Blake and The Beatles where there was never a question to begin with if the album would sell. It was a Beatles album. It was going to sell if they farted on mic for 66 minutes. Blake, like the band he was creating imagery for, was essentially free to make art without the tethers that in many cases hold back pop musicians and design artists alike.

So was album design a “serious” medium? In most cases no, most of it was crap, just as much of popular music was and is more product than anything even approaching art, but just as the mass production and distribution of musical pieces of value do not detract from those works, quality visual art, it’s aura or anything else about it was not lessened because it accompanied a music recording.

Avalon Ballroom Poster, Stanley Miller, 1968

The Worst of the Worst:

Satan Is Real, Ira Louvin, 1958–59
Pussycats Can Go Far, HeddaJohnson, 1974
LiveIt Up, JimmyWachtel, 1990

Further Reading:

Frank, Peter. “Cover Song: A Brief History of Alex Steinweiss, the Inventor of Album Art.” Art On Paper , vol. 12, no. 5, 2008, pp. 56–61.

Inglis, Ian. “‘Nothing You Can See That Isn’t Shown’: The Album Covers of the Beatles.” Popular Music, vol. 20, no. 1, 2001, pp. 96. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/853696.

Greenberg, Clement. “AVANT-GARDE AND KITSCH.” Partisan Review(1939): n. pag.Clement Greenberg. Web. 22 June 2017.

[4]Frank, Peter. “Cover Song: A Brief History of Alex Steinweiss, the Inventor of Album Art.” Art On Paper , vol. 12, no. 5, 2008, pp. 58.

Salsbury, Britany. “Peter Blake.” Art in Print, vol. 2, no. 5, 2013, pp. 12–14. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43047095.

Shone, Richard. “Peter Blake’s Retrospective. London Tate Gallery.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 125, no. 962, 1983, pp. 311–310. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/881152.

Inglis, Ian. “‘Nothing You Can See That Isn’t Shown’: The Album Covers of the Beatles.” Popular Music, vol. 20, no. 1, 2001, pp. 88. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/853696.

Roth, Luanne K. “DANCING SKELETONS: The Subversion of Death Among Deadheads.” Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folkore and Popular Culture, edited by PETER NARVÁEZ, University Press of Colorado, Logan, Utah, 2003, pp. 263–293. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nsgh.14.

Born Again Transcendentalist. Writing about life, death and everything in between. Editor of Other Doors. haroldpstinard@gmail.com

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