There may be a moment, perhaps on the subway as it enters Queens, when you may wonder, “What’s the point?” Why bother filling up a museum with an exhibit of music videos when the things are more accessible than they’ve ever been, available 24 hours a day to anyone with a computer, smartphone, or cable TV? Later, as you actually enter the galleries of Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image, where “Spectacle: The Music Video” opened last Wednesday, you’re more likely to wonder something else: Why had no one put together such an exhibit before?
After all, one thing the show makes clear is that the music video is by no means a new form, long predating MTV, the network whose initials (according to a placard in the first wing) seem to have once stood for “Music Television.” After a large, open screening room devoted to cinematic shorts like Björk’s “Bachelorette” and Kanye West’s “Runaway,” that first wing returns all the way to Cab Calloway promos and the pre-Jazz Singer “bouncing ball” sing-along films that are antecedents to today’s PowerPoint lyric videos—and cleverly spoofed later in the exhibit, when one such ball leaves its screen to bounce through the real world.
Upon reaching the main galleries, “Spectacle” drops linearity and encourages the viewer to wander across a floor divided loosely into sections like “Shadows and Light,” which features unusually photographed videos like Jay-Z’s grayscale “99 Problems” and Madonna’s 50-shades-of-blue “Express Yourself,” and “Art House,” where the claymation canines of Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me” hop around just feet away from the Legos of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl.”
The curators, Jonathan and Meg Grey Wells, had over 4,000 square feet to play with, so there’s room for artifacts from the videos that play on loop. You get to see the actual toy bricks that were stacked to resemble Jack and Meg. You can also stand next a 6-foot re-creation of the lonely milk carton from Blur’s “Coffee and TV” (guaranteed double-digit Instagram likes) and before some of the original sketches from A-Ha’s “Take on Me” (great for communicating with your hand-drawn soulmate from an alternate world). Along the way you can spend hours in side rooms devoted to controversial videos, the Arcade Fire, and dance productions, the last of which is hidden from view in order to facilitate actual dancing.
With this amplitude, it comes as a surprise that the exhibit’s biggest sins are ones of omission. Occasionally, its insistence on the video as art crowds out the possibility of the video as popular art, and so despite displaying some 20 hours of footage, including seemingly every reel Michel Gondry has touched his gentle hands to, there is not a single country-music video and only scattered hip-hop contributions. Kanye, he whose “moving portrait” for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s “Power” was literally made for this sort of enshrinement, is well represented, but distinctive, innovative directors like Paul Hunter (“Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee,” “If You Had My Love”) and Lionel C. Martin (“Night of the Living Baseheads,” “Rump Shaker”) are nowhere to be seen. Back on the train home, you might end up wondering not why music videos are in a museum—but why more of them aren’t.