That’s what black people are, myths. I come to you as a myth,” announces Sun Ra in a scene from Space Is The Place, the marvelously entertaining mixture of blaxploitation, space travel, mysticism and free jazz that screens on one of the many video monitors at the “Blues for Smoke” show. By this, presumably, he means as myths to people of other races, particularly white people—and nowhere is that myth more evident than in attitudes to the blues, which has been such a seductive and potent force in white culture. As Greil Marcus observed, it is “a world that once glimpsed from afar can be felt within oneself,” which succinctly captures its allure as a harsh reality prone to vicarious idealization by susceptible outsiders. Thousands of definitions—often in song—testify to its elusive but pervasive nature: “A lowdown shaking heart disease,” “Nothin’ but a good man feeling bad,” etc. Or as Sam Chatmon memorably remarked, “The blues, that was nothing but a lost calf cryin’ for his mama.”

To judge by its title and surrounding publicity one might assume that this show examines the connection between blues—the most un-self-conscious of mediums—and modern art, the most self-conscious. But the further I ventured into the exhibit the more another Sun Ra title came to mind: “Some Blues but Not the Kind that’s Blue.” The blues as a musical form and its closely linked state of mind—the blue devils that plagued many an 18th-century poet—is mostly conspicuous by its absence in a show that focuses on blues less as myth and more as a broad but vaguely defined ethos that runs like a current through black culture.

Musically, the show, named after a Jaki Byard composition, is steeped in jazz: not only pictorially—as in Roy De Carava’s photographs of John Coltrane or Bob Thompson’s GauguinesqueGarden of Music, featuring Ornette Coleman and other forward-thinking jazz luminaries grooving in a pastoral landscape, but also sonically, in Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice, squalling forth from a video by Stan Douglas into surrounding galleries. At one particularly discordant junction the Ayler audio clashes with three other jazz recordings blaring out of boom boxes set up on the floor in David Hammons’ “Chasing the Blue Train” —an installation in which a blue model train circles a landscape of upended pianos and rock piles—to create a cacophony that must surely wreak havoc on the nerves of gallery attendants. Meanwhile, The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen, a documentary about contemporary rural blues, is hidden away in the Reading Room, the most obscure part of museum. To the untrained ear the rough hollers of Son House and the elegance of Ellington may not seem to have much in common, but apparently they’re related. The blues is the source of it all, and as Claude Levi-Strauss said, “Man never creates anything truly great except at the beginning; in whatever field it may be, only the first initiative is truly valid.”

So maybe the show isn’t strictly blues-related—as I have come to understand it from a romantic, pedantic, pampered, white European perspective—but all the same, a catalog discography in which works by R.E.M. and the Walker Brothers are listed, but nothing by Blind Lemon Jefferson or T-Bone Walker, is confounding. When the forefathers of a form are ignored in favor of the most tangentially connected it raises the question of just how far parameters are being stretched in the interest of allowing the curator to take off on a few solo flights of his own, as is so often the case nowadays in surveys and critical studies that delight in muddying the waters by connecting dots between unrelated subjects in order to draw attention to curatorial or authorial erudition. And if you’re trying to draw a bead on what this particular show’s about you won’t get much help from the catalog essay. “A blues sensibility requires the critic to think beyond traditional categories of representation,” states MOCA Curator Bennett Simpson. “I tend to mean a kind of tradition,” he continues, “something akin to the ‘Great Black Music’ idea that began to circulate at the end of the 1960s.” After several thousand words and much confusing talk of ideologies, idioms, aesthetics and sensibilities, he finally arrives at something resembling a statement: it is what art historian Richard J. Powell called “basic, 20th-century Afro-American culture.” Which would explain the heterogeneous nature of the exhibit.

All rock music, of course, is blues-based, and that would include Liz Larner’s sculptural homage to Lux Interior, a punk/rockabilly singer, and performance footage of hardcore/straight-edge band Minor Threat. You might as well throw it all in, from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s wildly inspiredUndiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (in which a goateed portrait is referred to as Robert “Johnson-esque” in the accompanying wall-notes. This cat looks a lot more like Eric Dolphy. Come to think of it, I can’t think of a single prewar blues musician who sported a goatee or beard. But why quibble? Because it’s fun… for the quibbler… it contributes to and expands the dialogue, right?) to Charles Gaines’ algorithmic grid drawings—known as the “Regression Series” —which have all the flavor of a train timetable without arrivals or destinations and make Agnes Martin look like an expressionist by comparison. But maybe it has something to do with a train, which has something to do with the underground railroad, which…

After a while it becomes wise to disregard all the blues, smoke and mirrors and just enjoy the show, which isn’t hard to do, as in many ways it is stronger for the liberties taken. Another piece that evokes travel, Zoe Leonard’s 1961, a row of blue suitcases stretching across the floor, has a wistful power. It’s hard to say what Rodney McMillian’s installation, “From Asterisks in Dockery” —an almost life-size red vinyl church with red vinyl benches, altar and lectern and a bare bulb hanging from a red vinyl ceiling—has to do with the Dockery Plantation where Charley Patton and other early Mississippi blues singers resided, beyond its convenient reference point, but it’s a unique creation.

Racial unrest was seldom directly addressed in blues lyrics, a reticence which in itself constituted an indirect form of defiance. Here it can be found, among other places, in Melvin Edwards’ metal assemblage sculptures, known as “lynch fragments,” while the silhouetted rape and murder scenes in Kara Walker’s Fall From Grace are beguiling and provocative in their tension between brutality of act and delicacy of execution. This antebellum-era shadow puppet show is the only work on display whose subject matter predates the 1920s era of blues recordings, which, say what you will about its later permutations—musical, social or anti-social— is the bedrock and quintessence of any subsequent blues sensibility. It was in those pioneering recordings that the restlessness and alienation that went on to suffuse every avenue of 20th-century popular culture—so abundantly apparent in this show—was first given commercial expression.

“Blues for Smoke” travels to the Whitney museum in New York and runs through April 28, 2013,