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ESSAY: Dave Hickey

Art World Apostate

dave hickeydave hickey

Dave Hickey had a hell of a month. He announced his retirement from the art world to The Observer: “What can I tell you?” he said. “It’s nasty and it’s stupid. I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit.” Then he quit his job at the University of New Mexico. He said he wanted to invent an algorithm that would spare writing teachers from having to read “quires of crap” (GalleristNY). Then his landlord smelled cigarette smoke and evicted him. And then he was gobbling steak at a restaurant when a piece of gristle lodged in his throat. Not enough to block his breathing but enough to get him dragged to the emergency room. They sucked it out with a dentist’s vacuum. That’s all right. He’s all right. He’s a rock and roller, “built for catastrophe,” he tells us. But still, the man The Economist once dubbed the “P.J. O’Rourke of art criticism” is well into his seventies.

Hickey has faced critics far tougher than nubs of masticated meat. For years and years he was a pariah. It’s hard to believe now, since, having won a McArthur Fellowship, Hickey has what amounts to unimpeachable institutional sanction. But they hated him. And that was fine with him: “The art world is divided into those people who look at Raphael as if it's graffiti, and those who look at graffiti as if it's Raphael,” said Hickey to The Observer, “I prefer the latter.”

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was an enormous squabble between the art world, academia, and the conservative establishment. You could call it the frontline of the Culture Wars. This was the era of Robert Mapplethorpe’s raunchy nude photos and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (a statue of Jesus submerged in the artist’s own urine), both of which received National Endowment for the Arts funding and were banned in cities all over the country. This provoked a group of senators, namely the late Sen. Jesse Helms, to crack down on government funding of art. Artists, academics, and curators protested that it was a gross violation of their First Amendment rights.

Dave Hickey came out supporting the conservatives, saying it was a community’s right to refuse to fund art they didn’t like. Or at least that is what it seemed like. He was criticizing the way that the art world was defending itself. Art isn’t speech. Art is supposed to be beautiful but had been subverted by pseudo-academic theory. What a piece of work was about became more important than what it looked like.

The art world was aghast. This was not an easy time for them. They needed solidarity. Prices had plummeted after Black Friday, and still hadn’t recovered, and the community felt vulnerable. Dave Hickey was attacking one of the only growing sources of revenue for artists: universities and non-profit organizations. But by becoming institutionalized, art was letting itself be subverted by academia. The marketplace wasn’t threatening art, he argued in The Invisible Dragon (1993), it was “this massive civil service of PhDs and MFAs administering a monolithic system of interlocking patronage (which in its constituents resembles nothing so much as France in the early nineteenth century). During which powerful corporate, governmental, and academic constituencies vied ruthlessly for power and tax-free dollars, each with its own self-perpetuating agenda and none with any vested interest in the subversive potential of visual pleasure.”

Hickey identified a vacuum. He likes gleaming, expensive work like Jeff Koons (who is making balloon dogs a dozen feet tall from steel enameled with car paint). Money flooded the art world as the economy picked up. Prices went rocketing up. Collectors began collecting again. Hickey celebrated the art fair, which is basically a trade fair, something like a souk, where dealers cram as much art as they can into booths and art is sold like industrial parts. Hickey looked like a genius. Accolades flooded in. He helped steer the collections of casino tycoons, won a McArthur Fellowship, directed an MFA art program, fought and won public spats with fatuous but powerful figures of art world authority…. It would have been easy to accept sinecure and rest, to look out on a world shaped by his tastes and desires. But he’s not. He’s going to war again.

dave hickey

According to Hickey (in an interview with The Observer): “[Rich collectors are] in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It's just not serious. Art editors and critics—people like me—have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It's not worth my time.” There is too much money sluicing around. Art is so expensive that a piece of world-class artwork is more useful as an exotic financial instrument than it is as something to covet irrationally because it is beautiful and desirable.

When he revised The Invisible Dragon in 2009, Hickey added an essay called “American Beauty.” He argued America’s aesthetic taste was a vestige of its pagan roots (as opposed to that other, puritanical one he called the “culture of Christian Death”). “America is a pagan republic,” Hickey told to The New York Times, “insofar as we endow objects and people with power by social consensus, from Prada and Obama to the work of Richard Tuttle. The history of beauty is the history of our residual and never vanquished paganism.”

His next book, Pagan America is an expansion of “American Beauty.” (There are two other books of essays also on the way, one about female artists, the other, snappier essays in the vein of Air Guitar (1997).) Once again he appropriates beauty for the purpose of insurrection. He’s drilling down on America’s cities and regional subcultures, prying out their unique aesthetic features. “Take Seattle,” he says, “doesn’t it just seem Danish to you?” New Mexico and rest of the West, meanwhile, is a chunk of “not-America wedged in America.” Hickey grew up in middle class, suburban Fort Worth and once imagined that to be the most Caucasian piece of America there could possibly be, but when he visited Minneapolis he realized how rich with Latin American and African American influence Texas was. Aesthetics are an organizing principle. “Art has political consequences because it reorganizes society and creates constituencies of people around it,” he told The Believer.

Hickey once said that aspiring artists ought to band together and form gangs (lest they be seen categorically—categorized by identity politics—like sections in a department store instead of as individual artists) but doesn’t consider himself a member of any tribe. He’s not a Texan, “because they refuse to listen to criticism, from the right or the left.” He grew up in the South and his dad was from Georgia and both his parents constantly told him to “be nice, be nice.” But he is a rambler, more at home where “people aren’t as thick on the ground as they are in Europe or the North East.” Could he be advocating a move toward exile of a sort, a move toward regional American marketplaces for art? Should artists avoid coastal megacities and focus on art in their hometowns? One of the reasons he tells The Observer he wanted to quit was that he missed the days when there were only six thousand people in the art world and he knew every single one of them. Of course he’s also said that there only two thousand people in the country capable of producing decent art and if you don’t go to New York or Los Angeles you’re missing out on gossip, which is the goop that keeps the art world together. On the phone he probes for information, for people in common. And as for keeping in touch online, he denounces it utterly. This is no way to live. Social media is on the way out, he says. Its day has come and gone and we will soon long for the days when we could just pick up the phone or flip through a hefty tome without being bleeped at.

Dave Hickey is most definitely a subversive, even if, as he says, he spends most of time indoors writing. He chuckles about Texas filing the paperwork for secession. His writing is what’s really subversive. It is so snappy and good it feels like he’s doing even more damage than what he says. In that way, The Economist’s comparison to P.J. O’Rourke—a former Rolling Stone writer and humorist who crusted over into a Republican—is apt. Hickey writes like O’Rourke does—dense yet concise and often brutal. But O’Rourke lost his edge as he aged. Holidays in Hell turned into Holidays in Heck (while mellowing, O’Rourke has remained self-aware). Plus, he was never an ideas man. Deep down P.J. was always a middle class kid from Ohio gawking at the excess of the eighties. Hickey grew more truculent with age and always had an agenda.

Even his crack about spending his dotage making software that would keep writing teachers from having to read their students’ work wasn’t entirely a joke. It is a return to his roots. He ditched a linguistics PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 1961, where he had been trying to create a way of analyzing literature paragraph-by-paragraph. He was also a songwriter for years, and spent a decade palling around with the likes of Lester Bangs and Hunter Thompson reviewing music and penning songs. Clearly he feels deeply about American democracy and its teeming masses. To the art world he was and will always be a little bit like that wad of gristle that lodged in his windpipe. Dangerous enough to spook your friends, but not lethal.

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