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CONTRA DAVE HICKEY
by Miles Mathis
Dave Hickey seems to be everywhere now. He will be here in Taos later this summer to talk about Dennis Hopper, and Newsweek just published a short article about him. Until recently, most of his fame was in his own mind and the minds of his followers, a smallish group. But now, at age 70, his renown is hitting a real climax and he is reaching a slightly larger audience. Why? It is hard to say, but I suspect it has to do with lack of competition. He has outlasted everyone. He is still partially mobile and partially conscious, and this puts him ahead of most of those in the arts. If you make it to 70 in any creative field in the modern world without being permanently knocked cold, you are guaranteed a gaggle of groupies and a long pre-obituary of false praise.
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In researching this article, I have found him described as a genius, as a polymath, as an astonishingly good writer, as a bad boy, and as a superstar. But in reading his articles and listening to his speeches and interviews, I have not found any evidence for these superlatives. As with Saltz and Schjeldahl and Danto and Carey, I have found instead only proof of the low standards of his readers.
This is one of Hickey's top ten favorite works of art, by John Wesley
Hickey's most widely cited book is Air Guitar, and this is apt because as a critic Hickey is like an air guitarist: he mimics the form without actually being a master of any instrument. As an air guitarist is to Christopher Parkening or Eric Clapton, Hickey is to a real critic or writer.
To show this, I will make use of one of his few papers online, an article from Daedalus, fall 2002, called “Buying the World.”* You wouldn't know it from the title, but in this article Hickey revisits his thesis of beauty and democracy from Air Guitar. He begins by asking why we speak of beauty at all. “First, we speak the word and respond to it because we are good democrats who value transparency and consensus.” Notice that is his “first”: he chose to lead with that, out of several answers. I point this out because the answer is neither pertinent nor true. What does being a democrat have to do with talking about beauty? Does Hickey mean to imply that aristocrats can't or didn't talk about beauty? Are democrats the only ones compelled to rank beauties? No, in fact the opposite is true. Democrats are the least likely to rank beauties or argue about beauties, since democrats (at least modern ones) are constitutionally opposed to hierarchies, and ranking beauties is hierarchical, by definition. That is what ranking means. As a matter of history, the argument of beauty was much wider, deeper, and vehement in past centuries, before democracy took root. As a matter of recent history, beauty is not talked about much anymore. It was a forbidden topic for most of the 20th century, which is precisely why Hickey got known for bringing it back into criticism in the 90's. Remember The Beauty Myth? That was also in the 90's. Beauty was brought up only to deny its existence and to browbeat those who were regressive enough to still believe in it. Most feminists still deny that beauty exists, as do most art critics. So Hickey's claim here is false in every possible way. It turns the truth on its head. Why does Hickey do this? Because it ingratiates him with his democratic readers. Like a politician, he uses words not to make any sense in a broader argument, but only to score emotional points.
Soon after this, Hickey says,
As Nietzsche would have it, these adjudications function as a public modality through which we socialize our pleasures in ourselves.
No, Nietzsche would not have it like that, I assure you. Nietzsche would rip his eyeballs from his head before he would allow a sentence like that to go to press. Hickey had already quoted Nietzsche directly: “Anyone who tried to divorce it [beauty] from man’s pleasure in himself would find the ground give way beneath him.” So it is a mystery why Hickey would restate this idea in such cloudy language. That sentence reads like Danto, not Nietzsche.
Hickey then glosses the history of post-Renaissance ranking of beauties, to arrive at this conclusion:
The consequences of these speculations, however, was not the establishment of objective standards but a permanent and profoundly democratic revolution of the way we look at things.
We can throw out the “permanent” as excessively optimistic, unless we think that Hickey can predict the future. But even without it the sentence is false and exclamatory. It was not the historical argument about beauty that led to a bypass of objective standards, much less to the establishment of modern democratic or republican governments. It was the establishment of democracy, and the curious modern interpretation of equality, that led to a loss of standards. Once again, Hickey has the argument on its head.
Even more curious than this is the next progression of Hickey's argument, for he now quotes the Declaration of Independence (he does everything in this article but wrap himself in the flag and have his wife take a picture of him). He concentrates explicitly on the first seven words of the second sentence: “We take these truths to be self-evident.” This allows him to begin another foggy paean to democracy, but he doesn't bother to see that these seven words fatally clash with his thesis. He just threw out “objective standards”, remember, in favor of a “profoundly democratic revolution.” But I would think that self-evident truths must be fairly objective.
You see, Hickey is caught in a very transparent web of illogic. He wants his democratic revolution and his freedom to be subjective, but he wants his self-evident truths, too, for without them there would be no Constitutional guarantee of his freedom to be subjective.
He proves this very soon, when remembering how he had, as a child in school, changed the lyrics to "God Bless America":
Somehow (probably thanks to the Second Continental Congress) we all felt empowered to propose our own aesthetic, and we did.
Hickey believes that the Declaration of Independence empowered him to do that, but if it did, it certainly didn't do so by talking of self-evident truths. Any solid truths, evident or not, tend to doom subjectivity. Garbling a song is no great transgression in anyone's government, but at higher levels Hickey's imprecision in argument must become important.
We see this again in one of Hickey's more recent speeches, which he gave in 2007 as part of the Innovator Series. He begins this speech in a rather foul mood, taking to task an art market that had become completely monetized and critically irrelevant. For a moment I was taken in, as he said, “How dare you refuse to make value judgments?” But then I remembered his whole career of sloppy subjectivity. To be specific, I remembered his critical introduction to the Site Santa Fe exhibit, which he judged in 2001, where he wrote,
I plan to mount an exhibition entitled Beau Monde: toward a redeemed Cosmopolitanism. I begin this project without any preconceived notion of what a beau monde—or a beautiful world—might be. **
Yes, I can see the founding fathers saying something similar: “We plan to launch a country. We begin this project without any preconceived notion of what our country should be.”
Hickey is wildly inconsistent. In his foul moods, he demands that other people should make firm judgments, be principled, have high standards, and so on, but when face to face with contemporary artifacts, he crumbles. He does not tell all the Site Santa Fe people to grow up and learn to paint or sculpt, to read a book, or to buy some depth somewhere; he does not throw all the crap out the back door onto the traintracks and cancel the exhibit for lack of art. No, he takes his fee, gives his lectures, and basks in the adulation, in his superstar status.
In his Harwood Museum catalog, he does not tell all these fake artists to go back to Hollywood, to their private jets and their big ranches and their Republican parties. No, he writes the required drivel, deflecting the eye off the trifling art and channeling it into hundreds of pages of cultural musings, simultaneously stroking the stars and the star-kissing phonies of Taos, smug in their bought relevance.
In defense of this, Hickey claims we need the “fashion trash and the art sillies.” He said this in his KERA interview in Fort Worth, but didn't tell us why we need them. One must suppose he needs them because if art or criticism began to be based on some standards, he would be out of a job. The silly and trashy people now in the arts, both artists and administrators, are incapable of seeing through his act. They think he is a superstar. They think he is a great writer. So of course he wants to keep them around.
But the bigger problem is the misinformation constantly published, in oral and written form. Even while defending the fashion trash, Hickey implies that there is something else. He implies that the fashion trash is a necessary part of the whole. But it isn't. It is the whole thing. There is no “higher end” to contemporary art.
In an interview two months ago with Aimee Walleston for The Moment, Hickey is asked this question:
Is our culture ripe again for the refined beauties to go away and for the Mapplethorpe-esque gutter flowers to emerge again?
What? What refined beauties is she talking about? Could she name one? This question is misdirection. Its makes the reader think that beauty is still allowed to exist in contemporary art. But this “refined beauty” of hers is a strawman. It is a strawman that Modernism knocked the stuffing out of a century ago. We haven't had any refined beauties in art since Sargent and Sorolla died in the 1920's. But these critics and academics have to keep propping the puppet up, claiming it is alive, so that they can keep hitting it.
Even worse, perhaps, are the false comparisons. Peter Schjeldahl says this in an article about Hickey:
To do Vegas with Dave is like having John Ruskin along on a tour of Venice.
Only those who don't know who Ruskin is, or who hate him, could read that without wretching. It is bad enough that critics now write about eachother: more proof that the art is not worth reviewing, so review the writer or the museum or the frame or the gallery. Worse that we have Vegas and Venice in the same sentence. Worst that Ruskin, a truly great writer, should be dragged into this vulgar competition of falsehoods. It is like Schnabel comparing himself to Giotto or Michelangelo (as he has). Somewhere in hell, two more spokes are being prepared on the firey wheel.
In my research on Hickey, I could find almost no true statement. Everything he says is false or pointless. Even in casual conversation, he cannot find a valid thought to utter. But of course, in a corrupt field, one must become corrupt, and the longer one stays in the field, the more corrupt one becomes. For example, in his KERA interview, he opens with a string of falsehoods. He is asked about the community of artists, and he says that "art is a social activity." Wrong. Historically, visual art was not a performance art, like dance or theater. Great paintings were always created in solitude and silence, and still are. If visual art is now a performance, that is simply another sign of its strangulation by its sisters. Then Hickey says, "You don't ever find just one (artist)." Wrong. Hickey even brings up his own counter-example: Van Gogh. Van Gogh is famous for being a loner, as are a thousand other famous artists. But Hickey deflects this by mentioning that Van Gogh's brother was a dealer in Paris with lots of connections, as if that is to the point. Vincent only spent a few months in Paris before he fled back into his isolation, away from the suffocating society of phonies. After this, Hickey says that "It is an oral culture." We hope he means our Modern culture in general, rather than art, since it would be ridiculous to claim that visual art is an oral culture. But it is no less ridiculous for a writer to claim that ours is an oral culture. If ours is an oral culture, why write? The truth is, ours is not an oral culture, it is an anal culture, and Hickey is just talking out of his ass.
Another example of Hickey's fondness for falsehood is his famous thesis, about to be promoted in his new book Pagan America, that America is "a vast pagan republic, not that there is anything wrong with that." According to Hickey in Newsweek, "Martha Stewart contributes more to our civility than the Baptist Church." As usual, Hickey is more interested in saying colorful things than true things. Martha once contributed something to commerce and entertainment, but she never contributed a damn thing to "civility." With her insider trading, she only contributed to incivility. But the greater problem here is with Hickey's use of "pagan", which is about as precise as Bob Guccioni's use of the word. As we see from Hickey's Martha Stewart quip, he is using the word to mean "non-Christian" or "non-religious". The US is following Europe and becoming more and more secular. But this has nothing to do with paganism. The pagans were very religious and they took worship, culture, and art very seriously. Hickey should be arguing that America is post-pagan, since he is really comparing America to the late Roman Empire, when the upper classes in Rome no longer believed in the gods. My point is not an academic or semantic quibble, since my central and fundamental problem with Hickey and his defense of contemporary art is that he doesn't take it seriously. He has no apparent reverence for the past, the present, or the future, only an ability to use all three for short-term entertainment. His attitude is both irreligious and inartistic, where everything is a means and nothing is an end. This makes him and America neither Christian nor pagan. The pagans, whether we are talking about Greek and Roman pagans, Germanic pagans, Icelandic pagans, or any others, would all find the modern attitude toward art and culture and life to be diseased. Modern art would seem to them a profound sacrilege. The truth is, no culture in history was as debased as ours is currently, not even the Aztecs, who still took art and religion seriously. Not even the late Romans, who never corrupted the arts to the extent we have. Did the Romans ever build expensive museums and spend billions of dollars filling them with blinking lights and lotto tickets and cans of excrement. No. Did they take a talentless slave like Damien Hirst and turn him into one of the richest men in the world, simply as a joke? No. Did they publish libraries full of Theory and fake criticism, writing false and meaningless sentences on purpose, to deconstruct the past and present? No. Did they purposely destroy entire fields of enterprise, and forbid anyone from entering them, simply from envy and ressentiment? No. The "polymath" Hickey needs to reread his Nietzsche before quoting him again, since Nietzsche understood these things. Not only did Nietzsche see the lastman coming, in the form of people like Hickey, he understood that this lastman was unlike any man of the past. Modern America is not pagan or even post-pagan, it is post-cultural. It is the complete disintegration of all culture and civility and standard and truth. As art is now anti-art, culture is now anti-culture. It is the purposeful tearing apart of all natural bonds, the crushing of all natural desires, and the inversion of all truths of nature. Hickey is just another frontman in this disintegration, and he is a superstar only for those who hunger for the abyss.