IN 1992, Dave Hickey, America’s leading heterodox art critic, memoirist, and provocateur, was given a tour of the architectural drawing studio at Cornell. The building is a low stone shed. The students draw pale, pure modern architecture. And the boom box plays Jane’s Addiction at an astonishing volume. The disjoint provokes a moment of reverie, which he recounts in his essay “Nurture Your Addictions”:
I imagined a red fireman’s axe embedded in each student’s skull, the axe handles running down their backs, the blades splitting each student brain left from right. Right brain: Jane’s Addiction and feckless ecstasy. Left brain: Colin Rowe and impotent modernism. In the fleeting moment after I heard the music and before I saw the drawings, I had experienced an uptick of interest. Architecture infused with Jane’s Addiction might be fun, and it might have been. I mentioned this schism to my academic minder once we were outside. “Oh yes,” he murmured, “We like to wipe the slate clean here.”
What goes for the Cornell student goes for the art world as a whole. It’s split right down the middle. On the left side is an ascetic world of dour dioramas and evergreen minimalism. It lives in Kunsthalles and white cubes. It is protected from the vagaries of the marketplace by a swaddling blanket of bureaucratic concern and obscurantist prose. It’s a cold place, and it makes demands. Spending too many hours in this art world, submitting oneself to its varieties of deprivation, can make you yearn for the warming embrace of the surrounding culture, guzzling corn syrup and wallowing in amateur porn.
The right side, by contrast, is all money and hype. It’s an adult playground, full of expensive toys, bright colors, and strong sensations. It’s gaudy, excessive, and honestly kind of fun. It lives in art fairs and blockbuster auctions, but also in massive installations, mostly in New York and LA. I’m sure you’ve crossed paths with this art world at some point — whether you were staring at an artificial sunset, caught beneath a giant puppy made out of flowers, kissing under fake rain, or in the audience at one of Marina Abramović’s rolling, hands-on, celebrity zoos. I bet you’ve been to the other one as well; if you haven’t, the moment you walk into an empty room with nothing in it but a broken mirror, a flickering light bulb, and a pillow woven with thread the exact color of the night sky over Berlin, you’ll know you’ve arrived.
So what to do, in the face of all this stupid money and academic disdain? In his disarmingly elegant new collection of essays, Pirates and Farmers, Dave Hickey offers a solution. Actually, he offers a couple. One is to ignore the main scene completely, and focus on the margins: areas of fugitive production, odd vernaculars — places where art flourishes in what Hickey calls the “sunshine of absolute neglect.” These include Mexican brothel photography, Ghanaian movie posters, Playboy in the early Hefner years. The other option is to ignore the division entirely, and treat the art world as a single, unified ecosystem, with art works at its center. In this model, charismatic objects vie for survival, taste plays the role of nature red in tooth and claw, and everyone else — dealers, collectors, critics, artists, spectators, historians — is just there to keep the whole machine running.
Art should be central to our conversations about the art world, but it isn’t. Prices and institutions are. In one of the sharper polemics in the book, Hickey describes how in years of speaking and consulting to “associations, projects, groups, departments, endowments, foundations, alliances, and committees,” all tasked with promoting the arts, not one person has ever “even mentioned a work of art.” Instead, they busy themselves with community, creativity, and control. As a countermeasure, Hickey presents a series of essays on various topics — influence, formalism, provenance, collecting, and quality — that add up to a kind of practical handbook to thinking about the social life of art.
Along the way, he explains the difference between pirates and farmers, posits a theory of the visible unconscious, and agitates for the abolishment of the MFA. He picks up a few tarnished cultural icons, like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and leaves others in the mud, like his old comrade on the culture-reporting beat, Hunter S. Thompson. And finally, he relates a number of adventures from his checkered career: being in and out of the running for lead curator of the Venice Biennale, selling country songs in Nashville, hitchhiking to New York as a kid, covering Gregg Allman’s drug trial for The Village Voice, and doing loads and loads of drugs on his own. Through it all, Hickey demonstrates his humor, rhetorical acuity, and tremendous range. He might be the only critic in America who can shift easily between Gilles Deleuze’s logique du sens and the rules for Ultimate Fighting, and sum up the whole of Foucault in a three-word phrase: “care is control.”
Hickey has long been a unique figure. He’s a hard guy to pin down. He’s been a gallery owner, a songwriter, a culture reporter, a professor, a band manager, and a magazine editor. He has a degree in linguistics. He spent 20 years as Las Vegas’s leading intellectual, before finding himself in New Mexico, exiled in an “adobe cliché.” Although he has written for Harper’s and Frieze and Vanity Fair, most of his stuff comes out in little magazines and off tiny presses. He wrote a collection of sad, Lawrence-esque Texas stories (Prior Convictions) in the ’60s and published them in the ’80s. They’re hard to get hold of, and they’re great. Hickey is the consummate insider-outsider, having spent years railing against university art programs even as he was a part of one.
Of all his roles, the most constant and consistent has been as an art critic. He’s been writing on the art world in one way or another since the early ’70s, but just this year, he publicly quit the “nasty, stupid” art world (his book on 25 women artists is forthcoming). And as an art critic, he doesn’t do what most people want from art criticism. He doesn’t provide his readers with a neat intellectual framework through which to view everything they see, like a Clement Greenberg or a Michael Fried, and he doesn’t really do beautiful description either, à la Peter Schjeldahl or T. J. Clark. Instead, Hickey gives you intricately structured argument and gorgeous prose. This limits his influence, but increases his staying power.
Hickey is best known for two books. The Invisible Dragon (1993) is his big theoretical statement. In four short, sinuous essays, he brings the question of beauty back to the fore of art criticism. Hickey argues that beauty is essentially a measure of rhetorical efficacy, and that the meaning of works of art is secondary to their ability to make you look. In the process, he explains the relation between sadists and masochists, the gender of spectatorship, and the challenge of Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio. His next book, Air Guitar (1997), may be the best collection of essays published since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s a hugely variegated collection that contains as much memoir as criticism. It also contains definitive pieces on Chet Baker, Norman Rockwell, TV families, and the connection between basketball and democracy.
Hickey has a gift for unfashionable subjects, like Las Vegas and Liberace. He’s also the only person to take the idea of cool seriously and treat it as a variety of democratic speech. In Pirates and Farmers, Hickey explains that, like beauty, cool is a mode of persuasion. It’s a way of embodying an ideal and claiming authority for yourself just by being who you are. “It is theater without drama, demonstration without pleading, distinction without demonstration, and dissent without violence,” Hickey writes. George Washington was cool. So were Andy Warhol, Gertrude Stein, Miles Davis, and Charles S. Peirce. And so is Dave Hickey. He is what he preaches. He’s one of our best writers, even though he works in a genre in which even absolute triumph ensures a level of obscurity. He is an invisible giant, famous to everyone who has read him and all but unknown to everyone else.
While Pirates and Farmers has a sophisticated point to make about our relationship to works of art, most people outside the art world are going to read it as much for the melody as for the words. You want to join Hickey in watching the ’70s scene, “limos, homos, bimbos, resort communities, and cavernous stadiums — the whole culture in a giant, Technicolor Cuisinart, whipping by” — and figure out how he arrived at a description of Raymond Chandler’s LA novels as “a crooked spit around which the cultural enclaves of Los Angeles might seem to revolve.” He’s one of those writers you want to copy out on your own page by page to see how everything works, the way Hunter S. Thompson supposedly did with The Great Gatsby and the way I know some of my friends do with Janet Malcolm and Joan Didion.
In “Formalism,” Hickey describes what he learned from his best teachers, his first “genuine strangers” — people like Nathalie Sarraute, Tom Wolfe, Bill Arrowsmith, and Jorge Luis Borges. He doesn’t remember a word they said. Instead, he remembers what they were like.
I remember that Borges wore a cape and fedora, that Wolfe was a smartass, and Arrowsmith a show-off. I remember that Nathalie Sarraute had a mind as exquisite and strange as a Chinese opera. What I learned from these strangers was something like what I learned from D.H. Lawrence’s manuscript. I learned exactly how high eloquence manifests itself, what it feels like to be around, how it moves in its mortality. This turned out to be a very good thing to know.
High eloquence — that’s what Hickey does. Reading him you want to forget that the art market is a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos between Ukrainian oligarchs and Qatari princesses. You want to throw out all the exhibition catalogs in which sculptures are praised for their materiality, films for their temporality, and installations for their evanescence, and abandon your parochial agendas and internecine quarrels. You want to be the thing you advocate; you want to ride the wave, mount the dais, and speak the truth.
Jacob Mikanowski is a writer based in Berkeley, California. More of his work can be found here.