Art and Cultural Critique Dave Hickey: Articles, Interviews, Essays


I was referred to Dave Hickey by Peter Schjeldahl in New York in 1996. Over coffee and Marlboro Lights, I asked him about what critics he liked, and he said Dave Hickey. Later in London I spent what few dollars I had left on buying a copy of The Invisible Dragon. It hit me at the perfect moment. And later Air Guitar did the same. From Hickey’s (great) “The Little Church of Perry Mason”: “I cannot tell you how many quiet mornings I have spent sitting around hotel rooms and furnished apartments in the United States and Mexico, smoking cigarettes, plunking the guitar, and watching Perry Mason——telling myself, ‘Well, at least I don’t have a day job.’ And there is nothing wrong with that. I am not guilty of anything. Perry would see that in a minute.”
Hickey was as enjoyable to read as Frank O’Hara. In 1999 I got Dave Hickey’s telephone number from directory assistance and dialed. He was cool and untroubled by my intrusion. I asked him if he’d be interested in responding to some questions. He told me to fax them through and if he was interested in them he’d respond. I took my time in constructing what I hoped were interesting questions, then I faxed them through. And it was a pleasure when, a week or two later, in the middle of the night (I was at the time in Kings Cross, Sydney) the fax machine started whirring and Hickey’s responses curled out…
Pataphysics Journal, Pirate issue 2001

LEO EDELSTEIN: You’ve written about the ’80s as being a time when “opportunities to write hip stories about pop subjects disappeared” and “pop stories about hip subjects were all the vogue, and it was no fun anymore.” Do you see any possibilities for an expansive journalism developing in the future?

DAVE HICKEY: To be honest, no. Although I continue to practice something like belles-lettres journalism, I would be the first to admit that it is, for all intents and purposes, a dead practice. The kind of expansive journalism you are referring to, I think, must function as an urgent, expressive, social endeavor; it responds seriously to the moment and to the tangible social discourse of the moment; it presumes an audience and a delivery system, and, at present, neither of these exist, nor are they likely to come into being. For the past ten years, most of my essays have been published by Gary Kornblau, who has labored mightily to create a venue for expansive art journalism in Art issues magazine. Were it not for this venue, these essays would not have been written at all.
It needs to be said, however, that even though Gary has managed to keep his publication alive and lively for over a decade, he has done so through his own solitary effort and thanks largely to the patronage of Patrick Lannan. The project remains commercially un-viable and, in recent years, has become the locus of an escalating academic hostility that bodes ill for its survival. In truth, Gary and the people who write for his magazine constitute a tiny, inconsequential coterie of dissenting amateurs in the highly professionalized Los Angeles art world. It is a nice magazine for which to write, and there are doubtless other venues like Art issues, scattered around the globe, but I doubt if any of them will make the slightest dent in the massively-funded status quo. I would like to be proven wrong in this but I don’t think I will be.

LE: Saul Bellow has talked of novellas and shorter fiction as being more appropriate today. Would you see this as being true in terms of your fiction?

DH: To me, as a writer, the issue of length is purely personal. I think of writing in terms of music, so I write prose pieces that can be read in one sitting, so the first words will resonate with the last. Also, temperamentally, I am a sprinter, not a long distance runner. Actually, I am a hurdler, since my writing (fiction or non) always strives to negotiate a field of hard historical circumstance. As a reader and critic, however, I disagree with Bellow. I suspect that long fiction is the ideal format for dealing with the intricate surface complexity of this particular cosmopolitan moment. During the past year I have read some very lovely long fictions by Peter Carey, Peter Ackroyd, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, A.S. Byatt and Robert Stone, all of whom deal gracefully with the fluidity and hybrid contingency of contemporary life. The “theoretical” disrepute of long fiction, I suspect, derives from the academy’s Germanic contempt for the horizontal “inauthenticity” of story and melody——from its obsession with the virtues of “depth” over those of “breadth.” Academics, secure in their dachas, are welcome to these immobilizing passions.

LE: An art critic was once asked why he didn’t write on film since he liked it so much. He replied that film, unlike visual art, didn’t have a “problem.” Would you agree with this?

DH: No, I don’t. I think that there is some perfectly spiffy art out there and that movies generally suck. Also, I am not a public servant. “Helping” cultural endeavors that have a “problem” is not my job. I write about things that interest or offend me regardless of their moral or commercial viability. The fact that, at the moment, art is being practiced in an antediluvian theoretical environment is no longer any concern of mine. ’Twas ever thus, I suspect, and I have had my little say about contemporary conditions. Contexts come and go, institutions flourish and wither, practice continues or it doesn’t.

LE: Hank Williams talks in the first person in your piece “A Glass-Bottomed Cadillac”——a kind of hybrid criticism/fiction. How would you distinguish your process in writing a piece like this, as compared to, say, writing on David Salle for Artforum? Do you prefer one over the other?

DH: Actually there’s not much difference in the process. I accept an assignment, gather such materials as I need, then try to conjure up a voice in which I can speak my little piece. For an assignment like the essay on Salle, I am more or less obligated to speak in my own voice——on my own dime, as it were, as a bankable art critic. The Hank Williams piece is a little different. Since all the material in the essay comes out of the air——out of the bar talk and studio talk of Nashville musicians and songwriters—I found myself thinking about a line in Auden’s poem about the death of Yeats: “He became his admirers,” and decided to construct a persona for Williams out of the stories people told about him——to invent a post-mortem voice for him, so he could tell these stories about himself and “become his admirers.” In retrospect, the accent I invented is a little more East Texas than South Alabama. It’s still close, though. My point is that, by one means or another, it’s all journalism. I am interested in the texture of the lived world and whatever imaginative strategies I might invent are always in its service.

LE: Do you like looking at art as much when you’re in Las Vegas?

DH: I like looking at art anywhere. Looking at art in Las Vegas does have its eccentricities, however, since, unlike most places in the United States, Las Vegas has a vibrant, up-to-date, indigenous visual culture, so you look at whatever you look at in the context of the Strip, which, even though it is not art, sets the visible parameters of the environment. As a consequence, to be look-at-able here, art must first distinguish itself from the Strip and then mount some visual challenge to its hegemony. Your garden-variety, abject-assemblage kunsthalle fodder looks ludicrous here, as does the sort of distressed pattern-making that passes for “decorative painting” in New York. Vegas is the hot-center of state-of-the-art visual technologies. None of them go untapped here. This makes it a tough room to play. Steven Wynn’s high-dollar paintings at the Bellagio, however, do kick some butt. They make Vegas more like it is, which is to say more visible, and Vegas make the paintings more like they were——generous, sophisticated occasions of visual pleasure.

LE: Frank O’Hara spoke of the speed of writing poetry vs. the extended concentration of time with painting, and speculated on the differences in his poem “Why I Am Not a Painter.” Have you ever been interested in making visual art?

DH: I made one painting in high school: a portrait of Miles Davis’ band that I copied off an album cover. Having completed it, I decided that, if I planned to continue painting, I would need to own more than one brush. This seemed excessively prissy to me, so I quit. The truth, however, is that I don’t make visual art because I like visual art in ways that most artists don’t. Most artists——or rather most good artists of my acquaintance——are permanently dissatisfied with the selection of art that the world has to offer, just as I am permanently dissatisfied with the selection of criticism the world offers up. Existing works of art may intimidate my artist friends and challenge them on occasion, but other people’s art rarely pleases them or interests them in the way it pleases and interests me.
As to the issue of speed. I am a slow writer, and painting, even the slowest painting, has always seemed very fast to me. Also, writing is not a very athletic activity, so I have always envied artists’ recourse to the body’s memory and imagination. I also envy the mindless preparatory rituals of making art—the whole getting-ready-to-do-art part of it. Writers are either writing or they are not writing. Usually not. The good part of being a writer is that storage is not much of a problem.

LE: In The Invisible Dragon you discuss the control of the institution and arts bureaucrats. Duchamp predicted that in the future artists would go underground——is this conceivable in an increasingly gentrified context?

DH: It is not only conceivable, it is in fact happening. If you haven’t heard about it, that’s wonderful. Undergrounds are supposed to be, well, you know, under ground. They come into being because any fool knows that institutions, once they go bad, can’t be fixed, only destroyed or abandoned. Speaking for myself, I am now and have always been a permanent advocate of going underground. I grew up in underground cultures and I am delighted with the intimacy, freedom and privacy of these new, knock-about societies whenever I am afforded entrance. We sit around in bars, drink, smoke and talk about things. All hopelessly boho and un-fundable, I know, but there is really no alternative, since a great many young artists are making paintings and sculptures these days, and these practices, which in my youth were considered beaux artes endeavors, no longer are. Beaux artes practice in this moment is defined by institutionally-sanctioned, government-regulated, biennial-ready, post-minimal installation strategies informed by Germanized identity rhetoric. Thus, at present, the practice of making any peculiar, portable object that comes in different colors has more in common with making jazz than it does with making “contemporary art;” it seeks that realm of private sociability, and, as a consequence, painting and sculpture are increasingly practiced as high popular arts in the United States; they are patronized beyond the pale, in the underground, by adepts, enthusiasts and devotees. The New York Times may never hear about it, but someone will, and that someone will care. This is preferable to everyone hearing about art about which no one gives a damn.



vanity fair

Surfing into the Sunset

10:29 AM, February 1 2014

Art critic, Vanity Fair contributor, and all-around super-seer Dave Hickey announced in an interview given to Sarah Douglas at GalleristNY that he is paddling into semi-retirement, silhouetted against the sinking sun as it melts into the waves.*

So what gives, big guy?

Dave Hickey: I’m retiring because my time is up. Last summer I wrote catalogue pieces on Ken Price and John Chamberlain. They were both my friends and my essays turned out to be inadvertent obituaries. I take this as a sign. Also, most writing about art these days is so bad that my secular readership has disappeared. Nobody but professionals and grad students even look at it. So no more e-mails from civilians, no more notes from John Updike or Steve Martin, no more crazy hipsters from Berkeley knocking on my door. Also, the art world has turned nasty for some reason and my gentility has come out of the closet. I cry when people scream at me, unless we’re just haggling about prices.

Sarah Douglas: But you’ll still be writing?

I will be writing, however, revising material for three anthologies and writing another book. The first is a book of essays about the work of women artists because no such book exists. I have about 20 essays about art from Bridget Riley’s to Elizabeth Peyton’s. I wanted to do something for my late friend [New Museum founder] Marcia Tucker, who actually introduced me firsthand to the art world. We agreed on nothing at all so I thought I’d dedicate a book to her about art she would have hated. That would be very Marcia and Dave. I’m also revising a second volume of Air Guitar called Connoisseur of Waves, which is a little more focused on architecture, jazz, movies and surfing. I am writing a book called Pagan America that has grown out of an essay of mine called “American Beauty.”  I also have a completed book of shorter essays called Pirates and Farmers that is light, funny and very mean spirited.

Sarah Douglas: Hmmm…a sort of partial retirement then?

In other words, I plan to disappear like Marcel Duchamp, which is to not quite disappear. I’m about to leave…oops, I haven’t left yet but keep on looking. I’m about to leave. I’m giving it all up for chess, that type of thing. I’m actually giving it all up for statistics. My mother was an economics professor. I’m proficient in math, and statistics, game theory, symbolic logic and all of that. I want to write a creative writing book about the statistics of literary prose accompanied by software so you could compare the statistical shape of your writing to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Ray Carver or David Foster Wallace. My idea is to provide professors a way of teaching creative writing without having to read quires of crap. Also, I really believe that most of the problems with literary prose tend to be statistical. They have to do with sequencing, and the calculus is helpful in gaining this sort of information. When I was in graduate school I invented a grammar based on the paragraph rather than the sentence—very radical at the time. I also had works by writers in three states of revision so I could say: the numbers are like this here, and then here and then here. So I could make empirically based observations about intention. Hemingway means to do this. Gertrude Stein means to do this. D.H. Lawrence means to do this. I was fighting against professorial Freudian and Marxist musings on the artist’s intentions. I hate all that woozy political and psychotherapeutic crap applied to books and art.

I hope Dave gets cracking on this because I for one could use a new alternative to the existential gnashing of turning out Fine Prose that ain’t got too much wrong with it. Also, there are a few sections from Gilbert Sorrentino’s Misterioso I’d like to put through Hickey’s software program for my own edification. (Though it’s really Pagan America I’m setting a lantern in my window for.)

What about art critics? Do they have any place in this system anymore? They used to have an influence over whether people bought things or not. Do they still have that?

We have no power at all. We just market aphorisms. This is mostly because of magazine economics. Good critics are expensive. I am expensive. Academics work for free to get tenure, and, since they are worried about the approval of their colleagues, they are fearful of making value judgments. Also, most of my peers and contemporaries learned how to write magazine journalism. We know how to do a transition, we know how to do a lead, we know what a hook is, and we’re literate. Most critics today come out of art academia, where they don’t even understand the future-imperfect tense. People like me, the late Bob Hughes [see Jim Kelly’s perceptive eulogy on Robert Hughes at VF Daily], Chris Knight, Peter Plagens, Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl—we’re sort of like sewing machine repairmen after the sewing machine has gone out of fashion.

Wonder if Dave has read Tom Wolfe’s Art Basel Miami Beach section in Back to Blood, what he thinks of it. I have Dave’s email so I guess I could just ask him but, you know me, I hate to bother people.

*A beautifully rendered postcard illustrating this image can be purchased directly from me c/o Vanity Fair Craftworks.


purple FASHION Magazine : F/W 2012 issue 18





BILL POWERS — Does the title of your new book, Pagan America, come from the idea that once art is divested of its religious content then it becomes pagan? Does that also mean secular?
DAVE HICKEY — No. Secular doesn’t exist. Art’s still a religion, just a pantheistic religion in which we sacrifice rather than are sacrificed for. Anytime you pay more for an object than it’s worth, that’s a sacrifice to the power of the object. When you buy an Armani, what you are paying for is the power of that suit. Basically that is a pagan sacrifice. Christianity doesn’t have as much leverage anymore because it’s built on guilt. You’re born and somehow you already owe this guy for killing his son for you. Jesus, I’ve got a mortgage already?

BILL POWERS — How do you see religion in America?
DAVE HICKEY — America has some very peculiar aspects that make it congenial to paganism. There are 2,800 Protestant denominations. How many gods does that require? Also, America has no culture. It’s a mercantile society that isn’t very big. It’s got about six cities and a whole lot of really boring small cities. But all the small cities are virtually the same, so we form cults around stuff. When I was in school the world was divided between Beatles people and Rolling Stones people. Now, we didn’t speak to each other, but among Rolling Stones people you could speak about Rolling Stones shit. That was the objective correlative. The best thing about these cults in America is that they are nonexclusive. You can belong to as many cults as you want to. I belong to the Warhol cult, the Miles Davis cult — all these different cults.

BILL POWERS — In the art world, it’s easier to gain membership if you have cash.
DAVE HICKEY —  Not really. You do need good judgment. There’s a rule in the art world that the person who contributes the least to the value of the work gets the worst deal. In other words, if you are a great big collector and Larry Gagosian is a little bitty dealer, then you get the best deal. If you’re a little bitty collector and Larry Gagosian is a great big dealer, then he gets the best deal.

BILL POWERS — Would you agree that the first rule of art dealing is that you have to get off on something personally if you expect others to buy into your product?
DAVE HICKEY — You can sell anything. When some of the galleries were complaining about Conceptual art, my friend Max Hutchinson said, “If you can’t sell a handful of air with an idea in it, then you’re not a fucking art dealer!”

BILL POWERS — By the same token, if there aren’t people you won’t sell to, you’re not really an art dealer either, right?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s the definition of being a real art dealer, as opposed to a merchant. Popular art is defined by the size of its market. High art is defined by the exclusionary quality of its market. It doesn’t really do you any good to sell a good piece to a nobody.

BILL POWERS — Rudolph Stingel says that great art is generally made during an empire’s decline. Do you agree with that assessment?
DAVE HICKEY — Yes, but most of the great art I know achieves its complexity because of the presence of repression. How did Shakespeare write? How does John Dryden get around the fucking king? You know what I mean?

BILL POWERS — John Currin says American art is doomed to be folk art because no real masterpiece can be made in a democracy.
DAVE HICKEY — Well, I think the John Chamberlain sculptures being shown right now are a pretty great example of masterpieces being made in a democracy. And besides, John Currin is a Republican. I loved John when he was painting babes with big boobs, but once he went into nymphomania he lost me. Also, I don’t like a picture of anything, period.

BILL POWERS — Unless it’s a babe with big boobs?
DAVE HICKEY — You are correct about the folk art thing only in this sense: Braque and Picasso were outsider artists.

BILL POWERS — I get the feeling that outsider artist today has been reduced to those with either severe drug problems or emotional instability.
DAVE HICKEY — Or you live in some little bitty town and you paint the American flag with the entire text of the bible scrawled in the white stripes. Outsider art is basically a naive form of high art. Outsider art is usually naïve Rauschenberg or naive de Kooning.

BILL POWERS — What do you mean when you say, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!”?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s from Tom Dowd, who produced “Layla” — and also produced Coltrane.

BILL POWERS — Could that apply to art criticism? Or is the real problem in American culture that we are, in fact, only interested in choruses and not verses?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s a reasonable presumption, but if there’s no verses, there’s no chorus except for maybe “Bang a Gong” and a few other songs. I wouldn’t say there’s no art in America because it’s democratic. I would say there’s no art in America because it’s all school-marm art and stupid. I hate student art. I hate student writing. I hate student basketball. I hate student football. I hate anything that isn’t fucking professional.

BILL POWERS — Isn’t that a troublesome position to find yourself in as a teacher?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s what I’m fucking teaching them! I try to tell them stuff that’s useful.

BILL POWERS — Why did you leave Las Vegas for New Mexico?
DAVE HICKEY — Because my wife got offered a tenured job in Albuquerque. She was working for Steve Wynn and all these gangster types in Vegas, where she did well because she’s tough, but she just got fucking tired of it.

BILL POWERS — And were you tired of Vegas?
DAVE HICKEY — No, I never get tired of gambling and staying up late.

BILL POWERS — So what’s your game: poker, blackjack, roulette?
DAVE HICKEY — Lately I play video poker, mostly because when you play Texas Hold’em in casinos you eventually learn that half the people there are raptors who want to win and the other half are just herbivores who want to sit at the table and lose. Also, It’s hard to play with people who don’t know how to play. That takes a lot of the fun out if it.

BILL POWERS — What are you after?
DAVE HICKEY — Hell, I want to win, but I want to win the way you win at bridge, which is by knowing shit. When you play Hold’em at a casino in Albuquerque you deal with a lot of people there who have money, who will always stay in the game to see the flop, which means the flop doesn’t mean anything so you never know what the fuck you’re up against! I’d rather play with Doyle Brunson than some fucking hillbilly. It’s like golf: you want to play with people who are approximately as good as you are.

BILL POWERS — But not, like in tennis, with people who are better than you?
DAVE HICKEY — You can learn from people who are better than you are, but you still want to win. Also I don’t have a great face — too many tells. My business is expressing myself, which isn’t great when it comes to poker. For cards you want to be like a fucking Navajo.

BILL POWERS — Did you once say that history happens because people save the things they love?
DAVE HICKEY — I probably did. When I was at Southern Methodist University, I used to study differential equations with these two Zuni guys. They were off the reservation. Their tribe had been sent to engineering school to learn how to build roads back home. They couldn’t understand why you would ever need art in a museum because Zuni art hasn’t changed in five thousand years. We are historical people and the crisis of criticism arises from the basic fact that we get bored. When you’re bored with it, it’s over. That’s what drives the machine: ennui. What survives and still eludes ennui, survives — the live pattern and adaptability of a painting over time. I have a bunch of Ellsworth Kelly paintings at home and they don’t get old. They are just the way they are.

BILL POWERS — As a counterpoint I would argue that some things survive because they can go it alone. For about a century the Alhambra, in Spain, was basically a homeless shelter before the Spanish figured out it could be a tourist trap. That’s an example of a culture surviving without any custodianship.
DAVE HICKEY — They degraded the Alhambra because they were Christians, but they didn’t have the balls to tear it down. Think about the hierarchy of street tagging where you measure the value of a tag by how long it is able to stay intact. If it stays untouched for a week, that’s fine. If it lasts two weeks, that’s great. If it lasts a month, you’re fucking Raphael.

BILL POWERS — In the noir writing class you taught, you pointed out that the protagonist in most of, say, Raymond Chandler’s stories, is actually a void, an empty suit. Some people have made that same observation about the Don Draper character in the series Mad Men.
DAVE HICKEY — My theory about all genres of fiction — and noir fiction especially — is that we’ve gotten to the point culturally where serious literature is defined as such if it’s about your mother or your sister or your drinking problem. Genre fiction is defined by people who deal with strangers. That has nothing to do with literary quality. I read this book recently, The Emperor’s Children, about the family of some famous New York journalist and it was so boring, all this family shit. I don’t think people have families anymore — except poor Mike Kelley, who died of an apparent suicide at 57 in February 2012. Someone should have warned him that memory lane is a one-way street. He just drove himself back into nothingness.

BILL POWERS — I heard someone define self-acceptance as the ability to stop wishing for a better past.
DAVE HICKEY — I really don’t do the past.

BILL POWERS — You’ve made a correlation between Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol, saying that Cindy Sherman doesn’t ask what comes after Warhol, but what should have come before him.
DAVE HICKEY — What is the precedent for Warhol? The publicity still. I think Cindy is the closest thing we have to Andy today.

BILL POWERS — Should there be a moratorium on Andy Warhol? Is he too ubiquitous in conversations about contemporary art today?  
DAVE HICKEY — Andy was my friend and one of the primary reasons for my being here, but people still don’t understand that Andy was talented. He was an artist. A lot of people don’t understand that Kobe Bryant is talented because they never saw him play. A lot of people don’t understand George Washington was talented because they never saw him ride a horse. There is a physical gift that saves these creatures and that comes from another place.

BILL POWERS — So in your estimation we aren’t oversaturated with Warhol?
DAVE HICKEY — We are oversaturated with popular culture. The mistake people who try to follow Andy make is to assume that Andy’s exploitation of popular culture was what his work was all about, when actually his painting was really closer to mimicking 18th-century portraiture.

BILL POWERS — My friend says that he likes Warhol but hates seeing his influence in other artists’ work.
DAVE HICKEY — I agree. Ed Ruscha warned me that you can’t forget that you may be living in a real bad time and that everything people value is crap.

BILL POWERS — Maybe the whole 20th century is a wash? It’s all one long 1970s.
DAVE HICKEY — Which was great and theatrical for rock and roll. It was crap for art, so art could be going through a sandy patch. There’s really no way to be certain.

BILL POWERS — Would you say that an artist is someone with the ability to embed thoughts or feelings in material?
DAVE HICKEY — There’s nothing embedded in art I like. I would say art is largely defined by its ability to transgress the patterns of contemporary culture and still offer a new pattern in it that might change the future, because pattern is visual survival. Pattern is the mother of memory. David Hume said culture is that which outlasts the lifetime of its maker, and I think that’s a pretty good definition. I also like my friend Morris Peckham’s assertion that what happens with a species is that you become so safe that you forget how to confront disorienting behavior. So we have invented art, which has rules designed to be broken and then we break those rules and come to terms with that rupture and that’s our way of going out to fight the tiger. Art is there to train people how to deal with disorientation, that’s its primary social function.


Dave Hickey
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In Conversation

DAVE HICKEY with Charles Schultz

Dave Hickey recently published Pirates and Farmers: Essays on the Frontiers of Art (Ridinghouse, 2013), a collection of essays on taste and 20th-century art. The book is threaded with personal tales of insouciance and the opinions of a man who has decided he’s through with the art world, but will never be done with art. Hickey spoke over the phone from Las Vegas with Charles Schultz, Associate Art Editor, about his thoughts on taste, changes of style, the history of art as a history of boredom, and the world of pirates and farmers.

Charles Schultz (Rail): You open “On Taste” with the provocative suggestion that our inability to separate taste from desire is the root of our bloody global conflicts. Can you extrapolate a bit on this?

Dave Hickey: All wars about culture are wars about taste—about tacos, purdah, vestigial tribalism, Aryan blood, and sacred soil. These are all dispensable attributes. I look out the window and see a post-ethnic, post-culture cauldron. I look at the art world wading obliviously into the goody-two-shoes, gerrymandered mainstream, and I’m daunted.

Rail: The title essay of your book, “Pirates and Farmers,” sets up a kind of conceptual foundation for many of the other essays in the book. You define farmers as rule abiders and protocol followers. Pirates, on the other hand, transgress rules and treat protocols like nothing more than suggested routes. When did you come to realize you were a pirate? How did the realization occur?

Hickey: Early on. At first I thought I was an escape artist, but as soon as I had the chops, I started marauding and plundering. Have been ever since.

Rail: Farmers and pirates play by two very different playbooks. In “Vogue” you write that “the art world is a vulgar place to be if you are not pathologically servile.” If so, wouldn’t the art world be total farmer territory?

Hickey: Maybe farm animal territory. I meet a lot of sheep in sheep’s clothing. Actually, the art world is so creepy that I can’t tell what the fuck it is. I read the blogs: Eric Clapton’s selling Richter, Bob Dylan’s welding gates, and Sharon Stone’s hosting her seven thousandth gala.

My impression: farmers have just about rid the art world of pirates. They know us when the see us. This is the first thing I learned teaching at universities: it’s all about territory. You take over the student lounge for the ceramics lab, you win. How much pasturage you control counts most. There is a nice book by Jane Jacobs (Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, [1992]) that deals with this issue at length.

I first became aware of this divide when I was doing visiting professorships. I immediately discovered that you need the department secretary on your side if you are going to function in an art department. I used to take them flowers, candy if they were fat, and tell them they were pretty so they wouldn’t fuck up my paperwork, but they always knew I was “trubble”—that I was a pirate. No amount of flowers or candy could erase that impression. The distance between pirates and farmers is profound and irrevocable, and it’s a hassle. On the upside, pirates can make a living without having to curtsy too much.

Rail: In “On Taste” you write, “art that exists in the world, in the possession of civilians, is the accumulated hard copy of cosmopolitanism and civilization.” Why is the art that is privately owned rather than that which is collected by museums and institutions the hard copy?

Hickey: Art in a museum, just by being in a museum, loses its influence on new art. It dwells in the realm of public accreditation. This is fine but it’s not the same as wild art that’s still alive in the street. Art in Sunday school is not an emblem of change-inducing sophistication.

Rail: How about style change? How do you account for changes in style. Is it a reflection of shifting taste from one generation to the next?

Hickey: In my view, art history is about boredom. That’s the engine. Art changes because we get bored. History is dead but time is not, and we still get inured to things. I’ve conjured up a lot of theoretical reasons for style change, but ennui is the best one I’ve ever come up with.

Rail: You refer to curators as “certified sleazebags.” How have you come to hold these folks in such high regard?

Hickey: Well, that’s a little over the top, but honestly, most curators only value their own ideas. They impose these ideas on defenseless art from which they learn nothing. They give us no pleasure or knowledge. They champion group shows and I have a big problem with group shows. If I could abolish group shows from museums and group crits from graduate schools, I would be happy. They are both modalities of social control. You work your butt off to get out of a pigeonhole so some curator or professor can fit you into a new one.

Rail: One place that doesn’t crop up in this series of essays is Marfa, Texas. As an art critic who is from the Lone Star State, what do you think about Marfa?

Hickey: I’ve been there a lot. I used to go down there just to see Don Judd, and I finally decided that I didn’t like Don very much. I would go down there and it was like being in a prissy European novel. I would listen to Don complain about people not giving him enough money, telling me how much purer he was than I, and how many European princesses he knew. I remember once he was complaining that the locals kept shooting his dogs. I wanted to tell him that Texans do this sort of thing to people they don’t like.

But I love the art in Marfa; I love the Judds; I love the Flavins. If the Flavins had been installed when Don was alive, they would have been a temporary project because they blow everything else away. I love the Jack Wesleys, but I hate the food. The last time I was in Marfa, a bunch of supermodels had just flown in on a private jet with their own salad chef.

Also, I grew up in West Texas. It’s my home country. Everybody looks at Marfa and they see the sky and the clouds, and the sublimity of the landscape. I see four sweating illegals loading a generator onto a flatbed. It’s a destitute country, with a lot of desperate people in it, and living amidst destitution hardens your heart. I prefer the bums in Las Vegas, where there is poverty but less destitution. If I’m going to be panhandled, I prefer high-hearted Vegas panhandlers with signs that say, “Will Dance for Food.” If I don’t have any crack in my pocket, I give them a 20.


Conversation with Dave Hickey

05/03/08 2:10 PM ESTare
Conversation with Dave Hickey
Art bubbles are great,” said Las Vegas–based art critic and provocateur Dave Hickey at Frieze last October. “Imagine how exciting the collapse will be.” Since the 1997 publication of his essay collection Air Guitar, in which he tackles topics ranging from jazz to Norman Rockwell, Hickey has gained a cult following among art cognoscenti. Sarah Douglas gets his take on biennials, fairs and vulgarityHow have things changed for artists in the past 10 years?There is a problem with the mechanics by which they ascend from being wispy, fashionable newcomers to stable prestige artists. Traditionally, this would happen through a gradually accrued panoply of exhibitions, scholarly articles, acquisitions and criticism. I don’t know how it happens these days, or how the prices will hold up long-term.

Art and money never touch,” you wrote in your 1997 essay “Dealing.” That is, one never really buys anything but rather translates his or her “faith” from one system of value to another. Have auctions destabilized that process?

Yes, and I am not alone in my growing distrust of the auction houses. It’s hard to be specific without inviting litigation, but there is a lot of unease out there among serious players about auction house practices. Good art is still available and being made, of course, but there is no art too sorry to offer at auction these days. So collectors are absolutely on their own—as they were, I should note, from about 1879, with the demise of the Salon system, until the founding of MoMA, in 1929.

How are galleries different?

Now they’re department stores. Stables of artists once embodied the taste of the gallerist. Now everybody has one of each: your Iranian minimalist photographer, your elegant object maker, your Berlin pornographer. Galleries were once known for the artists they exhibit. Now they’re known for the clientele they represent. So they make more profit, but they have less power and influence.

You once told me you find it refreshing when art publications publish prices.

I do. I write about the gap between price and value as I perceive it. I write about artworks that I find too costly for their value or that are worth more than their price. Unfortunately, the live, magnetic attraction between price and value has evanesced. The whole discourse of public cultural significance has disappeared, and if meaning doesn’t matter, if price is everything, then everything’s just a “collectible”—an icon of personal enthusiasm like Gong Show memorabilia and Barbie dolls. The market can’t have stable values with this kind of high volatility, as you’ve pointed out. Of course not. What we have today is a highly unstable futures market, and whether it’s pork bellies or Picasso, that’s just gambling.

How does the Whitney Biennial relate to the general process of endorsing artists these days?

Since the 1970s, works of purported public consequence have been shown there. Most of these works were ephemeral and/or ugly. In the commercial galleries, you had works of equal seriousness that were more attractive and archival. These two worlds remain divided. And who cares anyway?

What about biennials in general and their globe-trotting curators?

You mean those people flying around the world on the public dime trying to find some idiot in the boondocks who makes identity art with television sets? They’re obsolete but not endangered. They think art spaces are laboratories for the interaction of cultures. They’re not. They’re places where you put cool stuff, stuff you love. That’s why art fairs have replaced biennials. Cooler stuff. Higher stakes. Better fashion sense.

Do you enjoy fairs?

I love art fairs. I see art. I talk to people who like art. One thing I did notice in Miami last year is that the big galleries’ selections of younger artists tended to be pretty lame—crocheted pink octopi, fake mahogany appliqué on sea-turtle shells, things like that. We’ve gone through 40 years of art becoming more vulgar. Personally, I think we are back, in a stylistic sense, to where we were after Pollock and de Kooning, on the verge of a period devoted to gradual refinement. You’ve got to recognize the end of things when they end. So I ask you: Can you get more vulgar than Richard Prince?

Conversation with Dave Hickey” originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction’s March 2008 Table of Contents.


Doyen of American critics turns his back on the ‘nasty, stupid’ world of modern art

Dave Hickey condemns world he says has become calcified by too much money, celebrity and self-reverence
Dave Hickey

Dave Hickey says he is quitting the art world. Photograph: Nasher Museum Of Art

One of America’s foremost art critics has launched a fierce attack on the contemporary art world, saying anyone who has “read a Batman comic” would qualify for a career in the industry.

Dave Hickey, a curator, professor and author known for a passionate defence of beauty in his collection of essays The Invisible Dragon and his wide-ranging cultural criticism, is walking away from a world he says is calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing.

“They’re in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It’s just not serious,” he told the Observer. “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.”

Hickey says the art world has acquired the mentality of a tourist. “If I go to London, everyone wants to talk about Damien Hirst. I’m just not interested in him. Never have been. But I’m interested in Gary Hume and written about him quite a few times.”

If it’s a matter of buying long and selling short, then the artists he would sell now include Jenny Holzer, Richard Prince and Maurizio Cattelan. “It’s time to start shorting some of this shit,” he added.

Hickey’s outburst comes as a number of contemporary art curators at world famous museums and galleries have complained that works by artists such as Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn are the result of “too much fame, too much success and too little critical sifting” and are “greatly overrated”.

Speaking on condition of anonymity to Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor, one curator described Emin’s work as “empty”, adding that because of the huge sums of money involved “one always has to defend it”.

Gompertz, who recently wrote What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art, sympathised with Hickey’s frustration.

“Money and celebrity has cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting ideas and debate from coming to the fore,” he said yesterday, adding that the current system of collectors, galleries, museums and art dealers colluding to maintain the value and status of artists quashed open debate on art.

“I hope this is the start of something that breaks the system. At the moment it feels like the Paris salon of the 19th century, where bureaucrats and conservatives combined to stifle the field of work. It was the Impressionists who forced a new system, led by the artists themselves. It created modern art and a whole new way of looking at things.

“Lord knows we need that now more than anything. We need artists to work outside the establishment and start looking at the world in a different way – to start challenging preconceptions instead of reinforcing them.”

Gompertz said Hickey was not a man who ever regretted a decision but that he did not agree with the American that the whole contemporary art world was moribund. “There are important artists like Ai Weiwei and Peter Doig, who produces beautiful and haunting paintings in similar ways to Edward Hopper,” he said.

As a former dealer, Hickey is not above considering art in terms of relative valuation. But his objections stem from his belief that the art world has become too large, too unfriendly and lacks discretion. “Is that elitist? Yes. Winners win, losers lose. Shoot the wounded, save yourself. Those are the rules,” Hickey said.

His comments come ahead of the autumn art auctions. With Europe in recession and a slowdown in the Chinese and Latin American economies, vendors are hoping American collectors, buoyed by a 2% growth in the US economy, andnew collectors, such as those coming to the market from oil-rich Azerbaijan, will boost sales.

At 71, Hickey has long been regarded as the enfant terrible of art criticism, respected for his intellectual range as well as his lucidity and style. He once said: “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, and I prefer the latter.”

Hickey, who also rates British artist Bridget Riley, says he did not realise when he came to the art world in the 1960s that making art was a “bourgeois” activity.

“I used to sell hippy art to collectors and these artists now live like the collectors I used to sell to. They have a house, a place in the country and a BMW.”

Hickey says he came into art because of sex, drugs and artists like Robert Smithson, Richard Serra and Roy Lichtenstein who were “ferocious” about their work. “I don’t think you get that anymore. When I asked students at Yale what they planned to do, they all say move to Brooklyn – not make the greatest art ever.”

He also believes art consultants have reduced the need for collectors to form opinions. “It used to be that if you stood in front of a painting you didn’t understand, you’d have some obligation to guess. Now you don’t,” he says. “If you stood in front of a Bridget Riley you have to look at it and it would start to do interesting things. Now you wouldn’t look at it. You ask a consultant.”

Hickey says his change of heart came when he was asked to sign a 10-page contract before he could sit on a panel discussion at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Laura Cumming, the Observer’s art critic, said it would be a real loss if Hickey stopped writing commentary. “The palace Hickey’s describing, with its lackeys and viziers, its dealers and advisers, is more of an American phenomenon. It’s true that we too have wilfully bad art made for hedge fund managers, but the British art scene is not yet so thick with subservient museum directors and preening philanthropists that nothing is freely done and we can’t see the best contemporary art in our public museums because it doesn’t suit the dealers.And that will be true, I hope, until we run out of integrity and public money.”

Hickey’s retirement may only be partial. He plans to complete a book, Pagan America — “a long commentary of the pagan roots of America and snarky diatribe on Christianity” — and a second book of essays titled “Pirates and Framers.”

It is the job of a cultural commentator to make waves but Hickey is adamant he wants out of the business. “What can I tell you? 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.”

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Being an Art Critic

Dave Hickey on being an art critic.
Dave Hickey
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

NAME: Dave Hickey | AGE: 69 | HOMETOWN: Fort Worth | QUALIFICATIONS: Author of two volumes of art criticism, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty and Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy / Fiction and culture writer for magazines such as Rolling Stone, ARTnews, Art in America, Harper’s Magazine , and Vanity Fair / Curator of “Beau Monde,” in Santa Fe (2001); “Las Vegas Diaspora” (2007); and other exhibits

• I like the art world. There are a lot of gay people and attractive women with low-cut dresses, and the hors d’oeuvres are better than what you get anywhere else.

• Willie Morris took me to a party of New York literati. Jimmy Breslin, Norman Podhoretz, William Styron—all these New York literary types were there, and they all had on suits and had ugly wives and got drunk and fell over the rubber plant. I hated it. I left and went to a downtown bar called St. Adrian’s, where I spent the rest of the evening among junkies and drag queens and was much happier.

• People say the art world is fake, but it’s all too real. It’s full of art sissies and fashion trash—but do you want to go to a party with no art sissies and no fashion trash? That’s like going to dinner at the dean’s house. I prefer the frazzle and dazzle of the art world. I’m vulnerable to ennui.

• I probably owe my career as a writer to John Graves. No writer in the world could be more different. But John has an attitude about being responsible to the world he writes about. If he’s writing about nature, he wants nature itself to prove his writing. I write about art, he writes about nature, but we’re both serious about getting it right.

• I won’t argue for accessibility, but I’ll argue for lucidity.

• Many critics have to fall in love to write about anything. I don’t. I can write about a casual flirtation.

• I regard myself as a serious intellectual person, but I don’t care if intellectuals like what I’ve written. I’m that arrogant. What do I care about the praise of idiots? Fame only means you’ve been misinterpreted by millions.

• When I started off writing for slick magazines, I realized that if you can write clear and funny and on time, you can go anywhere you want to—any rock tour, any museum exhibition. So I set out to have adventures and not to be a famous writer.

• I’ve hung out with a lot of famous people just to do stories. I went along on Aerosmith’s first major headline tour. All the things they had always wanted to do they did, and I helped. I’m still ashamed.

• I’ll write about art when I perceive a gap between price and value. I’m interested in art I consider too cheap or too expensive: Ellsworth Kelly and Ed Ruscha—artists whom I’ve been writing about for years. I wrote about them when their work cost $20, and now I’m writing about them when their work costs $2 million. I consider that to be a reflection of my exquisite and prescient taste.


ESSAY: Dave Hickey

Published on  November 27 2012

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.


Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Dave Hickey


Las Vegas attracts people who aren’t:
Fucking depressed

“Ya know what I mean?” Dave Hickey likes to ask. His voice is gentle and lyrical, slightly tarnished by smoking, and very Southern. At sixty-seven, he remarks, guffawing about his large proportions, “rap has sort of reasserted my body type.” He’s often in a Lakers cap. As much as he likes talking, he will often interrupt himself to ask a question: “So what sort of music do you like?… What’s your plan in life?… Why in the hell is it called the Believer for?”

It’s hard to gauge the place of art critic Dave Hickey in the world. Though very well known, he’s not yet required reading—but that’ll change. His passions are idiosyncratic, he drives at no major thesis, nor is he seeking a revolution in taste or even acolytes. It seems he wants to construct an edifice of true things—or, at least, the least likely wrong things—that can be said about whatever subjects are most interesting and at hand.

Hickey is the author of a story collection and two books of essays, including the classic Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997). He began his career in the 1960s as a freelance journalist, but in the early ’90s, he moved to Las Vegas and joined the faculty of the University of Nevada in the art department. Now he teaches English. He’s run galleries in New York and Austin, and was executive editor of Art in America. Six years ago, he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. Hickey counts among his “professional acquaintances” Lester Bangs, James Wolcott, and Hunter S. Thompson (“the puritan do-gooder”).

He writes of his beginnings, “That was the seventies—limos, homos, bimbos, resort communities and cavernous stadiums… the whole culture in a giant, Technicolor Cuisinart, whipping by, and I did love it so.”

This interview took place in two locations: the patio of a breakfast spot in Toronto around noon on a sunny midsummer day, where he ordered eggs and several coffees and waited a long time for a fork. After speaking there for a couple of hours, it continued in a hotel bar, where he could smoke in the courtyard.

His manner is a mixture of courtly and cowboy. It’s easy to imagine him pissed off and unhappy, but he is not the curmudgeon his reputation suggests. For at the root of everything Hickey writes about and speaks about is an advocacy for what he loves—and a kind of regret, not bitterness, at the popularity of what he doesn’t.

At the end of our meeting, he said, with a hint of resigned gallantry, “Please feel free to use whatever I’ve told you, as you wish. It’s not like I’m worried about my, uh, reputation.”

—Sheila Heti


SHEILA HETI: In your experience of knowing artists, do you think there’s a discrepancy between why artists tell themselves they’re making art, and the actual reason you perceive them to be making art?

DAVE HICKEY: In my experience, you always think you know what you’re doing; you always think you can explain, but you always discover, years later, that you didn’t and you couldn’t. This leads me to suspect that the principal function of human reason is to rationalize what your lizard brain demands of you. That’s my idea. Art and writing come from somewhere down around the lizard brain. It’s a much more peculiar activity than we like to think it is. The problems arise when we try to domesticate the practice, to pretend that it’s a normal human activity and that “everybody’s creative.” They’re not. Honestly, I never sit down to write anything without thinking, This is a weird thing to be doing! Why am I sitting here writing? Why am I looking at the Ellsworth Kelly on my wall? I don’t know. It feels funny to do these things, but it feels funnier not to, so I write and look. My only justification for the lizard brain thing is that, whatever I’m writing about and whatever I’m writing on, it all comes out the same. If I’m writing about furniture, Dick Cheney, Palladio, or surfing—if I’m writing on coke, speed, acid, smack, booze, panic, sorrow, or just cigarettes, it all comes out Dave writing, so, if altering one’s consciousness doesn’t alter the outcome, maybe it’s not about that.

SH: So if it’s the kind of thing that comes from the lizard brain and is not this gentle, political thing people do at all, then this idea of working hard, which is a very Protestant, American value… I mean, going to the studio from nine in the morning to five at night—it sometimes seems like there’s such a professionalization of art-making. Is it commensurable with this activity that’s—

DH: Well, let me put it like this. I think that if you don’t like it and it’s not easy, you shouldn’t be doing it. You know what I mean?

SH: If it’s not easy you shouldn’t be doing it?

DH: I mean it’s work, but it’s not labor. You have professional obligations like any adult, but it’s fun to solve problems. It’s fun to sit there by yourself with no one telling you what to do. It’s fun to nuance things that no one will notice except in their lizard brains. I enjoy doing it, and it’s easy for me, but there are a lot of people out there who are working too hard at it. [Big laugh]

SH: Why do you think people are interested in art?

DH: I think they want to touch the source of something, you know? It doesn’t make people better. It doesn’t make them happier. It doesn’t make them smarter, and you can’t teach people to do it or like it. So who knows?

SH: Can you teach people how to see more sensitively?

DH: Danger makes us see more sensitively—anxiety—the prospect of the gallows. But you either see or you don’t. I think you want to learn about art because you had an experience of some sort—a totally nonredemptive but vaguely exciting experience, like brushing up against a girl with big boobs in the subway. It’s about that level of intensity. So you want to find out more about it since its sources are so mysterious, and these sources reside in you as well as in the object. But I have no evangelical feelings about art at all. I despise art education. Art doesn’t lend itself to education. There is no knowledge there. It’s a set of propositions about how things should look.

SH: Like an aesthetic proposition?

DH: Yeah. It doesn’t contain any truth. It doesn’t contain any fact. It’s just a proposition to be argued for or against.

SH: There are a number of artists I know who want to make art out of a political impulse, and this impulse seems kind of incompatible with art-making.

DH: The political impulse is fine but moot. Art has political consequences, which is to say, it reorganizes society and creates constituencies of people around it. Miles Davis creates a constituency. Andy Warhol creates a constituency, and any object or occasion that organizes people in terms of what they want is a political constituency. The idea of political contentis irrelevant. Content is irrelevant. I always tell my students, “Never forget you’re writing words! You know, word one, word two, word three, word four. The words have to be organized. Nothing else does.”


SH: So what makes you happy and what makes you sad in culture right now?

DH: You know, I’m deeply engaged in culture, but I’m well out of the trenches, which means if I talk, I talk Frank Gehry. I don’t talk younger architects. I talk Ellsworth Kelly. And I’m happy for that, because when you’re a younger critic you can almost never get the chance to write about people who are older than you are—people who really influenced you—and that’s kind of fun. But there are no public venues to write about art anymore, except for three or four permanent jobs that my friends do and I never could. Mostly I write for commercial galleries these days. There are no serious art magazines.

SH: So there’s no place to talk about art?

DH: No, and my particular age of the critic is just over. There are no influential midcareer critics today. I think part of that is circumstance, in the sense that a whole generation of critics died of AIDS in the ’80s. It was like the plague that wiped out two generations of Neapolitan painters in the sixteenth century. They’re just gone, and those dead guys from the ’80s should be writing most of what I’m writing now, and I should be left to play blackjack.

SH: OK, so what are the supposed art magazines interested in hearing about, if not about art?

DH: They want touting. In twenty years we’ve gone from a totally academicized art world to a totally commercialized art world, and in neither case is criticism a function. We’re all supposed to be positive about art. Nobody plays defense! I mean, my job, to a certain extent, is to be in the net. My job is to mow stuff down.

SH: So in what kind of structure would there be a place for criticism?

DH: Well, I came into an art world of volunteers—six thousand heavily medicated, mysteriously employed human beings who were there because they wanted to be, you know? And all they wanted was to be right—not safe, not rich, not fair, but right! Now we have this vast bureaucratic structure of support. Everybody’s a poll watcher. Nobody’s a voter. We’ve got millions of people devoted to the whole idea that art’s supposed to be fair and good for you. But art’s not too fair, you know? Why should you be publishing books and not your friends? Because it’s not fair, that’s why.

SH: Yeah, whatever.

DH: Anyway, the art world is way too big right now. The art world I came up into was very much like the jazz world I grew up in, which is to say, a relatively small thing. If you got to go see Miles Davis in a little bar on La Brea, that was great, and you didn’t sit around saying, “There was no coverage in the New York Times! Miles is not going to get any reviews!” You know what I’m saying?

SH: Sure, it was for yourself. You were happy.

DH: Right, you were happy to be there, and if the art world today shrunk down to the size and scale of the jazz world, I would be happier now. Things would be freer and a lot less tedious.

SH: I suppose the schools have something to do with the change—the craziness that you have to get an MFA to be an artist.

DH: Thirty-five thousand MFAs a semester, 90 percent of whom never make another work of art.

SH: And do you think that that kind of system produces—

DH: Almost no one. Idiots with low-grade depression. When I opened my gallery in the late ’60s, Peter Plagens—who’s now the critic for Newsweek and still shows his paintings—was the only artist I represented who had been to graduate school. The MFA thing is an invention of the ’70s. Its raison d’être is evaporating.

SH: Which is?

DH: Training sissies for teaching jobs. Well, the official raison d’être was to create an intellectual and pedagogical justification for the most frivolous activity in Western culture, so you go back and read things from the past. It’s the traditional Renaissance desire that artists should be taken seriously, and that art not be a practical but a liberal art. But I tend to think it’s a practice, like law or like medicine.

SH: Right, and nobody wants to be a clown! No artists want to be clowns. That’s a shame.

DH: You have to check out my friend Scott Grieger, who’s a high culture clown, if only because Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner rescued him from the streets of L.A. and paid for his art education.

SH: Do you think humor’s a very important element of art?

DH: It would be if anybody could take a joke! Alec Waugh proposes “seriousness” as a form of infectious stupidity. I agree. Actually, Bruce Nauman is pretty funny. Everybody pretends that he’s not, but clown torture is pretty funny! You know? And, uh, I think Peter Saul is funny, he’s very witty, and I think Ellsworth Kelly is not funny but he’s witty, and Ed Ruscha is extremely funny and extremely witty, you know?

SH: I love Serra but he’s not funny.

DH: No, well, but Richard’s smart. And he’s an artist. He can’t talk without drawing. He’s the real fucking thing. Not nice.

SH: Not nice. No, he doesn’t seem so nice. [Laughs]

DH: But Richard’s really fun to go look at art with, because he will look at anything, and he likes to look at art, and when you see him you don’t sit around. He says, “Let’s go look at art,” so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.

SH: Well, and that idea of taking sculpture off the pedestal—I love that, and I think the whole culture’s off the pedestal.

DH: And Tony Caro did that—he put it on the ground. But in a sense what he did was make the pedestal the art. Caro and Serra, Sol LeWitt, and Don Judd—they made the pedestal the art. It’s like DJs transforming the turntable into an instrument.


SH: Do you see anybody doing anything that—let’s say radical—right now?

DH: First of all, let me say if I did, I probably wouldn’t recognize it.

SH: You wouldn’t recognize it?

DH: Let me put it this way. When I was a bright young thing, my relationship to my elders was, uh, problematic. It was like—[makes a gesture of waving from across a chasm]. And I thought they were wrong and I was right. And they were wrong, but I’m probably as wrong today. As I always say, the next great art movement may be dust bunnies, you know what I mean? And I wouldn’t recognize it. It’s like, whoa! What dust bunnies did you get from out of your bag!?

SH: How much is the performance important? I think of somebody like Warhol or Pollock, and they had such strong public personas. Who they are communicates their art as well, and, in Warhol’s case, his image is part of the work’s meaning.

DH: Well, the thing is, the work is not really sufficient. Most famous artists are created by their work and the idea of them as a character, and if they’re smart and ambitious, they reinforce that character because they want to win. They want their views to prevail. And you must want to win. I don’t want to be rich, but I want to win. I want my enemies to fall in shambles. I do not want to be fair. I want the art I hate to go away. If you want your art to stay around, and I hate it, get your own fucking critic! So I am not in favor of art—I’m in favor of the art I like.

SH: Yeah, totally. But so do you think an artist has to be part of the discourse? Has to talk? To give interviews?

DH: It’s a social discourse. There ain’t no Frank Stellas at Montana State. But you’ve got to be there, and you’ve got to be interested in other people so you can talk about them. Gossip is the currency of the discourse, so you should shut up about yourself. Never confess, never explain, never apologize, and never complain. But you got to be there. The missing are presumed dead.

SH: OK, you say that art needs talent and courage to be great or interesting, and—it’s a weird generalization to make—but I wonder if you’ve noticed in artists that there’s certain types of ambition that lead to great works of art, and if there’s certain kinds of ambition that lead to shitty work.

DH: Let’s put it this way. If one artist likes another artist, it’s never quite the work, it’s the quality of the ambition they respect. Ed Ruscha said to me once—he was talking about some artist he didn’t like, and I said, “Well, the quality of the work…” And Ed says, “It’s not the quality of the work, it’s the quality of the job.”

SH: Quality of the job?

DH: I mean, are you doing something worth doing? That’s a reasonable question. When you really respect somebody who does something different from you, your respect is for the quality of the job.

[His cell phone rings. He talks to his wife, the art historian Libby Lumpkin. They have a brief, confused discussion about whether or not she’s having two lunches today. He hangs up. I ask him how long he’s been married; about fifteen years, he replies. Has he been married before? He’s had relationships with four women, he tells me—a serial monogamist, he says.]

What I do is I find beautiful, intelligent women, and invest them with enough confidence to leave me.

SH: And do they all leave for the same reason?

DH: I guess. That’s the chance you take if you like bitches, if you prefer women who have their own agendas and their own destinations. I like singers, writers, dancers, social climbers, and divas. So eventually, you’re passed over. Part of this is selfish, though. Writing for one is hard. Writing for two is impossible. And sitting at home writing about cowboys with cancer while Betsy Sue teaches fifth-grade music casts a pall and poses a question mark over every word you write. Living off the work of others makes you a slut or a shit. I’ve tried not to. Anyway, I get along with all my exes. We’re actually pretty close.


DH: So what do you write about? Do you write about real people?

SH: Increasingly I’m less interested in writing about fictional people, because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. I just—I can’t do it.

DH: I understand.

SH: It doesn’t make sense to me. And the complicated thing is, I like life so much. I love being among people, I love being in the world, and writing is the opposite of that.

DH: That’s why I became a cultural journalist. I wanted to write, but I wanted to have adventures—I wanted to sit on the beach with Keith Richards and some dude playing the trombone. I wanted to be where it was, and I sacrificed a great deal of literary value for that, but I had a hell of a lot of fun. Back in the ’70s and ’60s, if you could do this, to length and on time—and not many people could, nor can they now—then you could go anywhere you wanted to, and look at whatever you wanted to. But it makes me happy that I set out to make a living out of the writing life and I have done it. Not a great life, of course, or a famous one, but a really cool one. The culture afforded me that, and I am sad that that life is disappearing.

SH: OK, so you can make a living as an artist by selling your work in the marketplace, or by government grants, and they’re both sort of problematic, but which makes the better art, or which is the lesser evil?

DH: I don’t think the government should touch art. Governments are risk averse. They encourage risk-averse personalities to be artists. Some good artists in their maturity—like me—will take a job at a university and continue to produce because they have trained themselves to produce. But the university environment is not a productive environment. It’s oppressive.

SH: It’s what?

DH: It’s not free. You cannot say what you want to. Let me explain. If I sell an article to Vanity Fair, they give me some money and we’re quits. I can take that money and spend it on heroin and Arab boys if I want to. But if I get the money I make from the university every year, that comes with a requirement that I not be a pedophile, that I not be a drug addict, that I not tell the truth, that I not say what I think about the president of the university. That’s what that money is. And if I take a job at a university and I’m a young person, I have six years in which I can’t express my opinion until I get tenure. Now, are you going to remember your opinions for six years? No!

SH: So if you eschew money from grants and from the government, then you’ve got to make money elsewhere—

DH: I wrote reviews of Porter Wagoner albums and squibs for titty magazines, but I fucking wrote them because I was trying to win and avoid all unavoidable compromises that presented me with the fantasies of comfort and security. I just like to write lucid prose. That’s my little thing. Why should it be easier for me than it was for Steve Tyler? Anyway, people don’t make literature, architecture, and art—the culture makes those things. We make books, buildings, and objects. We do our crummy little shit, and the culture assigns value to it, and I don’t think the culture needs government help.


SH: Yesterday you said you find yourself in the midst of a generation of young artists with more temperamental affinities than you’ve had with young artists in many years. What’s the nature of those affinities?

DH: Well, it’s very strange, and I think it had to do with Vegas, because Vegas attracts people who are not afraid, not religious, not country, and OK with themselves—people who like to have fun and like to work, people who aren’t fucking depressed, who don’t have issues. For instance, I was having dinner at Spago the other night with Tim Bavington, who used to be my student and is now a very successful painter, and Wolfram Putz, who was one of my students at Sci-Arc [the Southern California Institute of Architecture] and is presently an ultrachic international architect. Tim and Wolf are doing very well now, much better than I, in fact, so I thought to myself, Why them? First, I decided, it helps that they are both cosmopolitan creatures. Tim is a displaced Brit; Wolf is a displaced German; but what else? And the answer was easy: I had never seen either one of them in a bad mood.

SH: Wow.

DH: Never. They both have this steady level of equanimity, and when I look at my ex-students who’ve done well, the common factor is always their good humor. The ups are not too up. The downs are not too down. They’re having a good time by not compromising at what they love to do, and my students and I are alike in this. I’ve always had a good time, sometimes with bad consequences, of course. I mean, I’ve blown up my life three or four times—burned bridges while I was still on them. But that just comes from rash decision-making, that doesn’t come from not making decisions! [Laughs]

SH: [Laughs]Yeah, that’s right. At least you can say you’ve made decisions, goddamnit.

DH: I may have fucked up, but it was decisive! [Laughs, hits the table] And I have a pretty high level of equanimity day in and day out, and probably you do too, listening to you talk. Sometimes I get desperately depressed because I’m not cute anymore, or because I haven’t done what I said I would, but otherwise I’m OK. If I can get up, make coffee, look at the sunshine on the wall—hey. I don’t need a blow job before noon. I’m OK. And I think that most artists and writers—most of the ones that I know—are o-kay. They like to go into their studios, they like to see their friends, they like to chase girls or boys or whatever they chase. They were OK when they were a nobody, and now they’re OK when they’re somebody.

SH: I wonder: what kind of teacher are you?

DH: With the artists, I don’t teach, I coach. I can’t tell them how to make art. I tell them to make more art. I tell them to get up early and stay up late. I tell them not to quit. I tell them if somebody else is already making their work. My job is to be current with the discourse and not be an asshole. That’s all I wanted in a professor.

So how old are you, anyway?

SH: Thirty.

DH: Great! You’re a bright young thing. You have all the way till you’re forty to totally fuck up your life. It takes that long, if you’re really talented, to really fuck everything up. You just go up and up and up and up, and all of a sudden you’ve got three ex-husbands, a broken-down Porsche, a bunch of leather clothes, some haute-couture accessories, and no prospects at all. [Chuckles]

SH: [Laughs] Yeah, I keep thinking the fifth husband will be the one. That’s my new goal.

DH: That’s right. Exactly. Hm. It must be hard to find boyfriends in Canada.

SH: How come?

DH: Because it’s such a healthy place! I never have been able to put a name on it, but I really do love the darkness, I really do love the edge.

SH: Wait. I want to ask you a question about America, ’cause you said—it is the superpower—and is there any work that you think has been able to represent the nature of America’s empire?

DH: I think Don Judd, Dan Flavin, and Andy Warhol were trying to. I think they conceived of themselves as the Augustan artists of the American empire. The Vietnam War ruined the moment, but they did it. They created this steady-state, history-less, past-less, future-less moment in art with no precedent and really no consequences—it’s just this stuff—purely American stuff, totally abstract and totally bland. And I like that. I don’t like too much blood or too many explosions. I like bland. I like blank.

Sheila Heti is the author of Ticknor and The Middle Stories. She lives in Toronto, and is currently collaborating on a reality show with the painter Margaux Williamson.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Dave Hickey, Art Critic and Theorist

Interviewed by Ilana Stranger,, courtesy of NYFA

IS: I think that critics–the role they play, the training they have–are one of the more mysterious aspects of the art world for emerging artists. Could you tell me a bit about how you came to write art criticism?

DH: I began writing about art because I was interested in the gap between what we see and what we say. Also I wanted to write about things in the world that stayed in the world after I had written about them, so whatever I wrote would remain in a live relationship with its subject. If you write about a concert or a play or a public event, that event is gone and nothing remains but the writing. Works of art, however, survive as an ongoing critique of the critique you have written. I like that.

What is the role of the art critic within the art world? How much of an effect do you think critics have on what is being produced and sold, and is this positive or negative?

You need to remember that the art world is just a lot of people who buy, sell, exhibit, think about, talk about and write about art. Within this world critics are interested observers who document their interests, as distinct from scholars and journalists, who are purportedly disinterested observers. The simple truth, however, is that the art world is a small world that runs on talk. As a consequence, most of what a critic writes about art is not written for the art world at all but for people who are interested in the art world and want to know what art people are talking about. Critics over the course of their careers build up a reputation for being right or being wrong about things; people trust these reputations but not much; if power is defined as the power to make something that is not interesting interesting, critics have no power at all. Art has power.

How would you characterize the relationship between artists and critics?

Extraneous. Critics write about art; biographers and personality journalist write about artists.

You’ve been a gallery director, an editor, a freelance writer, and a professor. How have you been able to wear such different hats? What causes you to move from one field for the next?

The usual: circumstance, greed, whim, failure, restlessness.

You often talk about your initial–and continuing–love for arranging art on a wall, and have said that your ideal role as a curator would be to say, “Here is some stuff I found. Isn’t it interesting. Excuse me while I get out of the way.” That’s quite different than your role as a critic and theorist, which of involves going deep into the art and expressing your opinions about it. What do you make of this contradiction?

The simplest way that I can explain it is to say that criticism is a consumer side practice and curating is a supply side practice. The critic is trying to make sense of the art before his or her eyes. Curators present things to people that they might wish to try to make sense of. A critic is trying to say one thing; a curator is trying to create a situation in which a lot of people might see and think and say a lot of different things. Critics try to stabilize; curators, ideally, try to destabilize, to create the possibility of new meanings.

Do you have any say in which students are admitted into the art program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas? If so, what do you look for?

I have some say, and, in general, I am looking for students who want to be artists rather than students who want to go to graduate school and study art. The difference is nearly always obvious from the work submitted.

What advice would you give to emerging artists? Is there a difference between advice you might give as a teacher, as a curator, as a gallery owner, or as a critic/theorist?

My advice is always to make a lot of art; to make a lot of art, then look at what you have made and then think about what you have done. If you think first, you will never do anything or you will do something boring. Art doesn’t exist until the artist has finished making it. The differences between one’s responses as a critic, teacher, dealer and curator are as follows: As a critic I presume the art is finished and on purpose. As a teacher, I presume the art needs work. So the same work that I might like as a critic, I might find wanting as a teacher, simply because my rule for looking at student art is: if you’re not sick don’t call that doctor. As a dealer you’re looking for quality, of course, but you’re also looking for evidence of the artist’s work habits and commitment to a long-term career. As a curator you’re looking for what fits.

Dave Hickey is one of the most preeminent art critics writing today. The author of two volumes of art criticism: “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” (1993), which is in its sixth printing, and “Air Guitar, Essays on Art and Democracy” (1998), in its third printing, Hickey’s writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Art News, Art in America, ArtForum, Interview, Harper’s Magazine, Vanity Fair, Nest, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. In addition, Hickey has been an executive director of Art in America magazine and a contributing editor at The Village Voice. The former director of A Clean Well-Lighted Place gallery in Austin and Reese Palley Gallery in New York City, Hickey curated SITE Santa Fe’s fourth biennial, “Beau Monde,” and will co-curate Chicago’s 2006 Navy Pier Walk sculpture exhibition.  He is currently Professor of Art Theory and Criticism at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada, and contributing editor to Art Issues magazine in Los Angeles.

This article was originally created for It appears on NYFA Interactive courtesy of the Abigail Rebecca Cohen Library.   It appears on CAR courtesy of New York Foundation for the Arts, 

Published by admin on Tue, 01/08/2008 – 12:22am
Updated on Fri, 09/26/2008 – 2:56pm


BOMB 51/Spring 1995 cover

Dave Hickey. Photo by O’Gara Bissel.

Dave Hickey is a veteran of the culture wars that take place beyond the city limits of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He grew up in the ‘50s in Los Angeles, where his father was a jazz musician. In the late ‘60s he opened “A Clean, Well-lighted Space,” a gallery in Austin, Texas, exhibiting young Minimalists and Conceptualists from both coasts. Subsequently, he closed the gallery to come to New York, where he first became Director of the Reese Paley Gallery, then worked as an Executive Editor for Art and America only to leave art and commerce behind and become a Nashville song writer, traveling with his wife’s band while writing music reviews for Rolling Stone Magazine. After ten years of this nomadic life, he turned to the quiet life of academia and currently teaches Art Theory and Criticism at the University of Las Vegas.

Like a rocket out of the great wasteland of the Southwest, Hickey became an art world cause célèbre. He found himself being asked to participate in panels, speak at museums and lecture at universities and colleges. No, the National Endowment for the Arts had not refused him funding, nor was he attacked by the religious right for his views. What caused all the fuss was that he had dared to use the “B”-word (Beauty) in public. Unlike the classic esthete, he had not used it in some high-minded, elitist manner, but had introduced it as a social issue. In the four essays that make up the slim volume The Invisible Dragon Hickey takes to task the received truths, the mechanical responses and the conspiracies of silence that dominate the discussion of the social institutionalization of art and aesthetics.

This interview was done during a stopover in New York. He has been commuting for a semester between Los Angeles and Boston, where he lectures on architecture at Harvard. Given Hickey’s enthusiasm for his subject and the wide range of cultural concerns, this interview could have just gone on and on, but after two hours we ran out of tape.

Saul Ostrow Your reemergence as a theoretician was based on your essays on beauty, which startled everyone because they thought it was a dead issue.

Dave Hickey Well, it may be a dead issue in the art world, but I don’t live in the art world. For me, the possibility of some kind of visible excitement is a practical necessity. They pay me to write. They don’t pay me to look. It’s not my social responsibility to look at art, so I expect a certain quantity of experience. Since I’ve been living on the West Coast, where everything is spread out, I’ve developed this criterion: if I can’t look at it longer than it takes me to get there… (laughter)

SO A three-hour drive.

DH The only works that really transcended this parameter were Richter’s Bader-Meinhoff paintings. I spent a lot more time looking at those than I did driving out to the Lannan Foundation. It seems a pretty good rule of thumb. It’s an argument about the virtues of visual complexity, which I discovered for myself back in the mid-’80s, when I found myself stuck in Fort Worth because my mom was sick. I was at loose ends, so I started going to museums a lot. In fact, I found myself going to the Kimbell Art Museum all the time, not out of any reactionary desire to return to the grand tradition of European painting, but just because I could. I could walk in there every day and look at those big Bouchers, at Caravaggio, Velazquez, Fra Angelico and they contained so much, so much raw information that I could keep on looking, day after day. It was “slow art,” in other words, and it beat the hell out of walking into a chic gallery, seeing a bunch of sex toys in velvet bags hung from plant hangers with French titles on brass plates. How long does that take? Twenty seconds, unless you have trouble with the French. Then, out you go, having experienced art designed for the attention span of AM radio. I want an image that I can keep looking at, some kind of sustained eloquence, an image that perpetually exceeds my ability to describe it.

SO The response to your proposal of the beautiful obviously struck a nerve.

DH Maybe not the nerve I was aiming at, but, obviously, I’m not the only one feeling deprived. It’s not like I’m running a crusade or something. Beauty’s not the end of art: it’s only the beginning. It’s what makes secular art possible, since it creates conditions under which we might voluntarily look carefully at something. So beauty is an issue. That’s all. Unlike…uh…death or sadness, which are not issues.

SO It’s an issue in the psychoanalytic sense, as in the repressed.

DH Yes. Beauty is an issue insofar as the concept is repressed. That’s why I find it encouraging that some kids have liked my book. That means the concept is not totally absent. If kids get it, that means that beauty is still a viable term in the ordinary cultural vernacular, outside the art world. Finding that you have written a “popular” piece of criticism, however, is not a particularly salutary experience. It really means that you’ve lost a step, that the world is catching up to you. Because criticism is not supposed to be popular, it’s supposed to be annoying. If a lot of people agree with your criticism, you’ve stopped being a critic and become some sort of village explainer—which, as Gertrude Stein noted, is all right if you are a village. If not, not. Because criticism is caused by art, it doesn’t cause art, or it shouldn’t. I mean…yikes! Think of all the bad art caused by Walter Benjamin. (laughter) I’d hate to be responsible for anything like that—although I am being held responsible, you know, for every flower painting in Indiana, just because I said the “B” word. In fact, I am arguing for a much more secular and aggressive idea of beauty.

SO Obviously we can never be responsible for that sort of permutation. It does open the door to the same subjectivity that the Abstract Expressionists ended up wallowing in. “I know what I like. It’s beautiful to me.”

DH Well, I am interested in what’s beautiful to me. I’m not a civil servant. I feel betrayed by our cultural institutions because they aren’t giving me any joy—any experiences that I may know in my body and confirm in my consciousness. A Marxist would call that subjectivity, I guess, but looking at art is a physical activity for me. So, let me make a distinction here between beauty and “the beautiful.” The beautiful is a social construction. It’s a set of ambient community standards as to what constitutes an appropriate visual configuration. It’s what we’re supposed to like. Beauty is what we like, whether we should or not, what we respond to involuntarily. So beauty is not the product of communities. It creates communities. Communities of desire, if you wish. I entered the art world, for instance, as part of a community which thought Warhol’s flower paintings were drop-dead gorgeous. I saw them in Paris. I thought they were fucking killer, which went against everything that I had been taught. Then, I met other people who loved those paintings, too. Stevie Mueller, Ed Ruscha, Peter Schjeldahl, and Terry Allen. We constituted a community created by our subjective, bodily response to those dumb paintings. I still live in that community today, and in the community of people who think Robert Mitchum was pretty cool.

SO Thomas McEvilley accused you of writing metaphysics. And a lot of your underlying premises are similar to those of Greenberg. Though, in your case, one could call it the avant-garde of kitsch.

DH Well, you just introduced a whole vocabulary of terms that are pretty alien to me, so let me start at the top. First, I don’t write metaphysics. I do write, however, and in doing so, I make yes-no, right-wrong, good-bad decisions—and if I understand Derrida correctly, the only way to not write metaphysics, is to defer such decisions and to not write. “Writing metaphysics” is a redundant expression, I think. Everything written can be deconstructed, not just the naughty stuff.

As to Clement Greenberg—he writes beautifully, but he is an aesthetician, which I am not. Moreover, I am very uncomfortable with everything that he seems to stand for—with the snobbery and elitism, with the “Appolonian” iconoclasm, with the transcendental materialism, the historical determinism, the whole prissy shebang. The only underlying premise that I share with Clement Greenberg, I also share with T.S. Eliot, with whom I have equally little in common. We all think that the experience of art and literature is grounded in joy—in enjoyment. Big deal. Who doesn’t? That doesn’t make me an “aesthetician.” I don’t even know what “aesthetics” are any more, besides a rather elaborate way to deny the consequences of our desires. Nor do I know what “kitsch” is, beyond its snide imputation of petit bourgeois class consciousness. Nor do I know what “avant-garde” means, beyond the image it conjures up of an elite cadre marching forward, embodying the “rationality” of our historical destiny. This is simply an alien terminology to me. I am a plain rhetorician, a visual pragmatist. I chose to align beauty with Roman eloquence as an agency through which artists propose political agendas by enlisting the bodily responses of the body politic. I would like visual culture to be more like the Roman Forum and less like Plato’s Academy. It’s that simple. Involuntary cultural activities, where nobody gets killed, beauty is power. It has no morality. Clement Greenberg writes beautifully, even though everything he stands for seems petty, vicious and destructive. If the writing wasn’t beautiful though, that wouldn’t matter. The loveliness of the writing endows it with political power, which makes its political content more urgent. It also makes that political content more difficult to winkle out, though considerably less arduous.

Let me put it this way—19th century aesthetics essentialized beauty, but the idea of beauty predates the invention of aesthetics by a millennium or so. Obviously, the two concepts are not bonded. Without aesthetics, however, beauty is power, real power. It elicits our involuntary consent. This is what beguiled Renaissance critics—and it beguiles me because I’m interested in works of art with political power. If a work has power, then I am concerned with its politics. If the work is not look-at-able, it just doesn’t matter. It’s not interesting art to me.

SO Which comes close to the paraphrase of Greenberg’s where look-at-able becomes equated with good.

DH But that’s essentializing. Look-at-able is not good. It is desirable, and therefore efficacious. That’s a very different thing. Greenberg wants pure look-at-ableness which enables us to submit to the materiality of the work and to its historical destiny. I find that a little creepy. Submission to inanimate material destiny? Aspirations to purity? That’s a poisonous vocabulary in this century, an invitation to genocide. Purity is a virtue in drinkable water and narcotics. (laughter)

SO The cleaner, the better.

DH So I’ve always found. Although I’ve always liked the analogy that Gorgias draws—the real Gorgias, not Plato’s straw man. Gorgias argued that rhetoric is like a drug in that it can cure you or it can kill you. He thought this was the chance you took if you lived in a free society. I do too, although, obviously, Plato didn’t. The thing about art, however, is that, even though it persuades us instantly, it takes a while to tease that physical confirmation into something like moral consciousness. Take Warhol and Pollock. They both make persuasive images. The first time I looked at them, I felt that I could continue to look at them. To me, that means that they are persuasive in some degree. As to what they were persuading me of? Well, that took a few years. I had to look and think, look and think, to feel the parameters of the space they made. Ars longa. Today, of course, I generally prefer what Andy was proposing to what Pollock was proposing. At first, I was only aware that these were persuasive objects that I had to come to terms with. So gorgeousness is always political in some sense. Unattractive images are simply inefficacious.

SO It sounds like an argument for a kind of subjectivity which is so unfashionable.

DH Well, forgive me, but what do I care about fashion? I’m a writer, not a super-model. What’s more, I’m a writer who lives in Las Vegas (laughter), which is the opposite of everything right and good and fashionable. Vegas is a permissive, unfashionable, commercial town and I’m a permissive, unfashionable commercial guy. I do retail. I write words, I get money, I buy Wheaties, I get calories, I write words, etcetera. That’s commerce. Also I am an art critic, which is the single unfundable, ungrantable, unendowable endeavor that is even vaguely connected with the arts. And justifiably so, in my case, since I am not with the program.

SO Most of us who call ourselves critics end up doing much more art writing than criticism.

DH Well, you can’t really have criticism in a culture where all art is deemed worthy and interesting. Criticism flourishes in a less virtuous environment. It assumes that some works of art are more worthy and interesting than others. So today, theory, advocacy and cheerleading are the genres of choice, because they all assume that art is really important. I’m not sure that it is, although I suspect that it has been at times. Ideally, I would prefer to write for voluntary beholders, for people who look at art but have no vested interest in its importance. People who hardly exist anymore. Schjeldahl and Christopher Knight, come about as close to being regular art critics since they still write for readers who need to be convinced. And they try to convince them.

SO Given that it is not a great living, why do you do it?

DH Because despair is inefficacious and unprofessional. Also, it’s not a great living, but I have a great life. I get paid for doing what I like to do, which is write. I live where I want to live. I go where I want to go. Of course, American culture is getting more boring and virtuous by the instant, but that’s not my fault and, fortunately, nobody lives forever. Although, there are positive signs. I see the beginnings of a real underground forming again, and I am comfortable in secret cultures. My dad was a jazz musician and I grew up around that cool jazz world of Los Angeles, which was a real underground. This meant that if you knew where Chet Baker and Dick Twardzik were playing, you didn’t tell anybody. You didn’t want the L.A. Times to know. You didn’t want to read about it in Vanity Fair. Right now, I’m ready for some shade, to go back underground, back on the road, or back to the beach or something. I’m not comfortable with art that isn’t critical of the prerogatives of high culture. I’m not comfortable with a cultural climate in which works of art and the governmental institutions of high culture conspire to critique popular culture. Finally, I’m not comfortable with the assumption that, as an art critic, I might have a common agenda with a giant institution.

SO How do you feel about having been discovered by those institutions and them loving you?

DH Well, I am uncomfortable with being discovered, but let’s face it, those are the venues available. Also, I should point out that they are not loving me. Trust me on this. I’ve been out there. Occasionally the students respond, but usually I’m invited to campuses to serve as a whipping boy for the tenured minions of political correctness. Though I can’t, for the life of me, figure out just how I’m politically incorrect. I live on the margin and always have. I speak from the margin about other marginal types, and I am about as close to certified street trash as they are likely to encounter. The only problem I can see is that I don’t really support art as a practice and a profession. But it’s not my job to “support art,” or the goals of an “American art community” to which I do not belong. I belong to the community of Andy’s flower paintings, that’s it. Also, art is not a symptom in my practice. It’s a cause. Art changes criticism, not the other way around. Art changes institutions, not the other way around. Art changes ideology, not the other way around. Tom McEvilley and I had a discussion about this: Tom was saying that art communicates to communicators, and then these communicators communicate with the culture. This may be true, for the moment, but I don’t think it’s right. It’s much too clerical for me. I don’t want to be the high priest of anything except video poker.

SO And we all know how powerful we are. (laughter) Making or breaking careers, and promoting a sort of culture that no one wants.

DH Actually, it’s the sort of culture that no one can want or have on a day-to-day basis. Most of its products are boxed up in institutions and pre-designed for institutional destinations. This, I would suggest, is the consequence of our having thrown out the squalling baby of commerce with the bath-water of capitalism. I mean, I’m a pretty advanced dude, you know, but I don’t want three sheets of raw plywood decorated with a clip lamp and inscribed with the word “boogie” leaning against the wall of my living room. That is scholastic post-minimalism—”fast art” designed for the institutional, white-box quick-take. I want “slow art” that flourishes in the problematic of its desirability. And I want it in my house, so I won’t have to visit it, like some great aunty in a nursing home. And if my house is not “correct” enough for your art? If your art is too good for my money? Fuck you.

SO You used the word “image” a number of times. I started as an artist, I still am an artist… I tend to find the notion of the image reductivist, especially of late, in that, increasingly, one talks about putting it on a computer. We’re ending up talking about a picture culture again. Almost a Gothic sensibility.

DH Well, first, the uninscribed thing is simply nothing. It lacks predication. So I use the word “image” to acknowledge that, once you contextualize something as art, it functions as a representation of itself, whether it’s an object or a picture, in the same sense that the predicate of a sentence is always a representation of its subject. (laughter) Even so, I don’t have any particular problem with a picture culture. Better a picture culture than a text culture.

SO That has to do with American literalness or the academic nature of culture, where we equate explanation with understanding, and collapse image into text.

DH Right. I like the distinction Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe makes in one of his essays, which William Gibson makes in a different way in his book on vision. To wit: there is a difference between the visible field and the visual world. So there is a surfeit of available visible stuff that precedes and exceeds our visual decoding of images in a way that is quite distinct from our experience of decoding texts. Because of this, our experience of any work of art is always, in some sense, a-historical in a way which our experience of text never is. When I see a Raphael, it’s right here, right now. My eye encodes it and my brain decodes it. If my brain finds what I have seen undecipherable, my eye tries to see it again, to write it again. (laughter)

SO Instant replay.

DH Sort of: the eye writes and the mind reads. And I can always have my eye rewrite the visible field, because there is always more there than the eye can write. This doesn’t work with text, of course, because text is written, already encoded. In academic practice, though, these aspects of the sheerly visible that art shares with music (because of music’s sheer audibility) tend to be suppressed in favor of those visual encodings which art shares with literature.

SO That’s a great analogy, but we also have to remember that America hates jazz.

DH But there’s this great quote from Kenneth Burke who says that a great deal of credit goes to any work of art that keeps a culture from being absolutely, profoundly itself. (laughter)

SO Your piece on Liberace has a lot to do with self. That’s a fascination which also tends to send your work outside museums. Maybe it has to do with you coming out of the West, the other great American myth of rugged individualism and self-reliance.

DH Well, firstly, “self” is another word that has only historical meaning for me. It calls up Hamlet, Faust, Keats, and Freud. Secondly, what’s this “coming out of the West” shit, Saul? You make me sound like Natty Bumpo, who is an Eastern figment of the West, anyway, just like all the myths about rugged individualism and self-reliance. You’ll have to trust me on this, but people who live in the West cannot afford myths about it. It is a big, rough, dead, empty place whose basic virtues are the absence of trees, the absence of snow, and the impossibility of mistaking nature for culture. The best I can say for it, intellectually, is that the West is a more quintessentially postmodern environment than the East, by virtue of its decenteredness, its denatured culture and its population of decentered selves.

SO Now, we’re talking about your sensibility, as opposed to the sensibility of the West, which, if it is postmodern, is very much more populist postmodern.

DH Well, to me, the West is a geographical void bereft of consciousness or sensibility. That is its virtue. As to populist postmodernity, I wouldn’t characterize either the West or myself as manifesting anything like it. I am the farthest thing from a populist, although I have been called one because I like popular culture: In fact, I am no more a populist than my hero, J. L. Austin. Austin found ordinary language to be a more subtle, delicate and resourceful instrument than the scholastic, philosophical language of his day. That doesn’t make him a populist, although I am interested in ordinary culture for exactly the same reasons. I find vernacular culture to be a more subtle, delicate, adaptable and resourceful practice than that of high culture, which is burdened with a received vocabulary of scholastic terminologies. So I believe in vernacular culture; I think it works. And I am comfortable with commercial culture, because I am engaged in commerce myself, in the commerce of ideas. And in my sad experience, free commerce in ideas becomes a lot more difficult when there is no free commerce in objects. This, I fear, is not something I believe, it is something I have found out at the price of considerable personal anguish and expense. Simply put, the art and criticism that interest me seek to reconstitute what we think of as “good.” Maybe you don’t have to be “bad” to make good art, but I suspect that there is no need for art in an environment where we all agree on what’s “good” and on what constitutes “good” behavior.

SO Your essay called “Enter the Dragon” is almost a romantic call for the reconstitution of the traditional avant-garde.

DH If so, I repudiate myself. All I hoped to imply is that art must violate our expectations, somehow, to become visible to us. So art must change, is going to change. But that doesn’t mean that art is going any place, in a historical sense. I don’t think it is, and I don’t think it ever has been. Art-making is a cumulative, serial activity, not a historical sequence of preemptive propositions.

SO I meant that more in terms of an ethic than as a transgression.

DH Well, an ethic of transgression I can live with. That’s why I think it should be at least as difficult to be an artist as it is to play in a rock and roll band.

SO Start off in a garage. Travel around to places you never heard of.

DH Exactly. Young artists are put in a terrible position these days, especially in graduate school, because if you are an artist, you are really working for your peers. They are the people you live with till you die, and kids today end up pleasing parent-figures well into their thirties. The effect of this has been to slow down the style wheel enormously. I remember when I was a kid I used to hitch-hike to New York all the time, every chance I got. I got interested in art from hanging out in galleries, because the Janis brothers would let me use the bathroom when I was in Midtown, where you can never find a place to pee. So I was hanging around in galleries a lot, being scruffy, when Pop swept Abstract Expressionism away. It happened almost overnight. It was fucking cataclysmic and great, you know. We could use another cataclysm, not for the “good” of culture, but just for the bloody excitement of it. But the institutional gridlock of the contemporary art world makes this sort of revolution just about impossible. What we have today will fall down before it changes, because institutions fall down. Markets change…

SO Greenberg made the argument that those institutions, having missed out on Abstract Expressionism, geared up never to miss out on anything ever again.

DH They turned museums into boutiques. Hell, I’d be happy if museums wanted to be conservative institutions where you could see something unfashionable. I’d be delighted if museums were free enough from fashion to provide some knowledgeable counterpoint to the discourse. But they can’t, because they’re even more market-driven than the market. So we end up with the scorched-earth trendiness of boutique commerce and the vicious hierarchies of guardian institutions. I keep fumbling around in the past, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. What made it possible for museums to become boutiques masquerading as kunsthalles? When did secular Anglo-criticism become German “higher criticism?” When did people start thinking you can learn how to be an artist in college? Stuff like that.

SO We’re stuck with the fact that institutions took the critique of the ‘60s and understood it in the only way institutions can.

DH I understand what happened, I just don’t understand why people bought into it. Obviously, American culture took all the negative freedoms from the ‘50s and ‘60s and turned them into positive freedoms. So Thomas Jefferson’s “freedom from” became John Adams’ “freedom to.” Freedom from status and virtue became freedom to have status and be virtuous.

SO Do you think that’s just generational? Or is it you and me feeling that way?

DH Well, if ninety-eight percent of everybody younger than you think things are peachy keen, I think we may presume it’s generational. But that doesn’t mean I can’t whine about it. I mean, this may sound elitist, but given the social advantages that most artists grow up with, the extensiveness of their educations and the enormous public and private investment in their artistic freedom, it seems to me that art should be more interesting and exciting than rock and roll. Maybe others find it so. At the moment, I do not. I think you have to break some rules that actually snap when broken.

SO So how do you feel about gangsta’ rap in that context, or do you care about that?

DH Well, I don’t listen to it a lot, because my car speakers aren’t big enough, but I do listen to it, because I love it when people redeem the vernacular. I love the prosody—those physical, classical cadences. Jesus, I heard something the other day and the weighted syllables just marched along. They were positively Virgilian—like Latin hexameters, you know. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! And I always find myself thinking, when I listen to this stuff: is this meaner and more cynical than Exile on Main Street? Is this worse than “plug in, flush out and fight the fucking feed!?” One of the few enema lines in rock and roll. (laughter) How does this anomie compare with Lou Reed, with Street Hassle, for instance? Of course, when you’re dealing with popular music, you’re always dealing with the Heartbreak of Crazy Hormones at some level, (laughter) but I’m not shocked by it. The last time I was shocked was by a poorly-grounded Stratocaster. (laughter). I mean, gangsta’ rap is dangerous: it’s at the edge of being deadly, but, for all the death around it, it’s not deadly. It’s so desperately American. Just the act of speaking it, you know. Just the idea that these kids from fucking nowhere would work their butts off to remake the language and make it speakable, just stand up and speak it—that betrays a level of innocence and aspiration that breaks your fucking heart. I’ve played in a band; I know that double bind. Jesus, you’re fucking nothing from nowhere. You’re standing up there in your idea of a cool costume like a six-year-old in a school pageant, begging for approval. So you need all this face, all this aggressive front, to protect yourself from total humiliation, to disguise your infantile vulnerability. Because that’s absolutely all you’ve got. Face. Front. So you demand a response. And sometimes you get it. So, gangsta’ rap will probably have more palpable social consequences than post-minimalism, because it’s braver and it wants more: these people do not want to die in the street. That’s all I hear when I listen to it, and we will come to terms with that. We will respond to that demand.

SO But how does one resist license? Being a product of the ‘60s, one has a real desire to construct something that constitutes a resistance. Increasingly, what we’re finding in our environment is the promotion of the idea that art should become a part of the entertainment industry.

DH If I have a choice between art being education or entertainment, I go with entertainment. If that’s the option, give me the glamour. What is this presumption that art cannot be entertaining? Holy shit, what else could it be? It’s fun. It’s kinda’ scary. Nobody gets killed. That’s entertainment!

SO You’re talking about entertainment in 19th century terms. Entertainment at this point is a diversion.

DH Well, I take a more flat-line view of human destiny than you do. For me, Ice Cube’s gangsta’ rap and Gay’s Beggar’s Opera are similarly entertaining. For me, Oliver Twist and Pulp Fiction are similarly entertaining. Academic, body-hating, pretentious art is a diversion.


The nine lives of Dave Hickey

Fucking up and having fun with the world’s least-boring, rock’n’rolling art critic

Dave Hickey

Dave Hickey O’Gara Bissell Photography

Taken from the January issue of Dazed and Confused:

Dave Hickey is one of the greatest art critics currently breathing. His seminal 1997 essay collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy wasa glorious firecracker up the art world’s bum, and his recent book of “essays on taste”, Pirates and Farmers, is another mind-expanding and laugh-producing zing around his ever-buzzing brain. His long career has taken in running galleries and curating, appraising, criticising, buying and selling art. He’s written songs, short stories and magazine articles about music, art and literature. He’s toured with bands as both a journalist and a musician. He “did a lot of drugs.” He taught at the University of Nevada for 20 years and has written the best stuff about Las Vegas we’ve ever read. We phoned him at home in Santa Fe, where he’s working on a mystery novel. “I think I’m fucking up,” he happily announced, “but I’m having fun.”


Finding true weirdness in the real world  

I started off writing fiction in graduate school and sort of lost interest in it. This was in the 60s, and the world was so much weirder than anything I could think up. Also, I just like to write about physical things. I don’t do people that well, but you can always trust an object. So I started being a freelance writer and when you’re a freelance writer, you don’t suggest essays, you take what comes, and I actually liked that. So if you asked me to write about furniture I’ll still write the way I write, you know what I mean? I like getting weird assignments and being able to go to places and look at what I want to look at. So I’ve spent 40 years paying absolute attention to things for two or three weeks and then never thinking about them again.


The perks and pitfalls of rock journalism

If I remember my life correctly, I’ve spent most of it sitting at a desk or sitting in an airport. I had a really great time writing about rock’n’roll. What’s not in those essays is the women whose lives I fucked up living like that, of course. But it was really great to just be able to go and see what there was to see. And talk to who you wanted to talk to. I mean, with the freelance work that I do, your life is basically confetti: little pieces of paper floating in the air. So you just write it and move on and write it and move on and try not to get bored. Not getting bored has always been
an important motivator in my life.

“Not getting bored has always been an important motivator in my life”


Discovering the art world’s inner circle

I actually opened my gallery (in Austin, Texas, in 1967) so I could get out of graduate school, and because the commercial art world at that time was a much more interesting place. It was Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis and all these interesting people and it was really fun. And very, very secret. It was a small operation. The art world that I came into was 6,000 heavily medicated people, none of whom seemed to have jobs. You had to say you were something, so I started saying I was an art dealer, and then I became an art dealer. I liked it, I just found that being a dealer I was spending more and more time with rich people and less and less time with artists, and that’s not my bag.


The itinerant life of a dedicated drifter

I just move, you know? When I was a child my dad played in dance bands so we lived in hotels, basically. And then for my whole education before college, I went to 17 schools, I lived in 13 cities. I’ve been on a thousand road trips and rock tours, either playing or writing about it. I just have the propensity to leave town. To be honest, one of the motivators is that I’ve never been able to put my roots down in any particular place. My connections with the art world are very wide, but they’re basically really shallow. I have better friends in rock’n’roll. I never understand in the art world quite what it is that’s motivating people. I know people who would die to go to parties: I can’t get my head around that.

“I liked it, I just found that being a dealer I was spending more and more time with rich people and less and less time with artists, and that’s not my bag”


Protecting students from the machine

I really detest universities and schools, because they force you to generalise. If I’m teaching an art history course, I have to talk about Robert Morris. And I hate Robert Morris. You’re always having to talk about people you fucking detest. But I really honestly enjoyed teaching graduate students in art, because, well, I’m kind of the catcher in the rye. I think all students need protection from the machine, you know, so I just tried to keep them from getting killed in university.


Finding inspiration in academia

For ten years in Vegas I had really good students. And it’s really fun to have good students, because you sit down and you talk with them, and they say ‘Oh yeah yeah yeah Dave, I get it,’ and then two weeks later you come in to see some fucking thing you never could’ve imagined. It’s sort of chastening if you want to have your way, but it’s amazing to discover the shit that comes out of an educational environment.

“I’m always trying to keep my students from being as miserable as I was”


The good life in the city of sin

Vegas was a good place to teach artists because you didn’t get any religious people, you didn’t get any treehuggers and you didn’t get any identity people. You just had art people that were there to have fun and work. And Vegas is a great place for work: everybody works there. The best relationships I’ve had have been with the women I’ve lived with and the students I’ve had. I was so miserable in school, but I’m always trying to keep my students from being as miserable as I was.


Ditching songwriting for art criticism 

I like to write songs. I remember Lou Reed saying once that the hardest thing in the world to write is a greeting card. This was like writing greeting cards; you’re operating in a very restricted area of expression. To be honest, I made what may have been a terrible decision: I was trying to get away from drugs, and you can’t really be in the music business and get away from drugs. So I realised I could be an A+ art critic and only be a B+ songwriter, and so I chose to be an art critic. And that was probably the wrong decision, because a B+ songwriter makes about 50 times more than an A+ art critic.


Looking back with no regrets 

I keep trying to ruin my health, but it seems to be still here. I’m already about 40 years older than I ever planned to be. I’ve had 40 years of golden time, judging by my lifestyle. Except for getting out of the music business and fucking up my first marriage, I really don’t feel too bad about anything, you know what I mean?

Pirates and Farmers is out now, published by Ridinghouse

Image courtesy of O’Gara Bissell Photography


dave hickey with sari carel

Sari Carel : Often you discuss in your essays and writings a principle shift that occurred in American culture and economy as well as in the Art World starting in the early ’70s. You describe this change as having considerable influence on the course of Contemporary Art since then. What are the origins and consequences of this paradigm shift?
Dave Hickey: The art world tends to be driven by its market, and throughout the ’50s and the ’60s it was a relatively small art world with dealers and collectors and one or two small museums. It was during that period that the most powerful and permanent American art in this century was made—from Abstract Expressionism and Pop, to Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. It was, in a real sense, a great Mediterranean moment created by 4000 heavily medicated human beings. And then in the late ’60s we had a little reformation privileging museums over dealers and universities over apprenticeship, a vast shift in the structure of cultural authority. All of a sudden rather than an art world made up of critics and dealers, collectors and artists, you have curators, you have tenured theory professors, a public funding bureaucracy—you have all of these hierarchical authority figures selling a non-hierarchical ideology in a very hierarchical way. This really destroyed the dynamic of the art world in my view, simply because like most conservative reactions to the ’60s it was aimed specifically at the destruction of sibling society—the society of contemporaries.

The art world from the late eighteenth century to the present has worked in a language of generations. Artists worked with their peers and among them to overthrow and supplant the generation in power. Then suddenly in the ’70s you have artists who, rather than overthrowing their seniors, are pleasing them in order to get grades and public funding. That is exactly what my problem is with serving on National Endowment panels. I did it, and participated in it, but I have to admit that this is the first time in the history of American Art that an older generation has the authority to decide which works of the younger generation are privileged. This slowed down the style wheel to a virtual stop, and created a culture of mentors and protegés—a hierarchical, parental structure that would last as long as the National Endowment and the big museums and foundations had absolute power, say from ’72 to ’88. During this time, it was almost impossible for anything to change, because our culture is composed of a public academic and museum sector that changes slowly, and after the fact, in 30 year cycles, and a private gallery and magazine sector that changes rapidly, sometimes overnight. In the last ten years the academics who have been retiring from American universities are Abstract Expressionists and Formalists hired and tenured in the late ’60s, just as these practices lost public credibility. They are being replaced with Deconstructionists who are already out of date, and who will be in power for the next 30 years, talking about stuff that is already over now.
SC: So you see that as the origin of the shift?
DH: The first paradigm shift really had to do with the influence of French Theory in the ’50s and the ’60s. That’s the world in which I was educated, and in its secular formulations it still has its virtues. I continue to believe that the bad thing about French Theory is that it has no heart, and the good thing about French Theory is that it has no soul. In the early ’70s the influence of French Theory was considerably altered by the resurgence of German Aesthetic Theory—particularly that of the Frankfurt School whose academicized Marxism lent itself very well to the academicized Marxism that was practiced in American universities. And also, I think there was another set of problems. The powerful arguments of French Theory—as it might be applied to art—revolve around its critique of Metaphysics and the discourse of origins that manifest in speculations about the death of the artist, and the structural ideology of institutions. If your in an institution teaching artists, you can’t kill the artist or critique the institution with much credibility; if you believe in group identity and identity politics, you just restored the author in another guise. If you are tenured in a university you have to limit your critique of institutions considerably, because you are part of an institution. In other words, Post Structuralism is not an academic discourse; Frankfurt School and Marxism is. Also, in the ’60s new English translations of writers like Adorno, Benjamin, and Lukacs became available. They were much needed because, loosely interpreted, they allowed us to be Mystical and Romantic, to talk about authenticity again, about what artists feel and their identity. In the world I grew up in, the artist was really presumed to be dead, and to most of my contemporaries, issues of artistic identity mean nothing. They mean nothing to Warhol, they mean nothing to Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Bridget Riley, or Richard Serra. It’s bullshit as far as they are concerned. From my view, it is a bunch of Romantic bullshit. I think that we are having now a kind of Counter-Reformation that has to do first of all with the fact that for 25 years, the market for works of art was the kunsthalle, the museum and the university. You were being paid by the state to make art that couldn’t sell, and the art itself, because it was totally isolated from the market, simply didn’t change. All of that begins to change when the National Endowment no longer gives as much money, when jobs in universities are no longer available, when art stops being a nice safe place to go. Because for 30 years being an artist was a safe thing to do. You filled out forms, got your check, taught in classes, you flew to Berlin and put up press type on the wall, poured a bunch of leaves in the room, and a bunch of people came, and you had wine and cheese. Then you flew home, and taught your classes, and went to faculty meetings, and applied for a merit raise, which the university gave you because you had a show in Berlin. And that works fine, although it does not create art that changes. So I think we are seeing now the restoration of sibling society, a society of peers. Most of the young artists that I know are interested in what their contemporaries think; they don’t give a fuck what old people think. Your peers are who you live with till you die. You can please a lot of authority figures, but they’re dead before you need them. So I think it’s changing, in good ways but in a lot of silly ways too.
Another reason it is changing is that in the history of art, the tides of influence tend to go back and forth, they tend to be reactive. One generation reacts against another; the next generation, reacting against the previous one, goes back to the generation before that, which is to say the tides of influence in the art world tend to skip a generation. So now I have students who are really into Bridget Riley and Richard Serra; students who study Warhol, mostly as a colorist. When you are a young artist, you look around and you say, ‘Gee everything sucks, I am going to go back to the moment right before everything started sucking, and try to find a new way out of that’. So you have a lot of artists trying to find a new way out of ’60s art, much in the same way artists in the ’80s tried to find a new way out of ’40s art—in the sense that Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Francesco Clemente looked back to the early figurative sources of Abstract Expressionism as a place to start. So that’s perfectly natural, and it happens all the time.
The problem today, of course, is that art cannot change so fast because it is so highly institutional. The people in the

museum are going to be there forever, the people in the university are going to be there even longer. The institutional super structure of the art world, which is always out of date by definition, is really out of date now. I think that you do begin to see small undergrounds, although its hard to stay underground for very long just because if you’re any good at all, people really want to look at it, because there is so much boring fucking art. Anybody who sees anything they like, they go crazy. I know artists just coming out of school and they already have a waiting list of 40 paintings, and that’s not because they are great artists, it’s just that they’re not bad artists.
SC: I am assuming that there has always been quite a lot of bad and boring art, no?
DH: Not ideologically bad and boring. We have lived with an ideology that says, “If it looks good, it’s bad. If people like it, it’s bad. If it’s appealing it’s reactionary”. So you have artists consciously making the worst looking art that they can. And it can really be bad, because it usually looks bad even when you are trying to make it look OK. So I’m pretty optimistic.
SC: So you think the whole premise of underground arenas and artistic practice is not a bankrupt idea to try and work from?
DH: It works if you want it to work. It depends on what you want. I grew up in a world in which what artists aspired to was to be able to go to their studio, make art, sell a work occasionally, so they can buy some Wheaties, and some records, and listen to records, and make art, and eat Wheaties. And that was their goal: stay away from the straight world, and stay away from the university, and live their lives. So if that is your aspiration, then yes, I know quite a few young artists that are achieving that now. Most young artists don’t want that.
SC: What do they want?
DH: They want to fly to Berlin, and put up press type, and that’s fine ’cause there is an audience over there for that. But I argue all the time that painting today is much more like Jazz than it is like installation art. It is a discourse that people who know know, the people who care care, and the people who don’t care we don’t give a shit about. Painters are famous the way Jazz musicians are famous—which means the people who care about painting know them. I just wrote a piece for Art Forum about John Wesly. He has been a famous painter for 40 years among people who love painting. I can go over to Cal Arts and ask them if they know who John Wesly is, and they would go, “Huh? What discourse does he participate in?” I am in the art world only insofar as there are interesting things for me to write about. When that stops, or when I stop getting offers to write things, I’ll be out. I won’t be going around looking for work; it’s not like its any fun. When I was a kid, I had a gallery in Texas, I met Leo Castelli, and I thought Leo was cool. And I would think, “When I go to New York, maybe I will have lunch with Leo, or maybe I can have lunch with Sidney Janis.” I would be hard put to think up anybody in the art world I would like to have lunch with today. Maybe Leo Steinberg.
SC: How was Leo cool?
DH: Well, he liked art and he was a business person who wasn’t obsessed with money. He liked gossip and he had a good eye. He understood how it works. He virtually invented the ’60s. He treated his artists right: he never let them go, they always left him. When I was a dealer, he told me good things. “David” he would say, “The art goes out, the money comes in.”
SC: So an environment working under the title “Museum of Contemporary Art,” is that a paradox to you? Say, institutions that produce shows like the “Whitney Biennial” and the “Carnegie International,” are they dramatically failing to present us with successful surveys of the present state of affairs?
DH: I think it’s pretty peculiar. I think it’s a little unnatural. I don’t think you should grant appointed conservators, which is what museum people are, the power to determine the course of art. I don’t think they are worthy, I don’t think they are committed, I don’t think they know what’s going on. Traditionally, contemporary art museums exhibited artists that had a large constituency in the culture of people who cared about art, and wrote about art, and bought art, so when an artist achieved a certain level, a certain vogue in that world, then they would get a show. Museums represent, in my view, constituencies for people who care about art in that area. The presumption that some fricking teenage curator who went to school in Chicago is going to know more about art than a person who has travelled all over the world looking at it, but doesn’t happen to have a degree—it makes no sense to me. I don’t see why these people should be telling us what to think. I don’t think that contemporary art benefits from being publicly administrated.
The main thing is Americans don’t like art, they won’t pay for art, they don’t deserve art. That’s just a fact. This is a Puritan republic in which nobody gives a shit about art. When I came to the art world, there were maybe 2000 seriously committed people who would do it whether they got payed or not. Today there are about 2000 seriously committed people who would do it whether they get paid or not. That’s fine, those 2000 people created Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop, and Post-Minimalism in its early days. There have been now for 30 years people working for salaries administering the art world, and what have they done? Art can have public consequences, but it’s not very educational. I keep challenging people, “Tell

me one thing that you’ve learned from art.” It is not an educational activity. But we like education, and we like things that go away. You don’t need to know anything to understand good art. The only justification for an exhibition these days is some educational purpose, or if it’s a box office. At the MoMA what goes is what will get them a box office; the MoMA is more market driven than Mary Boone is. Mary Boone will sometimes put something up just to see if people like it. The MoMA would never do that. And there are a lot of artists that would benefit from a show at the MoMA, who are Modern artists like Bradley Walker Tomlin, James Brookes, and many others who never had a major show. The MoMA will put up Picassos, because people will go see that. The perfect MoMA show would be Picasso’s paintings of the Holy Land from the collection of Jacqueline Kennedy.
SC: I understand you are going to do one of these “hŸber” shows. What are your ideas to make it different?
DH: Well, its called “Beau Monde,” beautiful world, and I am interested in doing a show that has length as well as width. Most shows are comprised of people from age 35 to 45, of all nations, genders, ethnicities etc, etc. My show will start with people from the oldest practicing generation, and also include some people in their ’20s, all of whom are interested in fabrication. Rather than dealing with cultural identity, I am interested in the interface of cultures—the impurity and reconciliation of various cultures, about how one culture impacts another.
SC: You critique works of art with regards to their ideological stance, positioning generosity and inclusiveness against exclusivity, and speaking about works that practice contingency rather than autonomy, and are anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritative at their core. How does that influence your taste?
DH: I am interested in works in which something happens when you look at them. And also I am interested in works that have either the simplicity or the complexity to change their meanings. Good art, to survive, must change its meaning. If we still had to think about a Pollock the way he thought about it, we would hate it. He was crazy, he was an asshole. He thought he was doing Jungian Expression or something. Works of art have to be free enough in the culture to sustain reinterpretation over the years, and they have to continue to happen, and that’s very difficult. Works of art don’t have messages. They don’t have determinate meanings. They’re not just formal objects. Deleuze has a book about Lewis Carroll, The Logic of Sense, which is exactly about the way we perceive and sense things. Lewis Carroll has lines that don’t mean anything, but they have meaning. And that’s how art works. A Pollock doesn’t mean anything, but it has meaning, we can find meanings for it, if we care to. I am really not concerned with what the artist meant. It’s totally irrelevant. I have written a lot of fiction, I don’t know what it meant, I know that the story doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. Artists don’t know what they’re doing, so why ask them? What matters is, what the consensus of opinion of what the work means on a particular moment. And it really matters that a work of art can survive the changing of its meanings.
I am very concerned with the process of thinking and the process of meaning; I am not really concerned with thought or with what things mean. Works of art, according to TS Elliot, are objective correlatives; they are things in the world that we use to correlate our opinions about. That’s not meant to discount the artist. It’s meant to free the artist, so they can do what they want, because they don’t know anyway. I know some grown up artists who know pretty well what they are doing. Ed Ruscha knows what he expects to get, so do Bridget Riley, Richard Serra, and Ellsworth Kelly. But these are people in their sixties and seventies. Anyone who is much younger than that, if they are any good, are still improvising. And then there are people, like Rauschenberg, who are 70 years old and are still improvising. Bob doesn’t have the faintest idea what he’s doing, but he is doing it every day. I am interested in that, I don’t like rules. I think art is for people who like art, who like to talk about physical things in the world. I don’t think there is any difference, say, between talking about the Lakers and talking about Terry Winters. Maybe that the Lakers are better, and you talk about them with different people. They are both occasions for discourse.
SC: Your art criticism seems to be a choice you’ve made within the sphere of writing. You use art criticism to write just as much as you use writing to criticize art.
DH: Yeah, I am a writer. My whole idea in life is to be able to make a living doing what I like to do. I like to write, and I like to write about hard things in the world—I don’t usually like to make things up—although I do occasionally. It’s fine to make things up at times, because it’s so hard to write about things in the world. I am a pretty good writer. I mean some days I write better and some worse, but I have skills, and my view of the world is solid enough that regardless of the topic you give me, I will say some version of the same thing. I wrote a piece called “Earth Scapes, Land Works and Oz” back in ’72 for Art in America about Land Art and my position has not changed since then. I have spent most of my career writing about Post-Minimalist art. I write about Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, Ann Hamilton, Robert Gober. Only recently, because of the shift in taste, do I get to write about people whom I have deep temperamental affinities with, like Warhol or John Wesly. For 30 years you couldn’t get a job or occasion to write about these people. I like getting assignments, if I didn’t get them I would probably not write anything, except maybe Rock N Roll songs. God, I thought of a really good name for a band the other day, I saw it in Newsweek; ‘Cloning Pigs for Parts’ . . . “We’re,

like, Cloning Pigs for Parts and we’re from San Bernardino . . .”
SC: You should go into business.
DH: Yeah, I make up pretty good band names. My other best one was ‘Clown Meat,’ which I like a whole lot.
SC You being an art critic, as well as a gallery owner in the past, I’m curious to hear what in your mind is the relationship between artists, critics, gallerists . . . what’s going on between all these people?
DH: Well. The art world is very easy. When I was a dealer I used to say, “The artist makes the work, I sell the work, the artist’s girlfriend or boyfriend tries to get me to give them the money.” That’s all it is, it’s as simple as that. It’s all about the public adjudication of value. I prefer today, since I don’t really do reviews anymore, to write for commercial galleries.
SC: You mean catalogues?
DH: Yeah. If you write for magazines there is all that educational bullshit you have to put in.
SC: You mean like general art history stuff?
DH: All these magazines are written for sophomores in Southern Illinois University. So you have to say things like “Andy Warhol, the Pop artist.” You have to tell everybody who John Wesly is. And I find that to be kind of boring. I just did a catalogue on Picabia for Michael Werner Gallery.
SC: That was a great show.
DH: It was a great show, I love Picabia. And it was really fun; I could just sit down and write about Picabia, and presume that everybody could read and write, and knew who Picabia was, and who Alfred Barr was. Also you’re working with professional editors. Art magazines don’t have professional editors. Their idea of good writing is Derrida or something. And also it pays better, and it can have some impact on the life of the work. Nothing you write in a magazine, except for maybe a review, has much impact.
SC: Doesn’t it have a direct connection to the market value of the work?
DH: Oh certainly, but the market value also has direct connection to the general esteem in which the work is held. Picabia has for many years been a complete cult artist. I was into Picabia, in the mid ’70s I bought one for one thousand dollars and sold it for four. He has been an artist held in high esteem by a lot of people for a long time, but without essential market value, and there are people with great market value, Cecily whatever . . .
SC: Brown?
DH: Yeah, Brown, I don’t know many artists who hold her in high esteem. She has skill, she may get better. Obviously, there is no direct correspondence between market value and sophisticated esteem. But at the same time you can’t separate these things. Put it like this, if you’ve been an art critic as long as I have, it is very important to be what they call “bankable.” Which means if you look at all the people you have written about, it is important that their prices go up. In other words, you’re not going to spend all your time writing about some bumpkin who carves tree stumps in Seattle. It doesn’t matter, the word’s not out there, people are not talking about it, its just vanity writing. I do that sometimes, but not very much. Nor is there much good to be gained from doing theoretical analysis. Theory is easy, practice is hard. I used to say theory is playing poker with no spots on the cards. I like to critique the hard world, so the hard world becomes a critique of what you write. And you want to have influence; you want to make people take what you value seriously, and you want people to question what you don’t take seriously.
I don’t write negative criticism very much. I would never write a negative review of a young artist. There are certain sort of hyper-inflated reputations, which I will occasionally take a shot at. I took a shot at Clemente’s Neo-Expressionist paintings, and I love some of his work. I took a shot at Christopher Wool as well, who seems to me an incredibly pretentious artist. But I don’t usually do that—it’s easy to critique and it’s hard to praise—so I would rather tell you why I think something is good. There is really no such thing as an art critic having power; works of art have power, and you have to kind of be right and persuasive at the same time. It helps to understand commerce for what it is, which is a way to make a living doing what you like to do. I don’t have a fancy family, I didn’t go to Harvard, I don’t have a trust fund, I never got a fucking grant and I am not likely to, because I don’t have a grant-friendly sensibility. If it weren’t for the magazine world, I would probably be teaching Melville in some junior college, and drinking. I would be dead, or still out with some sleazy garage band playing “Free Bird,” and “Rock N Roll Hoochy Coo,” that’s not something you look forward to.
SC: Yeah, that’s not a pretty thing. I remember reading you dropped out of grad school—
DH: Yeah, I hated it.
SC: What was wrong?
DH: Well, I always thought it was about intellectual adventure, and it was really about a lot of people who

wanted to be junior professors in a school and that was it. It wasn’t exciting. My idea of embarking upon graduate studies was to go some place where the smart people are. Unfortunately, the smart people are no longer in universities, the smart people are writing for [The Simpsons, the smart people are writing for LL Cool J. There are exceptions, and that’s an exaggeration, but most of all academic culture is just one big handicap, and I live in it with colleagues that I respect, but it ain’t where the thoughts are thought. I kind of like teaching—I mean, I enjoy working with artists. But what I do with graduate students now, is exactly what I did with the artists I represented when I was a dealer. I go to their studios, we sit around and talk about the work with the idea of how can we get this shit looking like something. That’s it. I like being around people who work. All of my social talk is with people who have done something between the time I talked to them last, and the time I talk to them now. University people really don’t do very much, so you have to talk about pets. I am mostly interested in people who are doing things and are busy. I get along with them.
SC: So when did you start teaching?
DH: Well, I was doing semesters here and there, and then I decided I wanted to move to Las Vegas, so I kind of bullied the people here into hiring me, because I had a good resume, and I wanted to have health insurance, and I wanted to have contact with young artists, but not as a critic. Since I have a lot of apparent leverage in art world, young artists don’t behave “normally” around me anymore. I enjoy working with young artists, I find myself in the midst of a generation of young artists with more temperamental affinities than I had with young artists for many years.
SC: Do you like TV?
DH: Well, I watch it all the time.
SC: What’s you favorite thing?
DH: Basketball. I’ll watch anything. I liked Perry Mason so I like Law and Order which is like Perry Mason. The first half is law the second is order, it’s a type of Formalism. The density of the variations they run on that sort of thing becomes interesting. I watch kickboxing movies, which seem to be the most orderly movies that are made. Some guy kills some guy’s brother and then there’s explosions. I like them because all the people that work on these movies are extremely professional and the plots are very orderly—they all have a kind of coherence that your standard Hollywood movie doesn’t have any more. I was telling somebody the other day it looks to me that Hollywood is making foreign films. I mean what fucking universe does Runaway Bride live in. It’s like it comes from Belgium or something, what the fuck is that about. The last one I really understood was Encino Man, which was pretty good.
SC: What was that about?
DH: It’s a high school comedy in which a bunch of kids living in Encino defrost a Neanderthal man who becomes the most popular guy in school.
BEN BUCHANAN: What about reality TV?
DH: Oh, I hate that.
SC: What about cops?
DH: Kind of, I like the song. The song is great and I like the idea that as long as I keep my fucking shirt on, I won’t get arrested. I don’t like baseball. I don’t like most things, I mostly channel surf. The Simpsons are cool.
SC: Consistently cool.
DH: Yeah. I like actually that cartoon on MTV, Daria, with the little girl . . .
BB: The disaffected youth?
DH: Yes, the disaffected youth, I think she’s great. I recognize that family. I watch whatever comes up. I usually watch Biography but I don’t really like it. There is only about one in ten that’s any good, but it’s interesting to know shit about peoples’ lives, and it’s also interesting to speculate on what their lives are actually like, as opposed to what you have been told that they were like. I hated Survivor because I teach at a faculty and Survivor is about how bureaucracies work. First you cut off the odd and the weak, then you cut off the strong, then you form an alliance of mediocre people, and the administrator of that alliance gets to be dean. And that’s what Survivor is about.
SC: And they get the cash.
DH: Yeah, they get the cash. I watch TV without the sound. I am actually kind of annoyed that there isn’t any music on MTV anymore, that there are all those reality shows and sit-coms. I’ll leave MTV on, and if the picture looks good, I will put the sound on, although the music video industry has collapsed. Its one of those genres in which the first ones were the best ones.
BB: That’s very true.
DH: Also, I was a songwriter, so I hated MTV. I didn’t like that they got their shot at my song, I would rather have them send me a video with a clip track, and let me write to their video. Rather than putting my teenage love song on Mars or something like that.
SC: I guess you’ve been around America a lot since you were a kid, moving around with your family, and later on your own.
DH: Yes, I am a habitual traveler.
SC: So . . . what’s this place all about if it’s about anything?
DH: I don’t have any idea. It’s interesting, and its perpetually amazing. It is less amazing than it used to be because a lot of the eccentricity and the regional differences have been smoothed out. In a sense, I like that. I like that anywhere I go, I can stay at the Holiday Inn, and I know where the bathroom is. But I am really interested in people who make it up as they go along and there are still some out there. Regardless of what my colleagues say, you have in this place, still, a lot more options, and a lot more freedom than I see in other places. You can really do some weird shit. You can always leave town as well; go to the edge and declare that the center. You can always leave town and start again and then start ‘againagain.’ It is possible in good times to live on the margin. Like in the ’60s and ’70s, their was enough money floating around to get by. I have no idea how I supported myself between ’68-’78. This kind of money and fluidity is coming around again, so there is enough money that there is a margin that you can survive on. And that privileges improvisation. I think it is going to get better, I believe in Darwin.
SC: You believe in evolution and progress?
DH: No, I believe in deviation. What you want is a maximum field of deviation. And anything that tries to keep things from deviating is against my principles. The more deviation there is, the more new things you have to select and not select from. And that interests me. That’s why I didn’t like art from ’75 to ’85; that was against deviation. You had to be a certain kind of person to be an artist, and believe certain kinds of things that I stopped believing when I quit the SDS. So that’s my aspiration for the art world, that it would be a place that tolerates intellectual tumult.



The nine lives of Dave Hickey

Fucking up and having fun with the world’s least-boring, rock’n’rolling art critic

Dave Hickey

Dave Hickey O’Gara Bissell Photography

Taken from the January issue of Dazed and Confused:

Dave Hickey is one of the greatest art critics currently breathing. His seminal 1997 essay collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy wasa glorious firecracker up the art world’s bum, and his recent book of “essays on taste”, Pirates and Farmers, is another mind-expanding and laugh-producing zing around his ever-buzzing brain. His long career has taken in running galleries and curating, appraising, criticising, buying and selling art. He’s written songs, short stories and magazine articles about music, art and literature. He’s toured with bands as both a journalist and a musician. He “did a lot of drugs.” He taught at the University of Nevada for 20 years and has written the best stuff about Las Vegas we’ve ever read. We phoned him at home in Santa Fe, where he’s working on a mystery novel. “I think I’m fucking up,” he happily announced, “but I’m having fun.”


Finding true weirdness in the real world  

I started off writing fiction in graduate school and sort of lost interest in it. This was in the 60s, and the world was so much weirder than anything I could think up. Also, I just like to write about physical things. I don’t do people that well, but you can always trust an object. So I started being a freelance writer and when you’re a freelance writer, you don’t suggest essays, you take what comes, and I actually liked that. So if you asked me to write about furniture I’ll still write the way I write, you know what I mean? I like getting weird assignments and being able to go to places and look at what I want to look at. So I’ve spent 40 years paying absolute attention to things for two or three weeks and then never thinking about them again.


The perks and pitfalls of rock journalism

If I remember my life correctly, I’ve spent most of it sitting at a desk or sitting in an airport. I had a really great time writing about rock’n’roll. What’s not in those essays is the women whose lives I fucked up living like that, of course. But it was really great to just be able to go and see what there was to see. And talk to who you wanted to talk to. I mean, with the freelance work that I do, your life is basically confetti: little pieces of paper floating in the air. So you just write it and move on and write it and move on and try not to get bored. Not getting bored has always been
an important motivator in my life.

“Not getting bored has always been an important motivator in my life”


Discovering the art world’s inner circle

I actually opened my gallery (in Austin, Texas, in 1967) so I could get out of graduate school, and because the commercial art world at that time was a much more interesting place. It was Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis and all these interesting people and it was really fun. And very, very secret. It was a small operation. The art world that I came into was 6,000 heavily medicated people, none of whom seemed to have jobs. You had to say you were something, so I started saying I was an art dealer, and then I became an art dealer. I liked it, I just found that being a dealer I was spending more and more time with rich people and less and less time with artists, and that’s not my bag.


The itinerant life of a dedicated drifter

I just move, you know? When I was a child my dad played in dance bands so we lived in hotels, basically. And then for my whole education before college, I went to 17 schools, I lived in 13 cities. I’ve been on a thousand road trips and rock tours, either playing or writing about it. I just have the propensity to leave town. To be honest, one of the motivators is that I’ve never been able to put my roots down in any particular place. My connections with the art world are very wide, but they’re basically really shallow. I have better friends in rock’n’roll. I never understand in the art world quite what it is that’s motivating people. I know people who would die to go to parties: I can’t get my head around that.

“I liked it, I just found that being a dealer I was spending more and more time with rich people and less and less time with artists, and that’s not my bag”


Protecting students from the machine

I really detest universities and schools, because they force you to generalise. If I’m teaching an art history course, I have to talk about Robert Morris. And I hate Robert Morris. You’re always having to talk about people you fucking detest. But I really honestly enjoyed teaching graduate students in art, because, well, I’m kind of the catcher in the rye. I think all students need protection from the machine, you know, so I just tried to keep them from getting killed in university.


Finding inspiration in academia

For ten years in Vegas I had really good students. And it’s really fun to have good students, because you sit down and you talk with them, and they say ‘Oh yeah yeah yeah Dave, I get it,’ and then two weeks later you come in to see some fucking thing you never could’ve imagined. It’s sort of chastening if you want to have your way, but it’s amazing to discover the shit that comes out of an educational environment.

“I’m always trying to keep my students from being as miserable as I was”


The good life in the city of sin

Vegas was a good place to teach artists because you didn’t get any religious people, you didn’t get any treehuggers and you didn’t get any identity people. You just had art people that were there to have fun and work. And Vegas is a great place for work: everybody works there. The best relationships I’ve had have been with the women I’ve lived with and the students I’ve had. I was so miserable in school, but I’m always trying to keep my students from being as miserable as I was.


Ditching songwriting for art criticism 

I like to write songs. I remember Lou Reed saying once that the hardest thing in the world to write is a greeting card. This was like writing greeting cards; you’re operating in a very restricted area of expression. To be honest, I made what may have been a terrible decision: I was trying to get away from drugs, and you can’t really be in the music business and get away from drugs. So I realised I could be an A+ art critic and only be a B+ songwriter, and so I chose to be an art critic. And that was probably the wrong decision, because a B+ songwriter makes about 50 times more than an A+ art critic.


Looking back with no regrets 

I keep trying to ruin my health, but it seems to be still here. I’m already about 40 years older than I ever planned to be. I’ve had 40 years of golden time, judging by my lifestyle. Except for getting out of the music business and fucking up my first marriage, I really don’t feel too bad about anything, you know what I mean?

Pirates and Farmers is out now, published by Ridinghouse

Image courtesy of O’Gara Bissell Photography




— Hunter S. Thompson and I were professional acquaintances for about 20 years. Along with Nick Tosches, James Walcott, Grover Lewis, Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, John Morthland, Chet Flippo and other speedy typists, we were what they used to call “new journalists”—free-style purveyors of “cultural reportage.” We wrote for the same magazines about subjects with the shelf life of milk. We prowled the same airports and lived the same sort of poorly regulated, profligate lives. Hunter, as it turned out, became famous for living this sort of life. Not one of us begrudged him his fame, since the toxicity of lurid fame was our one true subject. As Lester Bangs put it, our job was to report back to the kids in Omaha about the dead girl in the lobby. So if Hunter, who, like us, had seen the blood on the curtains, wanted to be Mick Jagger, he was welcome to it. And he had a right, because Hunter Thompson was a very good writer, a wonderful writer, in fact, for a one-trick-pony who did lyric bile, fear, loathing and rabid denunciation without much else in his quiver.

Given the times, of course, lyric bile was usually sufficient, but, as a writer and a person, Hunter was never in a place you wanted to be. It was no fun, and Hunter himself, whose life was redolent with opportunities for fun, never seemed to be having any, unless he was laying waste to something or someone. While you were chatting up the Valkyrie in the fuzzy, scoop-neck sweater that could barely contain her awesome, quivering breasts, Hunter was spraying the room with a fire extinguisher. This sort of jackass intervention was extremely exasperating. Eventually it became sad or disgusting depending on your generosity.

So if we, his fellow scribblers, begrudged Hunter anything, it was not his lifestyle. It was his writing about his lifestyle and, in the process, outing of our lifestyles by telling people what we were doing. There are some creatures who like to dance but do not like the light, and, for nearly a decade, before Hunter became a “name”—before “rock writer” became a part you played in the alley behind some concert hall—we were all invisible, a tribe of happy, insatiable shadows on the loose. We had all the perks of fame and none of the grief. We got the planes, the limos, the hotels, the good money and the back stage passes. We got the free cocaine, the speed, the smack and the barbits. We got the buffet, the tour jackets, the balconies and the beautiful girls (more of these than you can possibly imagine) that we selected after the band but before the roadies. Best of all, we got to write about music, to live in a bubble of music and music was a subject that never aroused Hunter Thompsons’s passion. He liked rich folks. If they were rich musicians, fine. He liked power players, Johnny Depp, racecar drivers, gun nuts, Hells Angels and politicians.

Hunter wanted to be the Sheriff of Aspen. We wanted to be Robin Hood’s merry men, because, being an inconspicuous merry man meant that when you were finally sated and demented, having sampled the spicy gruel of American celebrity, you could, if you wanted to, put on a Lakers cap and stroll away, just disappear into the night. Jimmy Page couldn’t do this, so he disappeared into his castle. So, when Hunter himself finally disappeared, when he shot himself, my first reaction was that it might have been slightly more respectful of the living had Hunter, who loved explosions, just strolled away into the woods and blown himself into slightly smaller bits. He chose otherwise, of course, and in the days after he died, a couple of journalists called for quotes. I told them that I liked Hunter as much as a lover could like a hater; from which I hoped they could infer that I meant “not very much.”

I did respect the dude, however, so, in his wake, I re-read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I found it as icky now as it did then. Laying the book aside I found myself, for the first time, feeling sympathy for Johnny Depp. My first beef with the book is that nothing happens in it that requires the city of Las Vegas as a setting. There’s no gambling. There are no money rolls, no whales, no whores, no crap tables, no showgirls and no scumbag hustlers. In fact, rereading the book now, at home in Las Vegas, it feels as if Hunter is simply not up to sharing the stage with the local color, no matter how vivid he might have felt. There is, however, a lot of desert highway in Hunter’s book, a lot of blistering Mohave, which Hunter mistakes for the landscape of the American soul. This is way too Hollywood to me. I love the Mohave and there are emptier and more desolate places in Providence, Rhode Island.

At any rate, the events in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could have taken place in any American city during the seventies–and they did, because there were no places then, just blur and drift–just cash transactions, night flights, smoking sections and no airport security. One night in the seventies, I climbed on a little plane to fly from Denver to Aspen. I noticed a songwriter friend of mine curled up in a front row. I stuck out my hand and said it was nice to see him. He made a tiny little wave, and said softly, “Excuse my manners, dude, but I’m just about to die.” I nodded in sympathy and walked past him into the dark plane, quite unaware they he was actually dying, remembering an afternoon in New York when I traded Lowell George’s phone number to a girl in the songwriter’s entourage for a bag of blow. Not my finest hour, although all the girl wanted to do was to fuck Lowell. That night on the plane, I ended up in the back row with two ski bunnies, sharing bumps to the shivering hum of the props in the cold air. When we landed in Aspen, a guy in a chauffeur’s uniform came on board. He lifted my friend out his seat and carried him down to a limo that was waiting on the tarmac. I waved good-bye to the receding taillights, then set off into the swirling, midnight snow after the ski bunnies.

That was the seventies—limos, homos, bimbos, resort communities and cavernous stadiums—the whole culture in a giant, technicolor Cuisenart, whipping by, and I did love it so. Thinking back now, I can’t help but feel that Hunter missed a lot of the stagy grandeur or had no taste for it. He never seemed to have much use for bimbos, or homos, like my songwriter friend, or even for casual romance. I did meet a porn star friend of Hunter’s one night at a dinner in Vail. Her name was Sharon Mitchell and she was a handsome and intelligent woman who now runs an AIDS clinic in Los Angeles. Hunter treated her with the kind of sullen disdain that was what you might expect from a boho snob with a hysterical loathing for working stiffs and service personnel. This remains inexplicable to me to this day. In Hunter’s Vegas book, the waiter at the Polo Lounge is a dwarf; the store clerk is a mongoloid; the room service waiter is a reptile; the lady at check-in is a gorgon, and I hate this. Savaging the weak is not funny, even if you’re purportedly “tripping.” Also, as a matter of journalistic practice, these working stiffs are invariably the sources from whom you get the story, because Lou Reed, for all his candor, is not going to share with a journalist his late night room service order for KY Jelly.

So, finally, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas feels feverish, squirmy, and genuinely afraid of itself. In this book, as elsewhere, one gets the sense that Hunter never really found his place, that he never really got over the La-Di-Da South, the Derby Cocktail Soiree, the Tea Dance and the strut of Southern Manhood. The manners were gone, of course, but the raw, hot, dirt plantation sense of empowerment remained. One night at a wedding in New Orleans, a cultured woman from Thompson’s part of the South, told me how easily she could imagine Hunter a hundred years ago as a Civil War dandy, in his whale-bone corset, his tailored uniform, his flowing locks, his riding crop, his silver flask and his dueling pistols always at the ready to defend his “honor.”

I could never quite make that leap but I could see the puritan do-gooder with a gun, and I can’t help feeling the bleak shadow of puritan revenge in Thomson’s Vegas narrative, during which the author describes himself committing a whole cornucopia of transgressions and felonies. He drives recklessly, wrecks cars, totes guns, drops acid, snorts coke, sniffs ether and smokes ganja. He insults civilians, walks checks, abandons rentals and dodges tabs at fancy hotels. All of these Mister Toad behaviors, I shamefully admit, were pretty much de rigueur for “cultural reporters” in those years. The strange thing is that, for all the crime and bad manners, for all the macho self-aggrandizement, there is no sin in Hunter’s “Sin City,” and, minus sin, Hunter’s Vegas tastes like sucking pennies.

In fact, there is no sex at all in “Fear and Loathing,” nor is there sex in any of Hunter S. Thompson’s writings, no encounters with whores, homos, bimbos, ex-wives, divorcees or members of the wait staff, and this glaring omission profoundly distorts the milieu he purports to portray. In fact, Hunter’s writing repudiates the primary vibe of the zeitgeist, because the post-flower-child seventies, I can assure you, were very, very sexy all the time—even sexier at night and a whole lot sexier in Las Vegas. In those days, one did not go out on the road with Aerosmith or even Hubert Humphrey to huff glue with celebrities. That is a contemporary kink. You went out there to bathe in the dazzled libido of shiny America—to promenade down glimmering streets with crazy girls in torn t-shirts under a blood-red sky—but not Hunter S. Thompson. Hunter hated it all, and this body hate , I suspect, made him the bard of choice for looky-no-touchy, “Less than Zero” America—the era of Post-Sex-Global-Fury—the age of AIDS and herpes, silicone and botox. This makes Thompson prescient, I guess, Jeff Skilling, avant le lettre, arrogant, wasted, drooling and snarling at the waiter. Oh, please, darling.

Dave Hickey is a writer of fiction and cultural criticism. He writes a monthly column for Art in America called Revisions and has served as Contributing Editor to The Texas Observer, The Village Voice, Art Issues, Parkett and Context. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Art News, Artforum, Interview, Harpers, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. His published books include PRIOR CONVICTIONS, THE INVISIBLE DRAGON: FOUR ESSAYS ON BEAUTY, AIR GUITAR: ESSAYS ON ART AND DEMOCRACY and STARDUMB. Future publications include CONNOISSEUR OF WAVES: MORE ESSAYS ON ART AND DEMOCRACY, FEINT OF HEART: ESSAYS ON INDIVIDUAL ARTISTS and PAGAN AMERICA. Hickey was recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for 2002-2007 and received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work as Project Advisor and Associate Producer for Ric Burns’ PBS documentary on Andy Warhol. Hickey presently holds the position of Schaeffer Professor of Modern Letters at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Essays on Perceptual and Op Art
Dave Hickey

Perceptual Observer

Trying to See What We Can Never Know
The following essay by Dave Hickey was excerpted by permission of the Columbus Museum of Art.  The complete essay appears in the 200 page catalog titled Optic Nerve.  Please support the Columbus Museum and buy a copy directly from them (telephone: (614) 221 4848.)

In retrospect, of course, it is easy to see that the postwar American ideology of “expression” was more of a social metaphor than a psychological one. Social repression, after all, does exist, and it does, in fact, mitigate expression. It is also possible to see that the postwar insistence that art must provide us with conscious knowledge and insight was probably nothing more than a manifestation of intellectual insecurity about the philosophical credibility of postwar American art-an insecurity that was, in fact, totally justified. One may, in fact, trace the hostility that was exhibited toward optical art in 1965 back to the refusal of American art critics to deal with the optical foundations of Abstract Expressionism in the previous decade. Both Op and Ab-Ex, I would suggest, speak more directly to American ways of seeing than to European ways of knowing, being more visible and less knowable than we usually presume.

Unfortunately, the American art community, when first confronted with Abstract Expressionism, fell into willful, collective blindness and justified this blindness with a fictional mythology that centered on the “story” told by the artist’s hand.” The critical invention of the “artist’s hand narrative” allowed us to read Abstract Expressionist paintings rather than look at them. More precisely, it allowed us to think, when we looked at these paintings, that we were actually reading the artists’ opaque, encoded, gestural “handwriting.” This opened the door to narrative interpretations of paintings that are. in fact. as resistant to narrative as optical paintings. Freudian narratives of repression and expression could be attached to the artist’s purportedly unintelligible ecriture. Primitivist Jungian symbolizing could be evoked to justify its opacity, or, conversely, Marxist narratives about the ineluctable material destiny of painting could be invented to justify the marks’ dissolution into abstraction and entropy.

            Today, of course, Abstract. Expressionist paintings may, if one wishes, be experienced as optical occasions. The handless, immaculate Op paintings that followed them could not be known as anything else, and this escalated level of control, I would suggest, does not so much represent an effort on the part of Op painters to critique Abstract Expressionist paintings, as an effort on their part to armor the Achilles heel that privileged their misinterpretation. In this sense, the flowering of handless-ness in American art may be taken as a conscious effort to elude or subvert the mythology of the “artist’s hand” along with the problematic, literary interpretations that it made possible. Beginning in the late 1 960s, artists who would later be known as Pop artists, op artists, Kinetic artists, and Minimalist artists simultaneously abandoned the antique tradition of “mark-making,” and set about replacing the European narratives of Freud and Marx with a new American brand of literalism….


…Op does its own work for whoever will look.  It dispenses with the repertoire of knowledge and experience that is presumed to be required to appreciate abstract art. It replaces the elite, intellectual pleasure of “getting it” with the egalitarian fun-house pleasure of disorientation; of trying to understand something that you cannot. By refusing to set us apart in our relative levels of visual mastery, Op Art makes us one in our anxious, enjoyable failure. More beneficially, as we stand before Op paintings that resist our understanding, we introduce ourselves to our unconscious selves. We become aware of the vast intellectual and perceptual resources that await our command just beyond the threshold of our knowing. These, of course, can only be inferred on the rare occasions when they fail to serve our purposes. Optical art provides those occasions.


One thought on “Art and Cultural Critique Dave Hickey: Articles, Interviews, Essays

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