Seeing Is Believing


Taking a lesson from J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, Dave Hickeys says he’s retiring from his role as gadfly to the art world. He’s disgusted with the whole game, and he isn’t going to take it anymore. He’s going to quit writing about art. I’ll believe it when I see it.  A museum director I’ve known for many years sent me one of the best recent pieces about him–the more you hide, the more they seek, if you’re famous. My friend sent me a link because he knows I’ve nourished myself on Hickey’s ideas since I discovered the man’s writing, belatedly, only about five years ago. (Two years ago, in Albuquerque, I walked up to Hickey himself and with dorky humility requested and got his autograph on the title page of my copy of The Invisible Dragon. Hickey was there to speak with Ed Ruscha at a symposium on fine art printing. He was kind and friendly and gracious but did not invite me to have a drink. Shocking! Ed Ruscha, sitting at the same table, bided his time and didn’t make eye contact even though I was attending with a friend of his.) The article I’ve just finished reading is by Laurie Fendrich, a professor of fine arts at Hofstra University. It’s a fine introduction to the man and his views. She lists his credentials, such as the MacArthur genius grant, his history as an art dealer, his editorship at Art in America, and his wild man bona fides, which unavoidably sounds like vicarious name checking when anyone gets down to listing his coolest acquaintances—Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs, for example. (OK, now I realize I shook the hand of a man who was friends with Lester Bangs . . . ) But what she nails is Hickey’s central notion that “beauty” is the language of art. Ironically, French structuralism is his critical method of choice, yet he claims to practice a subtle kind of deconstruction distinct from the political cudgel postmodernism has become in American academia.

All in all, Hickey seems to be pretty busy writing for somebody who’s giving it up: coming out soon will be Hot Chicks (would it be named anything else?) on female artists, and Pagan America, to elaborate on his view that American life is, and should be, riotously hedonistic. Also, Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Culture and the Marketplace.

Much of what Fendrich says nails Hickey’s stance:

— Hickey’s essays about beauty are at odds with an art-education establishment absorbed in abstract theory.

–“Since about 1970, serious contemporary artists, art critics, and curators have . . . larded their talk about art with such academically saturated fats as “dialogues,” “hybridization,” “critical practice,” “semiotics,” “dialectics,” “synthesis,” “political discourse,” and others too enervating to mention.” With Invisible Dragon and Air Guitar, Hickey made “beauty” the taproot of his ideas of how art should be made and sold and celebrated.

— The art world’s enthusiastic response to his books puzzles Fendrich, since Hickey browbeats it for abandoning beauty. Critics, dealers, collectors, art professors, and M.F.A. students bought Hickey’s books and put them on the reading lists.

— “His ideas about beauty rendered him a reactionary to those who thought that art should better concern itself with feminism, racism, anti-capitalism, global warming, DNA sequencing, and that evergreen, ‘the Other.’ The wider intellectual world has uttered barely a peep about Hickey’s ideas on beauty.”

–Hickey’s seen as a vulgarian. Scholars find it difficult to accept that he chose to make Las Vegas his home for most of his adult life. Fendrich suspects the Hickey haters are put off by the fact that he calms himself by gambling and chain-smoking.

–“From 1998 to 2000, Hickey embraced the academic world he had spurned for so long, accepting an appointment as a professor of art theory and criticism at Las Vegas. After being awarded his MacArthur grant, in 2001, he leveraged the honor to get himself transferred out of the art department (which he regarded as a typical academic bastion of feel-good mediocrity) into the English department. Hickey’s most recent position, from which he retired in 2012, was at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque.”

–Hickey locates beauty not in a Platonic realm or in the vaults of the privileged elite, but “among ordinary folk—no matter their taste—manifesting itself in daily visual desires, brought to the surface through speech.” When we’re delighted by anything we involuntarily say, “beautiful!” It’s a way of finding our place in a spectrum of tastes and perceptions, in a pluralistic Democratic society, and that response to what we find beautiful enables “our membership in a happy coalition of citizens who agree on what is beautiful, valuable, and just.” Or not. (Agree, I mean.)

–There is no central, institutional authority over art. “For Hickey, the only thing that can be figured out is (art’s) value, determined by an art market driven by desire (not investment)—a place that functions as a mysterious, refined sieve for capturing the best works.”

For Hickey, art needs to be sorted out by desire, the way common, mundane products find their fate in a free market governed by what people want to buy. To make this process fundamental to critical thought about the significance of art would indeed sound vulgar to an academic world founded on the notion that capitalism equals imperialism equals evil. But Hickey is simply saying that art needs to inspire wanting—the desire to possess—and this emotional and aesthetic response should be more central to the survival of art than intellectual constructs imposed upon it. (Unfortunately, the art market seems to have corrupted the production of art as thoroughly as French postmodernism, and I’m not sure Hickey has a way of grappling with this, hence maybe his resignation from the scene.)

As Fendrich puts it: “His argument amounts to a not-so-stealthy attack on the whole profession of art professors, who, not able to make a living from their art, rely on college employment. It also upsets idealistic young art students who, understandably, find it hard to accept that their art possesses no intrinsic value. In fact, Hickey’s ideas about beauty question the validity of the entire American M.F.A. system, which protects thousands of artists from having to truck with capitalist markets in which the value of their art would be determined by the tug of war between the desires of the buyers and the needs of the sellers.”

This is a man, she points out, who stopped eating Twinkies when he discovered someone had added something nutritionally good to them: Vitamin D. When it became only slightly less damaging, and therefore less fun, than smoking, he gave them up.

“Hickey thinks that the entire supporting apparatus for art and artists—college art departments, museums, galleries, artists’ grants—saps the vitality and beauty from art by regulating and controlling it, and worse, by crushing desire.”

There are some uncomfortable contradictions in Hickey’s thinking. He’s all for the freedom of a market to determine what survives and what doesn’t in art, and yet he’s against the galleries that make money by selling art and have come to control much of what the public does and doesn’t see. When he was sojourning in Las Vegas, he completely ignored an organization based there, owned and run by Donna Rose, which has sold some of my own paintings. Donna told me how she was even snubbed by Hickey’s wife at one function in Vegas, when they were living there. Her business,, a site that has an international membership of thousands of art buyers and sellers, deals mostly in work its current owners want to sell. She also posts original work directly from a number of artists and has championed artists just getting started, long before they become stars: Lisa Yuskavage, for one. Donna’s venture ought to become a model for how art can reach people through the most democratic channels. The prices are not fixed, they are ultimately determined by bids on the work, and though she rigorously screens the number of artists she supports, the site has the potential to offer a new model for how to connect art with people who want it—based simply on desire for it and nothing else. Her business is the embodiment of Hickey’s philosophy, essentially, and yet I’m convinced that he would continue to ignore it if someone actually sent him a link to it. Deep down, Hickey has his own prejudices about quality, and they trump his egalitarian views on how nothing but democratic market forces should determine the value of art, in all senses of the word “value.”

My enthusiasm for Hickey is also qualified, though, by philosophical hesitations. I swear by The Invisible Dragon, and I agree that the perception of beauty, at some level, needs to be inherent in what a work conveys to anyone who witnesses it. In some ways, recognition of beauty always brings a degree of pleasure or delight: it’s simply how human beings react to it. Yet to say the pleasure that beauty delivers is all that actually matters in art seems to miss something crucial. A famous poet once cited King Lear as a work of great beauty, but that sort of beauty doesn’t bring the simple pleasures of, say, a sun-lit woman’s face by Renoir. Somehow beauty emerges in that play as a tiny element of goodness—Cordelia’s soul—bobbing along briefly on an ocean of evil before disappearing into it. There’s an uneasy carnal allure in the figures Francis Bacon paints, as well, though their beauty has more to do with the way he paints than the image he creates. You end up admiring more the man who taught him how to handle oil: Velasquez. The perception of something true brings with it a sense of beauty, even if the truth is an unflinching look at evil–the Northern Renaissance offers that kind of austere pleasure in many ways–and when you glimpse that deeper beauty you feel something which is both joy and sorrow. Pleasure is secondary, even though any encounter with what’s true feels like a sort of relief, as if you’re satisfied a hunger you didn’t realize you felt until it was fed. None of these complexities find much of a foothold in Hickey’s vision of art—which doesn’t ferret out that harder-to-achieve poignant joy from the daily pursuit of pleasure.  Great art usually feels good to behold, but that pleasure is the byproduct, not the point. Like beauty, it’s simply a quality of how art ought to get the job done. It’s a perfectly good purpose for a painter, to give pleasure. It should be a lot more commonplace than it is. Matisse managed to make the most of it. Yet awakening to the nature of your own capacities as a human being, getting a glimpse of what it means to be alive—that’s closer to what painting can do. It’s what the game is about.  Hickey stays true to his French relativism, rather than paying close enough attention to see that some truth isn’t relative, isn’t subjective, and isn’t necessarily pleasant until a great artist gets his hands around it. One thing he would agree on: it also isn’t theoretically accessible. You have to see it to believe it.

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