Beauty, and Dave Hickey, reconsidered


Dave Hickey, 1940-2021

In The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey argues for the unruly vitality of the human imagination against forces of control—economic, political, and academic. It’s a book that wants art to be made in a state of absolute individual freedom, where forms and ideas contend for survival in an imaginative free market governed by nothing but desire: the desire to make art and the desire to see or own it. It’s an energizing book. Though it’s a bit of an invitation to anarchy—creative anarchy—ironically, it’s an argument for deference and courtesy. He elevates beauty into a core principle, which hardly sounds scandalous, though it was greeted that way. For him the struggle to make something beautiful forces an artist to cede power to the viewer—the artist has to beguile, not lecture. That’s a shift in power that few people around him wanted to see. He asserts a painter needs to make the viewer want to look, rather than rely on institutions that compel people to look and think a certain way, based on certain forms of approved expression. Better to make a beautiful object without significance than to create an admirable bit of agitprop that repels or bores everyone who sees it, as it offers a dose of permissible opinions about life.

Yet rereading this book again, one can see how Hickey never thought to follow his impulsive invocation of beauty (in response to a question at a professional conference) with a journey to its Platonic extreme and see beauty as the mysterious goal itself. He doesn’t pause to attempt the impossible that every real philosopher has: what is beauty, in and of itself? The question is unanswerable, but craving an answer to it is an essential way to be awake to life. It’s a question a bit like Heidegger’s question of Being: “why is there something rather than nothing.” The first time I read his book, this avoidance on Hickey’s part didn’t really occur to me, this shunning of questions about the nature of beauty. It’s easy to miss how he degrades beauty, in a sense, as something almost equivalent to advertising. His point here was to fight back against external controls over creativity, and he succeeds, with supple, showboating eloquence.

He’s a relativist, a pragmatist, a postmodern theorist himself pushing back against how postmodern theory has been debased with political agendas. He argues that beauty is the most effective Trojan horse for smuggling ideas into the heads of others. If you’re a progressive who wants to see social change, then you need a David to paint something as visually thrilling as the Oath of the Horatii and secondarily deliver some politics, on the side, while he has you transfixed. Beauty is the gift wrap for provisional, historically useful ideas—yet the real gift for Hickey turns out to be the wrapping—and this is where he has to cede that beauty matters more than any significance you can consciously invest in it—because most ideas have an expiration date, while great beauty endures.

His serpentine argument asserts that structures in art from the past can be repurposed and echoed, quoted and subverted, to say new things. They can be perpetually renewed—the structures themselves are the treasure, not whatever they mean at any given time. The structures of past art—wouldn’t T.S. Eliot call it the tradition?—form an ever expanding network of associations that serve as an inexhaustible matrix of possible ways to convey new meaning. And what keeps this matrix handy for future use is the mystery of its beauty. We don’t want to let go of what gives delight. We want to keeping looking. It sticks around for centuries until it suddenly seems to be useful again to a critic who can deconstruct it in novel ways or an artist who can use it to imply new things. (Never mind that it’s an end in itself.)

His call for individual freedom of expression pushes back against what he calls the “therapeutic institution”—the assembly of every organization designed to arbitrate what is good vs. bad, worth preserving vs. overdue for the dustbin, or simply abhorrent—the diverse collective of organizations that “privilege” worthwhile art without caring about how much joy it affords when you first set eyes on it. It can be as dull or lifeless as it wants, as long as it teaches you something that’s good for society. For him, by contrast, art should be free to do anything, unruly as a dragon in flight, as long as it kindles some kind of love at first sight.

The problem is that Hickey needs for that love to mean something. He still wants it to represent what it signifies. As he spins and spirals through his rhetorical aria, it feels as if he belongs within this cabal he opposes. He’s the unruly kid down at the end of the table refusing his peas, but he wants to be heard by the family who wishes he’s shut up and eat them. He is quite happy to interpret art for you, and so art needs to mean something intelligible in order for him to speak about it at any length. What makes him a bad boy is that he wants these meanings to be slippery, anarchic, surprising, unpredictable and sensuously pleasant. For him, the therapeutic institution is dedicated to supervising this concealed meaning, this dragon, or aborting it altogether if what it signifies doesn’t behave properly. For Hickey, beauty and a free market for it, undermine these repressive forces of control over what art is allowed to mean.

All of this is what’s kept Hickey fresh. His book is more relevant now than it was in the 90s. Yet what strikes me now is how ancillary beauty is to his thesis. He approaches art intellectually–even though beauty, in and of itself, refuses to surrender to the intellect–and he expects art to return the favor. (Of course he does. He’s a critic.)

Actually, most people who buy art don’t require anything beyond the physical object itself. Real art collectors buy art because they want to own it and continue to look at it, regardless of what it can be construed to mean—that’s why Hickey’s vision makes sense. It’s a survival strategy for wonderful work. He wants art to be fun, to give joy, but in order to push back against the censors who need their art to be full of correct and important views on life, he convincingly argues for how meaning in art is most vital when it’s least predictable and challenging–and clothed in beauty. But his understanding of beauty and truth seems so pragmatic that it allows him to sidestep the question of beauty’s irresistible mystery, and why beauty itself might matter more than anything it is intentionally meant to represent. But that’s where words come to a halt, and that puts a critic out of work.



Art often means something. It pointed toward God during the Middle Ages, and through much of the Renaissance. In the 19th century the mythological and narrative themes of academic painting were discarded by Impressionism. The Impressionists mocked the notion that art had to mean anything at all. It simply had to convey the world as it is. I think it’s safe to say this isn’t what is most celebrated about modern art—it’s lack of meaning. Dada wasn’t the only movement opposed to the requirement that visual art mean something. One could say there were precursors to this as soon as painting became an end in itself. In Vermeer, Chardin as well as in all the landscapes for the sake of landscape, as in Bruegel’s amazing drawings and his paintings of the seasons. Durer’s rabbit is simply an exquisitely drawn rabbit. It doesn’t stand for anything but itself. Impressionism introduced the novel idea that all narrative content, all symbolic or metaphoric resonance, had become an impediment, to the act of direct seeing, to the communication of life itself, as it is—seeing for its own sake but also for what can be conveyed wordlessly, silently, in an experience that can’t be made intelligible by other means. Visual art delivers perceptions and intuitions with perfect clarity, and the most fundamental of them are immune to language and analysis. Renoir’s boating party on the Seine shows a group of young, hip people in a moment of idle happiness and isn’t that about all that needs to be said? It’s a painting that conveys an awareness of the entirety of life and yet, in literal terms, it shows nothing of any great significance. It welcomes you to the party.

One can find endless exceptions to this rule, even since the advent of modernism—Guernica for example—throughout an immense inventory of overtly political and narrative and otherwise illustrative modern art. Meaningful art is everywhere, and it can be amazing. But against all of that significant artwork one can now look out on the vast body of inventiveness that functions the way instrumental music does, like Kandinsky’s or Klee’s translation of spiritual intuitions into color and line and geometric form. One can talk about their formal beauty, or lack of it, but talking about it adds little to the act of looking. (Hickey is quick to sneer at the celebration of formal beauty in and of itself as a way of dodging the discomfiting truths in art, citing how some defended Mapplethorpe’s transgressive photographs by talking about their formal excellence, while he brings his examination of the photographs back to what they signify in relation to previous art.) But you can’t talk anyone into seeing what Kandinsky meant for you to see, the actual experience of that visual music, its isness—you have recourse only to your eyes.

Looking is both the first and last step in a person’s encounter with a painting. If you don’t see it in the way that you listen to music, then discussion won’t be much of a substitute for the joy. Talking about the overture to The Marriage of Figaro can be interesting, but it won’t enable you to hear how the very pulse of human life opens up as you listen. Hearing Mozart’s overture once, you don’t need a critic to explain it to you. It is a world unto itself, complete and perfect, full of supreme energy and joy, in need of no metaphoric scaffolding. It’s a child of Mozart’s heart and labor, his offspring. To secularize a term from religion, it’s a sacrament rather than a signifier—sacraments being an instantiation of something, not symbols of it. It doesn’t just sound like life; for anyone who adores that passage of Mozart, it is life. Mozart and Kandinsky leave no room for an art critic to drive a piton into their magnificence, the better to pose on top of it—though this won’t stop people from writing about their work, nor should it. The more the merrier, because it will usually get people to look, but that doesn’t mean the writing penetrates or conveys the work itself. At best it points you in its general direction and withdraws.

Again and again, Hickey suggests that beauty is the means rather than the end of art. He dismisses Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation in a sentence, but she was attempting, in a limiting way, to point toward a new way to behold art: as an embodiment of human awareness, through what she could only call style, for lack of a better term, as opposed to seeing form as a vessel for content. In every word, every punctuation mark of an original poet, in every mark of Van Gogh or Klee or Porter, you have a portal through which to see an entire world that goes by the name of that individual now, a world embodied in that one fragment of it, the work itself. And that individual world resonates with the universal one we all inhabit. This isn’t how most people would describe what’s meant by style. For her, the work was less like a container for something one could carry away from it and more like the soul of a complex child, sharing the richness of its creator’s perceptions and emotions and experiences with anyone who wants to get to know them. The work isn’t a formulation of that individual’s abstract concepts about life—it is an embodiment of that life. It’s his or her baby, the product not just of the artist’s reasoning mind, but of his or her arms, legs, senses, emotions, and a vast reservoir of conscious and unconscious memory. It’s an embodiment, as well, of everything reason can’t penetrate.



It’s hard to imagine a thinker further from Hickey than Iris Murdoch. In The Sovereignty of the Good, Murdoch argues for beauty as an ontological principle. She uses classic terms that must sound outdated to many: goodness, beauty, and truth. (How antiquated. Aren’t we in a post-truth world? Isn’t truth just a function of power, as Nietzsche and contemporary postmodernists maintain?) So any talk of love and beauty must sound sentimental: love being typically associated with romance rather than, say, the act of a soldier falling on the live grenade and beauty an outward, surface quality not thought to be terribly instrumental when you’re intent on changing the world—Yeats’s “terrible beauty” notwithstanding.

It’s initially a dense book that almost immediately lost me in her introductory attempts to parry all of her contemporaneous philosophers, analytical and existential, who were denying or minimizing the inner life of the individual. Philosophy banished metaphysics and then came looking to dispel individual consciousness even in her time—while the idea of an inner, individual life is more imperiled now than ever before. Granted, some are still defending consciousness as something mysterious and distinct from all of the bodily functions that now are widely assumed to give rise to our putative illusions about an enduring individual identity. (Identity is a koan: maybe I don’t really exist but when I say that, why should I listen, since nobody is talking? Who’s listening?) For her, the essence of an individual’s moral and spiritual struggle was a conscious, subjective and largely invisible effort to pay attention to what’s actually the case, within oneself and in the world. This strenuous effort to simply see the reality of your own life, over years, for her, creates the groundwork for moral choice, which is less the act of a free agent and more a state of almost inescapable submission to what is necessary, once you’ve learned to see how things are. To see the state of things clearly is to be as prepared, and as eager, as possible to submit to the difficult but obviously right thing to do. Once you see what’s really worthwhile, the pull of all the easier alternatives fades. You have begun to see they aren’t real.

She defends the reality of subjective consciousness—the sense of being a soul moving through the world—as the only way to account for the actual experience of being alive and human. And this gives her permission to talk about something as inactive as silent contemplation—simple attention—as having fundamental value, something that can’t be dismissed as a misunderstanding of language. For her, simply paying close attention to anything outside the self—“unselfing” as she calls it—even if it’s nothing more than buying a house plant and keeping it alive, is the beginning of a moral life, because it lures you out of the confines of your self-absorption. Once you pay close enough attention to your relationships with the world and others, and your own behavior, you begin to see the truth of those relationships, and what used to be a matter of choice begins to seem a necessity. It becomes almost reflexive. There is still choice but it’s often effortless. When, say, you really recognize another’s psychic pain, it’s easier to forgive them for how their anger might hurt you.

One of the most beautiful scenes in It’s A Wonderful Life is when young George Bailey refuses to deliver the drunken druggist’s prescription. It’s full of a poison Mr. Gower didn’t realize he’d selected because of his grief over his son’s death. George recognizes what’s happening. He refuses to deliver the drug, and Mr. Gower smacks him in fury but George, weeping not from physical pain but because he knows Gower’s son was killed in the war, keeps explaining what’s happening until Gower sees the horror of what he’s almost done. George knows and feels the man’s desperation, instantly begins to mourn with him, because he sees clearly what the man is suffering—the boy is completely oblivious to the pain of having been struck by the old man. His act of paying attention in every detail to what’s happening around him and within Gower enable him to save both the patient waiting for the prescription and the druggist as well. Forgiveness and compassion aren’t even a choice at that point: they are identical with the kind of attention George’s character pays to the people around him. As Murdoch says:

If we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value around about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. . . . The exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually, not something that is switched off in between the occurrence of explicit moral choices. What happens in between such choices is indeed what is crucial.

In other words, you train yourself, through a quality of attention during all the seemingly trivial hours of each day until you find yourself acting benevolently without even considering the alternatives—what would be a difficult choice for someone ensconced in self-centered habits becomes a willing surrender to what simply appears to be the only thing one can do and still live with oneself. You can’t imagine yourself doing otherwise. That feeling of necessity is something earned through years of looking honestly at what you do and what you face. It’s a practice.

Anyone who has read Krishnamurti’s talks will know this drill. He spoke about attention, in the same terms: how awareness can eventually give rise to right action, so that one is persuaded that there is no credit to be given for doing the right thing. It happens almost without choice. People who are lauded as heroes often say, “I was just doing my job.” It’s another way of saying, “It didn’t even occur to me to do otherwise.” Or “I did it without thinking.” They acted without pausing to choose. No alternative occurred to them. The choice, the act, had already been loaded into the chamber, as it were, through years of looking honestly and patiently at themselves and the world around them.

If I attend properly I will have no choices, and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. The ideal situation . . . is . . . to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity’. This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something much more like ‘obedience.’

This is where her book becomes interesting in the context of painting, because she starts to oscillate back and forth between the moral and esthetic realms: becoming a better person is the same process as the one that leads to becoming a better artist. For her, as for Wittgenstein, ethics and aesthetics are one discipline.

One of the great merits of moral psychology which I am proposing is that it does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle.

Anyone who makes art knows how crucially it depends on the principle of freedom of expression—what Dave Hickey so vehemently defends in his book. To apply external controls over creative expression is the surest way to eliminate the surprising turns of great art—the surprise that is so essential to love-at-first-sight. Yet Murdoch has no interest in a world of art which is essentially a free-for-all, the kind of marketplace Hickey’s book conjures up where everything is allowed and what survives is simply what pleases the most people. (That’s exactly how the market works, and how it should work, but Hickey’s vision of beauty’s role in all this depends far more on the invisible role of intellect than Murdoch’s.) She describes the discipline of attention as a way to acquire an interior sense of obedience to what is true and beautiful—even as it ultimately remains mysterious and resistant to the intellect. This inner discipline is an individual form of regulation that makes institutional control not only irrelevant, but hindering. As T.S. Eliot said, no system can relieve people from the need to be good.

In a way, it’s a refinement of what Hickey proposes—not his pagan orgy of pleasure for the sake of pleasure, though her “unselfing” works within the same kind of free society where individuals have to labor toward wisdom and awareness individually, through thousands of tiny choices day after day, month after month, year after year. Artists who have reached any kind of noted accomplishment will recognize this process as exactly what they have needed to do, and that is her point. Art grows out of this same kind of humble, submissive attention to the smallest and seemingly least important details. The ability to convey the way things are—as Van Gogh did in his painting of worn shoes—results in work of great beauty even if the subject is superficially ugly or imperfect. As Charles Hawthorne advised, go paint the train station. Beauty is everywhere if you give everywhere your complete attention. Murdoch writes:

In one of those important movements of return from philosophical theory to simple things we know about great art and about the moral insight which it contains and the moral achievement which it represents. Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely a part of the same structure. Plato, who tells us that beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love immediately by nature, treats the beautiful as an introductory section of the good. So that aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as cases of morals. Virtue is . . . the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature: something which is easy to name but very hard to achieve.

Goodness and beauty aren’t just adjectives to describe an infinite array of things that have pleasant qualities. They are transcendent a priori truths, a glimpse of something more enduring than the fragmented sequence of experiences in the average day. People struggle to approach them in behavior and perception, trying to get closer and closer to goodness and beauty and truth itself—three facets of a single gem as it were—drawn toward them more powerfully as you begin to see them more clearly. We know them when we see them reflected in specific things and people and events, but we’re unable to define them in themselves. They remain “a magnetic and inexhaustible reality.” Unlike me, she wants nothing to do with God, doesn’t really need a God, in her philosophy, but an impersonal Goodness comes across as a close approximation, if not the same thing. Her idea is that the greatest life—and the greatest art—is simply one that embodies this Goodness/Beauty we’re never quite able to grasp but are able to see and serve more and more clearly through strenuous attention to whatever happens to be the case in an individual life.

The actual nature of life withholds itself in the minute-by-minute dissatisfactions of everyday experience, the stew of conflicted desire and distraction, the quietly chattering consciousness that darts from one thing to the next, minute by minute. Yet it discloses itself to an awareness humble enough to simply watch and listen. She doesn’t try to resurrect metaphysics in her brief book. But for her, insight into what’s real can be achieved and earned, because goodness is already there in everything around you, unobserved or intentionally ignored—and an increasing awareness of it serves as training for being good. And that implies what metaphysics has always asserted, that we begin ensnared in illusions and can only make progress by submitting to a reality we don’t create but can only learn to see and serve in gradual, small increments. This is the lesson from wisdom traditions around the world, from Plato to Buddha to Orthodox Christianity. This is almost exactly the opposite of the way Hickey describes artistic freedom, but I’m not sure he would dismiss Murdoch here:

Beauty appears as the visible and accessible aspect of the Good. The Good itself is not visible. The ‘there is more than this’, if it is not to be corrupted by some sort of quasi-theological finality, must remain a very tiny spark of insight, something with, as it were, a metaphysical position but no metaphysical form. But it seems to me that the spark is real, and that great art is the evidence of its reality. Art indeed, so far from being a playful diversion of the human race, is the place of its most fundamental insight, and the centre to which the more uncertain steps of metaphysics must constantly return.


I’ve referred to it more than once here, but there is hardly a more moving description of how beauty and truth radiate from a work of art than Heidegger’s prose poem, tucked into The Origin of the Work of Art, published in 1935, about Van Gogh’s painting of peasant boots. They were actually a pair of shoes the painter bought but couldn’t wear, so he decided to use them as a subject. Each of the earlier sentences from the German philosopher is almost a wordy haiku, and is certainly written in the spirit of Issa or Basho, without their brevity and ability to stick to nothing but the simple facts. Heidegger can’t resist telling you what the Japanese poets simply show, but the effect is much the same. He tried his hand at poetry, but he never equalled the gravity and beauty of this passage:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field . . . (her) uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death.

Heidegger calls forth not just a woman’s life but a surrounding human and natural world from a painting of two commonplace things. Any lover of music or film or painting, any reader of poetry, can pull together a long list of examples of other work that has this effect—work that opens up a panoramic vista of life, an experience full of pathos and a sense of both of ultimate loss and immense gratitude and love. The relentless state of being in love, romantically in love, induces this heightened awareness almost continuously—excruciating beauty and certain loss, given the nature of time. Art works more fitfully. The ending of My Dinner With Andre has this effect, the fast-forward imagery of a child growing into a man and then disappearing into adulthood on the way to death, as if the mind has panned pack to glimpse the immensity of the earth itself, the smallness of human preoccupations, the way in which we’re lost in everyday distraction from the beauty. Beauty, beauty everywhere but none we’re able to drink at any given hour or minute. This is what it means to be a fallen creature, cut off from this ever-present but unregarded beauty inseparable from the frailty of human hopes and joys and despair, the silence and apparent impersonality of nature. Insofar as this pair of worn, crushed, misshapen, ugly old boots embody the world of the woman or man who wore them, they are as beautiful as the world, the life, you see through the prism of a beloved child’s face. There is no intellectual meaning embedded in this painting, no dog whistles of political or sociological content. What this painting conveys is universal and instantaneous, bypassing the intellect, opening the heart and awakening a larger mind than the intellect, the nous, in the Greek understanding of the sentient heart.

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