Reading Dave Hickey

I take a certain (well, a considerable) pride in knowing about stuff that others don’t [yet] grok, but that means I’m occasionally blindsided by stuff I should have encountered but somehow missed. Can’t know it all, despite trying to live up to my patron saint Hugh of St-Victor’s injunction to omnia disce. So I’d never heard of Dave Hickey until I read a piece of his in NHLA. Smitten by his prose, I ordered Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997) and soaked it up in a few days. The title? It refers to Hickey’s comments on criticism:

…criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing. It is the written equivalent of air guitar —flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music(163)

There’s a lot of similarly fine writing in the 20-odd essays, and plenty of art-world and pop-culture stuff that I knew next to nothing about, and Robert Christgau’s review is a good entrée into what-all is included. The essay that really got to me was the penultimate: “Frivolity and Unction” (originally in Art isses, Summer 1996, but available here as a pdf), which seems to be mostly a savaging of pretense and self-delusion in “the art world” … “seems to be” I say, since he’s mostly talking about that realm:

…I found myself wondering why the music and film communities could respond to bourgeois punditry with such equanimity, while the French Academy and the contemporary art world went certifiably ga-ga. I came up with the answer. Music and movie people are not in denial about the frivolity of their endeavor, while the contemporary art world, like the French Academy, feels called upon to maintain the aura of spectacular unction that signifies public virtue, in hopes of maintaining its public patronage… (202)

What if works of art were considered to be what they actually are –frivolous objects or entities with no intrinsic value that only acquire value through a complex process of socialization during which some are empowered by an ongoing sequence of private, mercantile, journalistic, and institutional investments… (204)

…the art world is no more about art than the sports world is about sport. The sports world conducts an ongoing referendum on the manner in which we should cooperate and compete. The art world conducts an ongoing referendum on how things should look and the way we should look at things –or it would, if art were regarded as sports are, as a wasteful, privileged endeavor through which very serious issues are sorted out. (204)

“Seems to be” I say, because it struck me that he’s NOT just talking about the art world, but about the [cultural] delusions constructed around multiple worlds (politics, business, the instantiation and manipulation of consumer demand, education…) in which we bamboozle ourselves about what we are doing and why. But is this realization anything more than the familiar Emperor’s Clothes critique of the purblind and muttonish stupor of my fellow citizens, which I’ve been belaboring for far too long? My encounter with this essay got spookier when it occurred to me to try substituting ‘education’ for ‘art’ in this paragraph:

So, I have been thinking, if art is ‘good’ enough to be deserving of public patronage, just what does it do? I would suggest that since such work must be designed in compliance with extant legislation and regulatory protocols, it can only work on behalf of this legislation and those protocols. It can encourage us not just to obey the laws that we all fought so hard to pass, but to believe them, to internalize the regulatory norms of civil society into a ‘cultural belief system.’ Unfortunately, art that aspires to this goal is nothing more or less than tribal art, a steady-state hedge against change and a guarantee of oppression in the name of consensus, however benign. (208)

And if everybody did awaken to what-all is really going on, or down, what then?

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