Wednesday, December 10, 2008


For the Two Readers Project this week, John chose an essay from Dave Hickey's seminal book of art and cultural criticism, Air Guitar.

A lot of Hickey's essays start out with a personal reminiscence, and this one's no exception. In this case, the essay begins with Hickey recalling his work writing a dissertation towards a PhD in Literature and Linguistics at the University of Texas in the mid-60's. "By September of 1967," he writes, "I had the project pretty much nailed, and only then, unfortunately, did its true eccentricity begin to dawn on me--only then did I begin to realize that there was no support anywhere in the academic world for what I was doing, nor was there any inkling that such support might be forthcoming."

He considers what will happen when his dissertation is reviewed by the committee: "The two post-structuralists, confronted with the empiricism of my practice, would almost certainly fling themselves upon the barricades. The literary humanist, faced with the prospect of calculus, would go catatonic; and the two linguistics wonks, who spent their summers taping Hopis and thought Gertrude Stein was something you drank beer out of, would bitch and moan about my "unscientific" literary parameters and probably resign from the committee."

Deciding the whole thing sounds like a "bad bet", he decides--on a whim, it seems like--to become an art dealer. "That night I called up all my artist pals and told them I was going to become an art dealer. They all said, 'Great!' Within the next two weeks, I had borrowed ten grand from a local banker who hung out in rock-and-roll bars, rented a space downstairs from a lawyer who defended drug offenders, had some stationary printed up by an outlaw printer in south Austin, and got a tax number from the State Comptroller."

So far it's all been pretty much recollection (leavened, as always, with both deep generosity and mordant cynicism). But soon--and this is usual with Hickey--the personal stuff becomes an occasion for something more intense. As an art dealer, Hickey watches all sorts of everyday, "uneducated" (at least artistically) folks come into his gallery. His conclusion is one of the many great moments in the piece:
Regarding the degradation of trying to sell objects to people who know nothing about art, I can only assure you that everyone in this culture understands the freedom and permission of art's mandate. To put it simply: Art ain't rocket science, and beyond a proclivity to respond and permission to do so, there are no prerequisites for looking at it. This is the first thing I learned as an art dealer, because everyone who came into my little store--the paper boy, the mailman, the plumber, the tourists, the hippies, and the suburban matrons--"understood" what was going on, even when they did not approve.
The final third of the essay (and I should note that even though I'm quoting liberally here, I'm leaving out a significant amount of really great writing) considers the way art is valued. He draws a parallel between art and money (currency): both are investments of faith and "when you trade a piece of green paper with a picture on it, signed by a bureaucrat, for a piece of white paper with a picture on it, signed by an artist, you haven't bought anything, since neither piece of paper is worth anything. You have translated your investment and your faith from one universe of value to another." It's a long, and characteristically thought-provoking discussion, which then goes on to consider the ways certain artists and paintings rise in value in relation to the institutions of the art world (dealers, museums, galleries) which, like the Federal Reserve, contribute, by virtue of THEIR investments to the art or artist in question, added value.
The point, however, is that the issuing institution or individual can never guarantee the value of art or money sent forth into the world. It must be sustained though investments by complex constituencies of individuals, public institutions, and private corporations. The government may say a dollar is worth a dollar. Fiduciary investment tells us it's worth thirty-five cents. The Whitney Museum may say that Wanda Whatzit is the next big thing, but only the sustained investment of money, journalism, exhibition space, scholarly prose, foundation awards, loose talk, and casual body language can help maintain Wanda's work in public esteem.
As you can probably gather, I've always loved Hickey's work, and this essay's no exception. There's a lot to admire, but if I had to chose a single virtue it would be his approachability, how lightly he wears his erudition (and the man, as any sustained contact with his writing will show, is seriously smart). Because he never talks down to you--because he always assumes you understand exactly what he's saying (and we do!--because of how well he writes) he makes you feel smart. In what may be his best essay, he writes with admiration about the paintings of Norman Rockwell. It's a prototypical Hickey essay; Rockwell is a great painter for Hickey because he disguises how hard he works. His paintings are not afraid to give the viewer pleasure but they do so (at least according to Hickey) without insulting his intelligence. They "rhyme." The same can be said of Hickey's writing; it doesn't scruple to give the reader pleasure. It's funny, it's moving, and it's humble. I also think that most of it, insofar as the word can be used when talking about criticism, is right.

So. Dave Hickey. Air Guitar. Read it. I mean, come on. The opening quote is by Keith Richards. "Let me be clear about this: I don't have a drug problem, I have a police problem." Funny, yes. But also, deeper than it seems.

PS: There's an artist around today whose work consists of hand-painted reproductions of American paper currency. Does anyone know who this is? They're supposed to be so accurate that he's occasionally arrested for counterfeiting. This essay reminded me of him.

1 comment:

Mark Andrews said...

Thanks for the post. I'm going to check it out.