Dave Hickey by Saul Ostrow

BOMB 51 Spring 1995
051 Spring 1995

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Hickey 01 Body

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 in 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. Timesto 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.

Saul Ostrow is an artist, curator and art critic who lives and works in New York.

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BOMB 51, Spring 1995

Featuring interviews with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Juliana Hatfield, Li Young Lee, Antonia Bird & Danny Boyle, Liz Diamond, Bradford Morrow, Dave Hickey, David Seidner, Shirley Kaneda, Cachao, and William Gass.

Read the issue
051 Spring 1995