By Travis DiehlPlus IconJuly 15, 2021 2:32pm
Who’s afraid of Dave Hickey? By the time I moved to Los Angeles for art school in 2008, Hickey was a writer people loved to hate but seldom read. He’d established himself in Las Vegas as the cantankerous bard of the American vernacular, garnered a MacArthur Fellowship among other laurels, and symbolized a red-blooded admiration for beauty, sleaze, and commerce that was anathema to the political vogue in art (then as now). Few modern art critics have been so influential, and so roundly denounced—yet while Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried’s big ideas are routinely refuted, Hickey’s are mostly avoided. I found my barely thumbed but water-damaged copy of his best-selling 1997 collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy in an artist friend’s recycling bin.
But misunderstanding breeds fear, and Hickey is not an easy figure to understand. His resume rambles through the peaks of boomer bohemia: born in Texas in 1940, he has run galleries in Austin and New York, partied with Warhol and Mapplethorpe, taken LSD and speed, written outlaw country songs in Nashville, briefly edited for Art in America, and reviewed records for Rolling Stone, all before 1980. Air Guitar is characteristically gregarious, swinging from basketball legend Julius Erving’s layups to painter Cézanne’s picture plane. Then there is his reactionary-seeming thesis, first formed in his 1993 book The Invisible Dragon, that the point of art is Beauty, of which the market is the measure—and that this exchange, this free-form, individually determined relationship to compelling works of art, is democracy in action. On the back of this refrain, Hickey made himself the chain-smoking, Burger King–eating bête noire of the academic art world, lecturing from Cambridge to LA all the while.
The Austin-based journalist Daniel Oppenheimer rushed out to buy his copy of Air Guitar after his brother told him it would blow his mind. Twenty years later, he has written a biography of the battle-scarred critic, Far from Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art. Oppenheimer’s book readily admits to its subject’s defects. It is also a valediction. Oppenheimer is chiefly a political journalist—his previous book profiles six leftist figures who swung right—and Far from Respectable is detached from the art-critical aspects of Hickey’s work, compelled instead by its subject’s bravura and style. Framed as a twilight reappraisal of Hickey’s life and work, the book’s main task is to pull Hickey’s criticism from its pigeonhole in the art world of the 1990s and into wilder, thornier, more human thickets of desire. There’s a hole in the middle of Oppenheimer’s account between 1977, when Hickey goes to his mother’s in Fort Worth to kick amphetamines and barbiturates, and 1989, when he reappears with a tenure-track job at the University of Las Vegas, having narrowly avoided becoming the fourth man in four generations of his family to commit suicide.
But while he praises Hickey’s writings as art, Oppenheimer also asks the pertinent question: is Hickey’s criticism still relevant? This is where the book gets relevant too. The author doesn’t name the art world controversies of the 2010s, but it’s hard not to recognize ongoing conflicts over the roles of art and politics and institutions in Oppenheimer’s description of the 1980s culture war spats over Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe (whom Hickey chummily calls Robert), when right-wing congressmen chiseled away at federal funding for the arts. These controversies hardly resemble today’s mainstream arguments over art. The battle lines now, to borrow the book’s often martial diction, are drawn through the liberal institution itself, in conflicts between factions on the left. But this was precisely the bone Hickey picked. While curators defended Mapplethorpe’s explicit, elegant photos of assholes and cocks in terms of formal rigor and timeless artistic values, Hickey railed that Jesse Helms had it right: Robert’s raunchy images were a direct assault on everything that puritanical America believed, and for Hickey, this was a power worth defending. The right-wingers and bigots didn’t bother him—“Each of these parties was performing its assigned role in the passion play of American cultural politics,” Oppenheimer writes—as much as the curators who wanted to package Mapplethorpe’s most vulgar, full-frontal work in neutral, neutralizing appeals to free expression. Hickey’s broadsides against the “therapeutic institution,” which he claimed served up art like broccoli, notified fair-weather friends of outlaws and outcasts that they indeed fight for the man.
Oppenheimer’s only sustained critical postmortem concerns the blowup over beauty that Hickey launched with The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, published by Art Issues Press in Los Angeles—which, remarkably, still smolders. Hickey was so irked by the establishment left’s cold-as-marble defense of Mapplethorpe that he wrote a group of essays to the contrary, essentially arguing that beauty itself, independent of the codes and experts of the therapeutic institution, marked places for subcultures to self-organize, and that this was the true democratic magic of art. Far from Respectable recounts the fallout. In 1996, “allies” of Hickey, including his wife, Libby Lumpkin, and current Los Angeles Times senior critic Christopher Knight, roundly attacked an exhibition of feminist art curated by art historian Amelia Jones. Jones struck back with a paper lacerating not Knight, nor Lumpkin, but Dave Hickey, casting him as a reactionary tastemaker and cocky patriarch who brandished his own idea of beauty as universal truth. Oppenheimer argues that Jones’s reading was almost willfully inaccurate—that, in fact, both Hickey and Jones place beauty firmly “in the eye of the beholder.” Indeed, rather than taste-making, as both the critic’s biography and his writing make clear, Hickey actually advocated something like aesthetic polytheism or poststructuralist bacchanal. But Hickey, ever the pugilist, “chose . . . to poke his finger in the eyes of the people who were mad at him, to play on stage the asshole they assumed and very much wanted him to be (the better to dismiss his critiques).”
“Hickey never had a plan,” writes Oppenheimer, “nor even a good sense of direction. He had a talent for writing, a daimonic intellect, an intuition for where certain kinds of cultural energy were coalescing, and certain tendencies to depression and self-sabotage.” In surfing, drugs, music, and art, Hickey sought out subcultures and cliques in tension with “the cultural economics of the mainstream.” And of course he was often wrong. Hickey’s eager faith in the “democracy of the market” to generate diverse free havens within capitalism whitewashed huge disparities in access. The fact that Hickey “spoke of how much he liked selling, in particular, to a certain kind of risk-taking businessman” betrays a quaint view of art’s relationship to commerce very much shaped by selling pop art in Austin in the late 1960s. (It’s worth adding that, in the twenty-first century, Hickey turned to bashing “rich collectors” for poisoning the collegial weirdness he’d found in art.)
Then there is his big-tent concept of American culture as open, raucous, risky, and a hell of a time. (But open to whom, exactly? A straight white man like him, at least.) He found joy in American paganism: love of commerce, worship of idols (politicians, pop stars, graven images), and “cosmopolitanism,” or diversity. One chapter opens with a vignette from Hickey’s adolescence, when his father brought him along to a local jam session. “Magda set up in front of the piano,” Oppenheimer recounts. “Butch stood up his bass. Julius laid his guitar in his lap while he rolled and lit a joint. Ron took a hit and then sat down at his drum set. Hickey’s father, also Dave, took out his sax and his clarinet. They all tuned and warmed up. Then they played.” Hickey wrote in Air Guitar that this afternoon “was the best, most concrete emblem I had of America as a successful society and remains so.” It’s a tragic and vulnerable statement. His father would kill himself three years later. And the reality of this country would prove hostile to the polyphonic ease that so impressed Hickey as a boy.
By the end of Far from Respectable, Oppenheimer starts referring to Hickey as Dave, the way Hickey called the artists he’d known by their first names. “Dave was lonely and feeling unappreciated,” he writes. “I was offering to write a book about how amazing he was.” The book’s final pages relate a weekend in Santa Fe, where Hickey and Lumpkin now live, when the subject who has seduced the author for so long becomes flesh and blood, broken down, prisoner of a failing body. This primal scene is intercut with Oppenheimer’s meditations on his own conflicted relationship to his austere, leftist parents and the ingrained, politically justified, pathological denial of pleasure that they professed. “This was my inheritance,” writes Oppenheimer, “against which I struggled very inarticulately and mostly unconsciously. Until I read Dave.” These sketches of the author’s own biography feel vague and faux-confessional—until you realize that what he’s really confessing throughout the book, and by writing the book itself, is that he has found a surrogate father figure in Hickey, liberation in Hickey’s work.
Engaging with beauty makes our lives richer—if it does anything at all—and Oppenheimer finds Hickey beautiful. Even as he concedes that Hickey’s infamous Beauty was “flamboyantly prejudicial,” Oppenheimer finds him “so potent, ultimately, not because his theory of beauty was superior but because his performance while articulating it was so beautiful.” Oppenheimer attempts to jam with Hickey, offering his own book’s four chapters as a countermelody to the four essays in Invisible Dragon. He doesn’t have Hickey’s feel for the notes, but there are moments when the whole thing sings. “When Dave was in his glory, I’ve been told, his brilliance poured out of him in a glittering stream of connections, allusions, humor, sophistication, and vulgarity,” writes Oppenheimer. Even diminished, as the three watch MSNBC, Hickey delivers a haunting vision of the Mandalay Bay shooting in Las Vegas, which he and Lumpkin happened to witness. “The field of the concert looked like glowing coals,” he told Oppenheimer. “Glow, glow, glow. It was everybody’s cell phone. Isn’t that sad?”