© Alex and Felix, Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais

“Everybody, it seems, is writing about Dave Hickey, but nobody’s really concentrating on the 74-year-old maverick art critic’s thorny, profound ideas about beauty. That is understandable. After decades of lambasting the academic side of the art world for institutionalizing mediocrity, and after recently proclaiming that the gallery-museum part of that world has turned into a venal, celebrity-stoked social scene that has no use for serious art criticism, Hickey has announced that he’s through with writing about contemporary art. Naturally, a flood of interviews and personality profiles has followed.

Of course, Hickey might not be telling the truth about giving up art criticism. He could be pulling a sneaky Marcel Duchamp nonwithdrawal-withdrawal. (After famously announcing that he was giving up art for chess, the godfather of Dada spent his last 20 years secretly creating the great peek-through-the-peephole installation “Étant donnés,” now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

As Hickey sails off into announced self-imposed exile from art criticism, he trails a lot of art-critical credentials in his wake. Not only was he awarded the College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism (equivalent to an Oscar) in 1994, but he also entered the greater intellectual pantheon when he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2001. And he’s topped off his long, long art critic’s CV with a catalog essay for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s retrospective of the great California ceramic sculptor Ken Price (the show will travel to Dallas and New York) and a book on female artists (tentatively titled, in typical Hickeyan fashion, Hot Chicks) that he’s now polishing up.

I first met Dave Hickey a few decades ago, through my husband, Peter Plagens, who also writes art criticism. It wasn’t until 2002, however, that I really got to see him in action. Sharing a hired town car with him (Hickey doesn’t like public transportation) from New York to Philadelphia for a College Art Association annual meeting, where we were both on panels, I must have heard him utter his almost trademark “Y’know what I mean?” a hundred times, with my window cracked open to the cold to let out the smoke from his ever-present cigarettes. Once at the meeting, I hung out with him while he practiced his Las Vegas approach to life, spreading $20 bills around in order to, among other things, get us a table in a “fully booked” restaurant. Hickey is by no means rich, but he knows how to make a trip better for everyone around him by greasing the right wheels.

During five or six long conversations, beginning last summer and lasting well into the fall, Hickey and I talked about his ideas about beauty and education and, of course, his dissatisfaction with the contemporary art world. Although he insisted that he means it when he says he’s giving up art criticism, it’s not as if he’s leaping from art criticism into the void.

He’s editing the final draft of the tentatively titled Pagan America (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster), which celebrates the side of America that loves material pleasure, contrasted with its dominant Christian worldview of a greater, post-earthly purpose. And he’s finishing yet another book on beauty (also due out in 2013)—Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Culture and the Marketplace (Karsten Schubert, London).

Over the years, Hickey has produced a steady stream of essays on a wide range of topics other than art—rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, Liberace, sports, cars—in such varied publications as The New York Times, The Texas Observer, Rolling Stone, Art in America, Artforum, Interview, Harper’s, and Playboy, to name a few.

Hickey’s art stardom, however, derives mostly from two short books—The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Art Issues Press, 1993, and a revised and expanded edition from the University of Chicago Press, 2009) and Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy (Art Issues Press, 1997). The art world’s enthusiastic response to those books, however, is puzzling; their theme is how the art world has, by abandoning beauty, descended into the hell of boredom.

Since about 1970, serious contemporary artists, art critics, and curators have done their damnedest to quarantine the word “beauty” from inclusion in any discussion of art. Instead, borrowing heavily from critical theory, they’ve larded their talk about art with such academically saturated fats as “dialogues,” “hybridization,” “critical practice,” “semiotics,” “dialectics,” “synthesis,” “political discourse,” and others too enervating to mention. With Invisible Dragon and Air Guitar, Hickey dared to drag beauty out of hiding and place it back at the center of art.

One might have thought the art world’s reaction would have been dismissal or ostracism. Instead—almost perversely—artists, critics, dealers, collectors, art professors, and, especially, their M.F.A. students bought the books and showed them off on their coffee tables. Professors even placed selections from them on their syllabi.

What strikes anyone who has seriously studied Hickey’s essays is the incompatibility of his ideas about beauty with an art world, and an art-education establishment, absorbed in abstract theory. How could the very people who find beauty an anachronistic drag on art simultaneously have treated Dave Hickey as an intellectual hero?

Although Invisible Dragon, in particular, drew Hickey a long list of invitations to lecture and do visiting-critic gigs, he wrote that after its publication, his “life became a lot less pleasant.” For all his newfound fame and glory, his ideas about beauty rendered him a reactionary to those who thought that art should better concern itself with feminism, racism, anticapitalism, global warming, DNA sequencing, and that evergreen, “the Other.” More surprising is that even though Newsweek listed Air Guitar in 2009 as “one of the most important books of the century,” the wider intellectual world has uttered barely a peep about Hickey’s ideas on beauty. Consider, by contrast, the attention lavished on Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press, 1999), or, more recently, Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012).

Perhaps this neglect results from Hickey’s coming off to most brokers of big ideas—that is, academics—as not merely an iconoclast but a vulgarian. Scholars find it difficult to accept that he chose to make Las Vegas his home for most of his adult life. They are put off by the fact that he calms himself by gambling and chain-smoking. They are contemptuous of his spending a lot of his early years consumed by rock ‘n’ roll, hanging out with the likes of Hunter S. 3hompson, Nick Tosches, and Lester Bangs, and writing articles about (to use Hickey’s words) “subjects with the shelf life of milk.”

excerpt of Dave Hickey’s Politics of Beauty, by Laurie Fendrich, in “The Chronicle”, January 3rd 2013. continue reading here

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