Dave Hickey recently announced his retirement from art criticism, citing his disgust with the circus that the art world—particularly the world of contemporary art—has become. He also, in an article published online by The Guardian/The Observer, noted he’s working on a book that will be a “snarky diatribe on Christianity.”
I met Dave in Austin about 30 years ago, over beers at the Scholz Garten. He was nice to me then and, although it has been years since last we conversed, he always has been cordial and kind. And almost never has let me get much of a word in edgewise. But, then, I think that’s Dave’s way with many of the lesser lights (and compared to Dave, most of us are lesser lights, myself obviously included) with whom he engages.
As a result, I’ve assembled a small collection of things left unsaid to Dave, some of which I’d like to say here—perhaps to my eternal regret. They concern quotes from that recent online feature about his departure from the arena of contemporary art criticism.
The first thing is that Dave needs to take responsibility for his contributions to what the contemporary market has become. Between his emphases on acquisitive desire stimulated by visual beauty and commercial success as the key measure of works’ merit, Dave helped legitimize the art market as the focal point of art-world activity. He condemned non-profit exhibition spaces and was one of the most vocal enthusiasts of art fairs such as Art Basel Miami Beach.
If money, not intelligent ideas, now underpin recognition of works’ intrinsic value, might not Dave concede some culpability for that and attempt to analyze what went wrong? It would make for a more interesting read than the finger-pointing and blame-laying he has been indulging in. Is he so naïve that he couldn’t have seen the inevitable, if unintended, consequence of capitalist market dynamics?
A telling quote from the above article: “As a former dealer, Hickey is not above considering art in terms of relative valuation. But his objections stem from his belief that the art world has become too large, too unfriendly and lacks discretion. ‘Is that elitist? Yes. Winners win, losers lose. Shoot the wounded, save yourself. Those are the rules,’ Hickey said.”
Um. If his above words don’t encapsulate the attitude of unbridled, full-throated capitalism, I don’t know what does. Here’s another online critique to that point.
My second point of unhappiness—and perhaps premature disappointment—is with Dave’s planned “snarky diatribe.” Contemporary Western intellectual culture abounds with critiques, rants and snide dismissals of Christianity and has been the province of agnostic and atheistic thought for decades. If such opinions once were marginalized as leftist or effete, especially in America, they have come out in the open in more recent years: secular critiques (some thoughtful, others not so) of religion, particularly the sort of religious fundamentalism that espouses hateful behavior, are part of our mainstream now. In other words, it has become a commonplace to diss religion that a) lacks much intelligence and b) doesn’t practice the agape (a word that means loving generosity, and one that Dave has used over the years).
As such, Dave doesn’t seem to show much imagination in taking up this theme. It may be he’ll devise a clever new approach to it—he says his book will be about American paganism, which sounds intriguing—but I hope it won’t just be a matter of Dave getting in his licks.
In closing: I’m a Christian—who is thoroughly capable of ranting about and dissing the kind of naive, often toxic, Christianity so prevalent in American society. But I don’t accept wholesale dismissal of the faith. Or of any other faith.
Religious faith, like any focus of human energy, can be twisted into ideology. All human preoccupations are subject to corruption—religion, science, commerce, journalism, government. Art. It’s not the particular activity we need to condemn, it’s the corruption. It’s up to all of us to take care we don’t contribute to it. And, if we do, the ethical thing is to correct ourselves before criticizing others.