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.
Janet, I really appreciate what you had to say about Hickey. Years ago, I read (and enjoyed) ‘Air Guitar’. I thought it was insightful and interesting (at times). I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a while ago Dave curated the Biennial at Site Santa Fe. What a colossal joke that was, and I think that I got to see what was behind Dave Hickey: the perpetuation of Dave Hickey. It is easy to take potshots from the sidelines and spew out snark. It is much more difficult to have a reasoned, nuanced piece of art that you present before an often indifferent world. Maybe Dave should be reminded of this. Now, when I look back on ‘Air Guitar’ it is with more than a little disgust. Unfortunately, he seems to be little more than a charlatan.
Janet, I don’t think that the commercial circus that the art world has become can be laid solely at Hickey’s feet. Art historically, I would begin with misconstrued understanding of what Duchamp meant by “found objects”. Alan Kaprow’s “happenings”. Andy Warhol’s factory and his ideas on commerce and production, leading to a no talent like Damien Hirst being supported by Saatchi. Gargosian Gallery’s exhibition of Bob Dylan’s “The Asia Series” knowing full well that some of the paintings were copied from post cards. Plagiarism is now easily accepted as appropriation. I think Dave had more than enough help promoting the current circus that everything is art and everyone is an artist.
I’m not sure how Dave’s “too large, too unfriendly and lacks discretion” equals a condemnation of market forces. I’d wager Dave is not dismayed by the emergence of another crazy art bubble, but rather the predominance of the new monied philistines and their professional lackeys who are driving so much of the agenda. Dave may be a snob (most connoisseurs are), but I don’t think he has a problem with capitalism. I think his problem is that, for whatever reason, it’s no fun for him anymore.
Nice to receive the above comments. I agree that our current situation is not entirely Dave’s fault, but I do think he was in a position to do better than throw fuel on the fire.
That said, he had and has every right to express his views. I just think that, at this point, he might engage in a bit of hindsight.
Monied philistines have played a key role in the art market for decades, for at least two reasons. For those who care about social climbing, it has been a means of buying one’s way up and in. For those who don’t necessarily care, it’s a great way of demonstrating that one has money to burn.
Anyway, I don’t entirely agree about Dave and capitalism. Once upon a time, he took care to distinguish between commerce (which he endorses) and capitalism (which he has criticized).
As anyone else noticed the resemblance between the main picture of Dave in this blog and Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington?
I’m tired of this old man.
From my understanding Dave left his post at UNLV not because of the current state of contemporary art, but because of the current state of MFA programs… His professor as 1980s Datson analogy comes to mind. Seems like this article is more about hurt Christian feelings or something than any real criticism of Dave’s ideology. I’m a 33 year old (old as jesus) grad student and find Dave’s voice just as right on as ever….curatorial letdowns aside, his writing still sings.
Don’t know about Dave’s status with UNLV. Don’t dispute the lyricism of his writing. The hurt Christian feelings only impinged upon my opinion of Dave in response to the Observor article: if you look back at comments I’ve posted on Twitter and Facebook, as well as a letter of mine published years ago (it was in print!), you’ll know that I’ve recognized Dave’s double standard for many, many years. Even as I continue to be personally fond of him, I resent Dave’s presumptuousness.
Yes—dead ringer for G. Washington. And, does anyone else think Dave’s just finished reading “The Swerve”? Hey, Chris, be kind to your elders.
Folks – please let us face the obvious – art is nothing more than the expressive silliness of human nature (art-ificial, art-ifact, art-ifice), and thinking it is more than this is quite frankly, silly. Can we not just be silly together and enjoy the time we have on this earth…? Perhaps Hickey is our next Marcel Duchamp – the history of art will determine this long after we are ALL gone. But then again – who cares..!!! Have Fun with your expressive silliness self and keep things in perspective..!!!
Janet: Thank you for the ink. It’s a good thing I’m not a movie actor or the disapprobation of idiots would make me cry great big tears. I have always known I was a bad guy. Now I have no home, no job, and I only go to the bank to deposit my social security check. I’m just one person, in a room with a lap top. How could I have done so much damage? Anyway, I need to get out of fashion before I can get back into fashion, so thank for the help of you and your congregation. Huggies, Dave
So we flushed you out, did we? It’s been a long time since you were the staked goat. Now days you’re the tiger in the brush, who ventures forth occasionally to stir up the village. So enough undue modesty. And, should you ever find yourself in rusty, gritty Michigan, give me a holler.
Hickey’s last quote in the Guardian article is reminiscent of the old joke about the thief who is asked why he robs banks.
Look forward to your next move, Dave.
Artists, critics and writers, collectors and dealers, institutional directors, connoisseurs (experts in matters of taste, lol) experience the same thing with no singular perspective, arguably true for every human being. Art and the art world are not the same thing and sometimes seem diametrically opposed. I’m just one person, in a room with a laptop but I have paint on my hands right now because I’m working on my silliness out in the studio “tonight and every night.” Waiting for the process to come to my emotional rescue.
Disgust with the circus that is the art world is quite simply the disgust for the love of money. The root of all kinds of evil, or so I’ve read. Repulsion with everything leaving you out or behind. Good riddance. I’m fed up with it too Mr. Hickey, as well as with politics, Hollywood, gas prices, my son’s horrible teacher, junk mail, corporations, apathy, and yes, even sometimes,…my dog. But I’ve dedicated my life to art, wondered why almost every day, and regretted it not once.
Money is not the root of all evil: LOVE of money is the root of all evil. It falls into the category of what your priorities are. Loving money above all else is, indeed, also the root of misery (as in miserliness).
Leaving as a comment, this link to a thought-provoking article from The Art Newspaper:
While I’ve really enjoyed Dave’s recent rants hither and yon, the irony was not lost on me that while he expressed his dismay about art as pure commodity, he spent the greater part of a couple of articles picking apart the carcass of art-as-business, all up gnawing in the nitty-gritty bunghole of it. He clearly relishes the business of art, as was evident in not-so-long-ago nearly fawning pieces about art fairs and other art subjects for Vanity Fair, that I found nearly unreadably crass.
That is the shadow that follows him around. He’s right though – he really influenced very little. He just gave voice to a number of ideas floating around, one of them being that the market should rightfully triumph. Which was a cheap argument, too easy and sadly, seemingly prophetic.
Dave is brilliant man, an entertaining man, an endearing man, a character, but I don’t think even he’d claim to be a wise man! No one is more fun to listen or to read, but he’s like a blowhard uncle a little too in love with the sound of his own voice that you rely on to make family gatherings entertaining, but whose advice you’ve learned to take with a serious grain of salt.
However, the art world is basically a totally decadent and corrupt beast, and any eloquent voices helping delineate the contours of its malignancies are ok in my book.
Recently was told that Dave has received some toxic messages from self-identified Christians. I hope I made it clear in my comments that I have no time or place for followers of any religion — particularly my own — or non-religion who mete out hate.