Perfect Wave: More Essays on Art and Democracy

Dave Hickey
University of Chicago Press ($25)

by Sean Nam

In the penultimate chapter to Dave Hickey’s new collection of essays, Perfect Wave, the typically unflappable art critic describes a moment of sobering vulnerability. Hickey is at a black-tie dinner during one of the more prominent art fairs in the world, engaging the cognoscenti with the kind of gruff offhandedness more appropriate at a dive bar: He ditches a renowned album cover designer in mid-conversation, tries out a lame joke on a well-heeled artist (“another treasure of the empire”), and then embarrasses a friend—the “eighth most powerful person in the art world”—by dredging up an old story in front of his colleagues. Satisfied, Hickey decides to call it a night. But as soon as he steps outside to leave, it occurs to him that he was perhaps not as nettlesome a presence as he thought and that he has “come down with an art world virus. All it took was one big sniff of ambient self-congratulation to induce an ego erection that deluded me into imagining that my behavior mattered in the least. It didn’t. The Cartier debacle wasn’t a debacle. I am an idiot.”

Not that Hickey—thorny, glib, irreverent—would ever deign to care what the high rollers and taskmasters of the art world think of him, but for a critic as self-deprecating as himself and who first made his name in part by the outrage he caused in lofty circles, it comes as no surprise that the art world’s indifference, rather than its opprobrium, would count for Hickey as a gut punch. Provocateurs, after all, make their bones on provoking, on being heard.

With the publications of The Invisible Dragon in 1993 and Air Guitar in 1997, Hickey positioned himself as the art world’s Public Enemy No.1, or so the narrative went. Unlike many of his jaded peers who emerged out of the culture wars of the ’80s and early ’90s, Hickey was the rare observer who talked about beauty without blushing, treating it as a philosophically rich and socially useful concept during a time when it was largely derided by tenured academics as a synonym for the nefarious art marketplace. Piggybacking on Kant’s formulation that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Hickey maintained that the experience of art is totally subjective. From this precept arose Hickey’s well-known invective against the art world and its deep-pocketed functionaries, who in the process of trying to outbid each other on the latest trend, end up determining what matters for the public.

Frequently swift, unsparing, and (of course) stylish, Hickey’s smart and rollicking prose was its own kind of vernacular, as influenced by his ’70s rock magazines peers, Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson, as by the subjects of his doctoral dissertation, Derrida and Foucault. It complemented his propensity for weaving grand stories, however apocryphal, from his own experience and inserting them into the criticism. No institution, Hickey believed, has the right to tell you how to feel. As he put it concisely in an epigram attributed to Keith Richards in Air Guitar, “Let me clear about this: I don’t have a drug problem, I have a police problem.”

While Perfect Wave largely maintains the pugnacity of his earlier efforts, it is also a work that departs from the zeal and optimism of Hickey’s heyday. He writes that “There was a time, you see, when things would remain all right well into the day, when I could make some fresh coffee, walk out on to the balcony, and watch the dawn reflected on the western mountains. No more.” The spirit of stalwart opposition to the art world remains, but, if nothing else, Hickey’s faith in his ability to change anything about it has clearly diminished. And for good reason. The art institutions and administrations he once railed hard against still exist unscathed, charging ever forward with gluttonous impunity toward the green dollar sign. No writer can claim in good faith to be able to change the dynamics of an insular billion-dollar industry like the art world, but with Hickey there was always an impression that he could at least cause a snag in its machinery.

The difference in Perfect Wave is that Hickey does not hide his disenchantment. Still, it is the author’s most focused work in some time. His last several publications have been wanting: two anthologies consisting of his writings on social media and a critical survey of twenty-five contemporary female artists were published last year to mixed results. Perfect Wave is a return to familiar ground, following in the vein of Air Guitar and Pirates and Farmers. Essays on long-cherished subjects like Waylon Jennings, William Claxton, Las Vegas, Robert Mitchum, and Norman Rockwell are dotted with references to cocaine, chintz, rock ‘n’ roll, and Nathalie Sarraute, and buttressed by the usual colorful backstories culled from Hickey’s picaresque past.

In this way, Perfect Wave is Hickey in vintage form. In the chapter “Wonderful Shoes,” Hickey, the committed hedonist, reminds us that he is as pleasure-seeking and materialistic as any young blood on a Friday night on the Las Vegas Strip. “Utopias are all idea,” he writes, as he prepares a shrewd analogy. “Edens are all details. They exist in the fashions, the china, the art, the landscape, and the climate . . . They may require doilies . . . Utopias are inflated, theorized community preferences. Edens are about our desires.”

In one of his most articulate essays, Hickey offers an account of Susan Sontag that straddles a number of contradictory impulses; both congratulatory and glib, respectful and severe, it is quintessential Hickey. What he manages to say about Sontag tells us as much about her as it does himself. “We were kids, and straight, and we ‘got it,’” Hickey writes. “This meant Sontag would never be our Great Mentor. She would never be Gertrude Stein or Joseph Beuys or Marcel Duchamp. She was our uptight big sister, maybe fifteen minutes ahead of her time, disgusted by our feckless penchant for moral free fall, contemptuous of our new tattoos.” Often, Hickey’s glibness and sarcastic tone can get the better of him, but here it plays to his strengths in assessing a giant of the intellectual world.

Always attuned to art’s shifting place in society, Hickey, in an essay called “A World Like Santa Barbara,” decries the political attitudes that continue to delimit the freedom of art: “the right wing by seeking to censor any art that might generate healthy anxiety; the left by explaining away art’s ability to challenge us individually, by presenting art to us in perfectly controlled explained, and contextualized packages.”

In “After the Prom,” a terrific interpretation of the Norman Rockwell painting, Hickey shows his erudition as both a first-rate formalist and astute historian. On the surface, the painting looks decidedly simple, another realist narrative painting by America’s foremost populist artist; it depicts a boy and his prom date sitting at a diner counter interacting with a soda jerk. As Hickey exhaustively breaks down the geometrical significance of each painted gesture, it becomes clear that the painting is a bit more complicated, and that Rockwell has left nothing to chance: the combination of arms, elbows, knees, and the sway of the figures’ garments, Hickey contends, creates a picture that “although harmonious and delicately balanced within itself, does not feel self-enclosed or claustrophobic.” Where others merely see a portrait of a romanticized bygone era, Hickey perceives an implicit tie to the great social paintings of the 18th century. In particular, he notes how the soda jerk’s centrality in the canvas makes him the vicarious focal point, or “surrogate viewer,” a technique that he traces back to the likes of Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Honore Fragonard. The reading here has the force of logic. It has often been said that Hickey’s tastes are too eccentric for others to adopt as their own; at the same time, there is no one better at describing them. Where others only offer staid and insipid accounts, Hickey remains one of the few writers committed to rendering the experience of encountering art in terms that are both thrilling and illuminating.

Not all of the essays are as successful. Some are anachronistic or a tad hokey, like “It’s Morning in Nevada: On the Campaign Trail in Post-Bush America,” a work of participatory journalism. A more relevant article would have been something on today’s urgent political climate—MAGA hats or Mar-a-Lago, for example. Other essays are simply uninteresting and seem only have been included to uphold a particular image: “My Silk World,” a travelogue of the Southwest states, plays to Hickey’s honky-tonk sensibility, and “The Last Mouseketeer,” an essay on Disneyland, similarly affirms Hickey’s standing as one of the few intellectuals who has anything nice to say about theme parks.

But the shadow cast by Air Guitar is long, and what ultimately distinguishes Perfect Wave is the fact that it does not come close to the swelling, near-reckless confidence of its predecessor. Not long ago, a younger Hickey defiantly declaimed in his 1993 essay “Enter the Dragon” that “The vernacular of beauty, in its democratic appeal, remains a potent instrument for change.” Today, the older Hickey is less sanguine about such possibilities. “Art may change the world, incite the revolution,” Hickey states matter-of-factly in the last chapter to Perfect Wave, “but it will almost certainly leave its administrative institutions intact.” The proper job of the artist and critic may be in the “overthrowing and reforming” of cultural institutions, but as Hickey continues to explain, today’s institutions “have rendered themselves virtually invulnerable to overthrow or reform.” It is no wonder that Hickey concedes to feeling a bit powerless these days:

For twenty-five years, I was a journeyman artisan in a marginal industry whose size was commensurate with its public importance. Today, I am a plug-in subcontractor in a bloated corporate culture that has embraced all the wickedness of mass culture and mass education in its quest of dollars at the door. More distressing still, I find myself inadvertently complicit in his lemming-like rush to the mainstream.

Still, for all the doubts and misgivings that Hickey has for the future, as the kleptocrats continue to pull the strings from behind the curtain and generic art school types proliferate, he offers this consolation: the art itself isn’t going anywhere, and its endless pleasures are there for the picking. As Hickey puts it, “I want crazy, if only in a book, dissonance if only in a piece of music, exquisite insanity if only in a painting.”

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