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This past Tuesday Dave Hickey came to speak as part of the gala art criticism symposium that the School of the Art Institute is hosting. “What a fascinating topic!” Is the response most illicited by the symposium’s subject. But that is about it. And really, what a morbid, mind-numbing thing to be doing? Talking about talking about art. This kind of circular discussion leads nowhere. It sure is interesting along the way, though. Which must be the motovation for doing it.
Going into it, I hope everyone realizes that people will continue to write about art, no matter what is said. People will continue to write reviews about work they like or don’t like, or as favors, or because the gallery whose show it is has taken out an ad in the magazine. People will still passionately write essays that go unread by all but a few devotees, students and snobs. So why have a big discussion?
To analyze what motivates people to write about art, what controls what people write about art, and how and if it should change or stay the same.
Discussions are valuable for expression and exchange of ideas. This is useful because those involved aww fuck it. Here are the notes on the Dave Hickey lecture:
Art after Criticism
More than an hour and a half before Hickey was scheduled to begin, a line of students from SAIC, UIC other art fans stretched along Michigan Avenue from Adams to Jackson. This all made the prospect of seeing the idolized cult hero speak rather lame and retarded. Talking to people in line, it became clear, however, that many were there to see just what the fuss surrounding Hickey is exactly all about. So that was more heartening. As the crowd filed in, Hickey sat on the front steps smoking in has all black suit.
His press photo makes him look more like the artworld Tom Clancy, which he sort of is...
Then George’s boss on Seinfeld, which is what he looks like in person...
NOTE Italics indicates quotes, or direct ideas Hickey stated. It is hard to follow the flow of a lecture or speech. So don’t expect it to be completely coherent.
Dave Hickey started off by saying that what he was about to say in his lecture was not bitter, but valedictory. It was ”simple elitist contempt.” But the beauty of it is that anyone can be elitist about anything. He moved on by reading a passage of Hal Foster’s writing on Rachel Whiteread. Foster was describing Whiteread’s plaster cast House (1993), and saying it was about memory and childhood. “My problem with this particular text,” said Hickey, “is that it is a lie. It’s bullshit.” This appears harsher written out, as it is not delivered with his friendly, but exasperated Texan accent.
He acknowledged that he and Foster are at odds with one another... to say the least.
Rachel Whiteread • House • 1993
He brings up Foster as an example of “art after criticism.” Literally, the criticism comes first. It, “preempts the object with social constraints.” This is “a kind of criticism which tells you, you can’t believe your eyes.” It says that your understanding of art isn’t good enough.
How do you know criticism is over? I am paid money to write essays no one reads
People don’t give a damn about criticism, they want a theoretical superstructure.
People don’t agree about what the object means, but they agree that it is worth being talked about. Hickey cited Johns’ Flag and that they never really decided what it meant, they just got tired of talking about it.
"Who do I write for? Volunteers. People who are in the artworld because of art."
Knowing things isn’t helpful. Knowing the mathematical equations Piero della Francesca used is not helpful in art today. The only thing that’s helpful is that you are able to translate incompetence into art.
The way you can tell art photography from commercial photography is that art photography is incompetent. The way you can tell video art from TV is that video art is incompetent.
Today you think, 'if I don’t understand it, it must be art.' The idea of confronting the object, or what it means is just too hard. There are so many people in the art world that know abso-fucking-lutely nothing. Such Hickey-isms were peppered throughout the talk.
Piero della Francesca • Flagellation • c. 1470 • Mixed technique on panel • 58.4 x 81.5 cm. • Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy
“I was so happy the author was dead. I was so happy I didn’t have to sit in front of a Rothko and wait to feel something.” His early art education consisted of Hickey being sat down in front of a Rothko and being asked, 'don't you feel it? Isn't it just wonderful!' And then, "they’d come back in a few hours and ask again, 'did you feel it yet?' And then you would just lie to get out of there.”
He read French criticism at school in Texas and the professor said, 'The bad thing about French criticism is that it has no heart, but the good thing is that it has no soul.' The French had gone through Heidegger. They had gotten rid of all the stuff, the baggage. They got rid of the auteur and the author.
“But then the 70s came and we had new translations and we got back all the things the French got rid of.” “We had irony. But it was social irony, so it’s basically saying that something means the exact opposite of what it actually means.”
One of the bad things and good things about art is that it changes its function.
Identity politics- goes back to Henry Adams and is essentially a “right wing anti assimiliationist redirect.” Hickey’s position is that identity politics is the white elite reconfiguring America into tribal communities in order to keep from allowing nonwhites into “civilized” society.
This somehow tied into NEA panels with himself, John Baldessari and Elizabeth Murray. This part of his argument made very little sense.
He talked about how people in the art world, the volunteers, used to “vote.” A dealer would show art that he liked, his taste. You could see an artist and say that looks like a XX artist. And so a dealer 'voted' by who he chose to show. The writer would write about what he liked or disliked and would 'vote' in that way. Collectors voted buying what they liked. So everyone was invested in what they were 'saying' or 'voting' for. And you could a certain this by seeing the gallery ad for who was being shown, or the review of what exhibition.
Now it is all different. A dealers stable of artists is diversified, and it doesn’t show taste. This is because of identity politics. And there is no opinion in writing. Or if there is, it is counterbalanced by having a pro/con pair of reviews to negate eachother. Just to be fair.
Curators start out by showing how they like, but then the year ends and they are in a situation. If a dealer shows 10-12 artists they like in a year and it is all a disaster, they can just close the gallery. Or if they are successful, they can show the artists again.
Curators can’t do that. They can’t show people they like again, they have to show something new. They have to show to the public taste. They have to be fair and diverse and pretty soon no one gives a damn about anything.
Magazines don’t say, 'Gee, there is noting good out there right now, lets just not publish in August.'
And The Art Institute professors don’t take a look at the in-coming graduate students and say, 'pee eww! Let’s not let them in.' They have to and so we now have a system of perpetuating venues that devolves into mediocrity. No one hires some one more qualified then they are.
He moved on to saying that he was happy to see the NEA come and happy to see it go. Because Nixon, he generalized, ruined everything by tripling art funding. This was bad because it cut out the dealers and the artists and promoted the institutions. This was the advent of “non commercial art” that can only exist in a museum.
This had never happened before. There has always been art that didn’t sell, but 'non commercial art' is art that doesn’t sell and is proud of it.
He recalled the story of having dinner with a museum director on the West Coast and asking about all the installation art and saying, couldn’t you have a couple of paintings once in a while.' The director replied 'NO, if I do that, my donors will want to buy the art and then I won’t get any money.' So, apparently there was a point in time when being in a non profit was a good thing. Now it is not so much. And if you plan on starting a non profit, it is suicide.
At any rate, this attitude, according to Hickey, is what collapsed the painting market and caused people to say it was dead. “It wasn’t dead, but it had been killed.” He makes an interesting point, but it is unlikely that things are so market driven, or controlled. Most of his arguments are sound. But with the identity politics argument, and this painting market theory, he tends to over generalize in order to make his case. What is most fascinating about Hickey is how he can be so convinced of economics running things and art being about that bottom line and nothing else. But then also be for opinion, and personal experience, and cutting through the bullshit of academic elitism. The two seem mutually exclusive, but are not.
Hickey was troubled because all these people were getting money from the government, and no one was worried. The government likes art today, but tomorrow it might not. And of course Robert Mapplethorpe came along and ruined everything. This of course, is another Hickey over simplification. But the point to make is this: It was bound to happen. All the institutions and all being funded by the NEA were essentially working for the government and they all got fired. Its like working for Ford and getting laid off, except you can’t go to the government for welfare because they just fired you.
Now it is a collector driven market. This goes back to his point about how no one votes anymore. Not the dealers, or the critics or the magazines. Only the collector votes because they are buying and their money is talking. This results in a system that is very front heavy. And the only sign of quality or validity is if the work sells.
So the critic is now useless and is, as he sees it, a two-generation job. America is full of careers that only lasted two generations. This is a bit fatalistic. And I’m sure he is happy to be the last of a dying breed. "Sorry kids, no more, I’m the last one. HA!"
So this is another way we have “art after criticism.” Criticism is useless and over with, yet art keeps going. But this contrary to what he said before about painting. Maybe the front heavy profit driven artworld has killed criticism, but that doesn’t make it dead. People will continue to have opinions and will continue to write about art. That is one of the main qualities of art blogs, and art zines. Alternative means such as this are a way to get the word out without word counts. You don’t have to worry about a gallery pulling an ad if they don’t like what you write. It is not perfect, but it is a venue, that for the moment, is free to do things that aren’t as easily accomplished elsewhere.
For more organized presentations of these ideas, see his essay "The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market" and "Air Guitar" in his book Air Guitar Essays on Art and Democracy. Also see his short blurb in the current issue of frieze in the section on "what has happened to art?". Finally, Hickey will release Connoisseur of Waves More Essays on Art and Democracy in 2006. (Just when you thought it was safe to go back to school)