LOS ANGELES — On Wednesday night, art critic and provocateur Dave Hickey addressed a rapt audience at a pop-up event held by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MoCA) in downtown’s Grand Central Market, part of his book tour for the recently released Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste. Hickey is well known for taking a quasi-outsider stance, critiquing and commenting on art and the art industry with a barbed and entertaining wit, and he delivered.
Hickey’s take on art is far more anecdotal and off-the-cuff than the unflavored gruel of academia and journalism-is-dead death knells we’ve come to endure (or avoid) at most panels on art criticism. At 74, New Mexico-based Hickey is still quite invigorating to listen to and to read. His decades of experience have armed him with the capacity to cut through the mountains of bullshit that is oft rampant in his line of work, but sometimes his grumpy-old-man thing, is unfortunately, just a generic out-of-touch old-white-man thing. (MOCA’s PR choices didn’t help.)
In his trademark all-black ensemble, Hickey began his talk with the notion that he no longer wrote about art because he was “a wuss.” Looking at art, he argues, should be a “soft” experience. You should approach it gently and carefully, and spend time with it.
Unfortunately for him, and for us, it’s no longer presented softly. It’s thrown at us hard and sharp by fairs and super collectors and paternalistic institutions that frame everything via trendy, watered-down, global issues. Art comes at us too hard now. He can’t handle it; he’s a wuss. This argument was slightly fuzzy, but diatribes against the noxious viewing experience of labyrinthine fairs or grab-bag mega shows are always welcome. Bring it, Hickey.
Waxing nostalgic, he recalled his wonderful world of NYC circa the 1970’s when he hung out with “drunks, junkies, blacks, gays, women” at Max’s Kansas City. They were real artists. That is, until they all started talking about identity politics and going off to “raise consciousness,” a phrase he spat out with fervent antipathy. The underground with which he once colluded split off to their own “groups,” leaving Hickey to drift “alone at the bar with John Chamberlain.” (Cry us a river.) He lamented that as a straight white guy, he had no group to which he belonged.
We’ll just let this phrase linger in the air for a minute.
The spite wasn’t solely directed at people on the margins who abandoned his fun carnivalesque underground to, y’know, get sober or fight the patriarchy and/or homophobia. He next lay into artist-professors. This, unfortunately was his main whipping post. Of all the dark corners of the art industry, he chose … professors?
Surprisingly, Hickey recycled the stale adage that teaching is something artists do if they can’t do anything else. It’s a vocation of failure, of aspiring to mundanity. (Want health insurance? How pedestrian of you.) “Can you imagine [insert name of blue-chip male artist] teaching a classroom?” asked Hickey. Could we really imagine these artists being forced to sit around and discuss changing a course number? Artists are narcissists and should stay so, he said.
He perked up at the thought of enrolling in a course taught by the pretty Hannah Wilke, though, so he could, well, stare at her.
Hickey talked a lot about people at the top (the folks with “silver bowls full of cocaine”) and the people at the bottom. Those are the only two positions on the spectrum that could cultivate creative work. He dismissed everything in the middle. The observation came across like the inverse of the president’s State of the Union speech, given earlier this week, which was critical of the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Perhaps the middle class provides very little material about which to romanticize.
Despite the lurches into teacher-hating and junkie-loving, he did have some strong points. Like his theory that 90–98% of art is awful. That critics so rarely write negative reviews. How it was extremely rare for him to see an artwork that made him excitedly wonder: What are they going to make after this? Or that a lot of teachers in art school just try to get you to mimic their own work. As he put it: “You go into art school and you learn how to build a 1973 car, because that’s what your teacher learned. And then that’s what you’ll go teach your students one day. And on and on and on.”
He also hates curators. But that’s another story.
We certainly didn’t expect anything less from Hickey. Of course there remains the irony that his public is still mostly artists, artist-professors, and industry peons, and that the event was hosted by MOCA. He may have retired from art criticism, but the art world is the only audience that wants to hear about it. You can check out any time you like, Hickey. But you can never leave.