What are critics good for? There’s certainly no lack of commentary today; if anything, the current online environment is a flowering of critical prose. On platforms like Twitter, the shorthand of “the discourse” (trickled down from Foucault, but never applied with so much seriousness as to seem uncool) is pervasive. We’re having a conversation out here, and it would behoove you to pay attention, subject aside—perhaps there is a much-hyped novel or a possibly offensive artwork you need to become aware of (or, just as often, something even more fleeting: an image, a meme). “Takes,” hot or cold, follow; if we’re analyzing television, where the real man-hours are spent consuming culture, “recaps” regurgitate screen time into the following day: Writers are hard at work extending, reiterating, dissenting, providing nuance and context.
There is value in this chorus of voices building up a shared opinion: A new idea is effortfully teased out; collective knowledge rolls on. Criticism helps keep us “current,” though with what, and why, we’re sometimes hard-pressed to understand. Perhaps, in a dark night of the soul, you’ve had the suspicion that all those articles exist primarily to create more and further articles, and that your function as a reader is to play whack-a-mole with the tabs on your browser until you’ve read everything you promised yourself you’d get to. Somebody—or some idea—has succeeded in keeping your eyeballs on the screen.
Dave Hickey, the longtime contrarian critic who passed away earlier this November at the age of 82, expressed some similar doubts in Air Guitar, the book that made him famous. “People despise critics because people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing,” Hickey proclaimed. “It produces no knowledge, states no facts, and never stands alone. It neither saves the things we love (as we would wish them saved) nor ruins the things we hate.” Of course, this was an affable protest in an essay offering reasons for producing the stuff anyway: the attempt to capture a fleeting occasion, to celebrate what can’t be captured, and, above all, to elicit pleasure for but a moment. Hickey was first and foremost a critic, though he never lost an opportunity to tell you what else he was: surfer, country-music songwriter, ex–art dealer—above all, a hedonist, one who scorned any easy deference to how a writer ought to behave. The possibility of writing from outside criticism, whether as the hero of his own story or simply as an enthusiastic fan, was always his pointed declaration of independence.
Feeling that questions of critical authority were dubious, or simply useless, Hickey usually returned to what he knew best—himself. His pieces are galvanized by personal mythology, whether it’s the company he kept (backstage with Waylon Jennings, chatting with Lester Bangs in CBGB) or his childhood memories of his jazz-musician father, who committed suicide when Hickey was 16. Hickey’s figure nearly always appears in the frame, brash, disarming—and never “disinterested.” This expressive, first-person essay style had its roots in New Journalism and gonzo (Hickey identified with the latter label), but in Hickey’s hands it was used less for storytelling than to create a mood on which his strong opinions could float. Art was something cool that cool people participated in—without the “scene,” in all senses of the word, analysis was stale. He was capable of close reading, and often did it well, but it was just as often an opportunity for a flash of language: Terry Castle’s “innards are writhing like Laocoön,” Robert Mitchum is “like a switchblade on a plate of cupcakes.” Today, we don’t encounter a critic “cruising down Las Vegas Boulevard in [his] old Caddie at five in the morning with the windows down and a big roll of bills in [his] shirt pocket.” Performative? Yes, clearly. But everything, even form itself, followed from Hickey’s pleasure principle.
Hickey is sometimes called “influential,” but for whom is unclear. The art world that he apparently terrorized some decades ago steadily learned to ignore him. The “lyric essay” that he helped popularize in the 90s (amplified by the nonfiction of David Foster Wallace) is an appealing concept that is rarely reproduced today to any good effect. In Far From Respectable, a short book hovering between biography and critical appraisal, writer Daniel Oppenheimer attempts to capture something of Hickey’s charm, and perhaps secure his reputation.
The book reveals little that Hickey hasn’t already written about himself—it leans heavily on paraphrases of Hickey’s colorful essays, where his own persona is a mainstay—but offers a coherent trajectory of a writer, from the childhood tragedy, to his lost years of drug use among the Nashville’s outlaw singers, to later-life prominence and tenure in Las Vegas (the town that best suited Hickey’s free-spirited nature). Above all, it has the salutary effect of reminding us of Hickey as an artist; instead of a gadfly, Hickey might be seen as a critical object himself, with a body of work worth experiencing. Oppenheimer also helpfully sketches what might have been, implying that while Hickey made his name in the end, he never quite lived up to his full potential. That potential, in Hickey’s own telling, was to be a critic who could liberate the art world from the boredom it couldn’t admit to itself—by embracing the spectacle and its excesses. In his later years—if his semi-retirement from the art world in 2012 was any indication—Hickey may have been disconcerted to find that, by and large, we have permitted ourselves these liberties but remain just as bored.
Oppenheimer begins by invoking Hickey’s unfinished magnum opus, Pagan America, a book advertised as forthcoming for years until Hickey gave up hope of ever finishing it. In that book, Hickey would have attempted to unify his thoughts on art and democracy into something whole and cogent, an idea of American art Oppenheimer describes as “a polytheistic, commercial, cosmopolitan paganism of the bazaar and the agora.” The Vegas Strip was Hickey’s ideal pagan temple: glitzy, blatantly commercial, occasionally crass, but constantly generating the new and the weird. An acolyte of high-low fusion, Hickey worked (sometimes fitfully) to reconcile the public populist with the private aesthete, the Hickey who lingered over Ed Ruscha’s conceptualisms or read Browning in his armchair.
Hickey’s work is full of razzle-dazzle, but systematic thought was not his strength—as much as he enjoyed championing his commercial paradise, it remained an ideal, airbrushed of its banalities. He frequently praised the early Sontag of “Against Interpretation,” declaring allegiance to that essay’s call for an “erotics of art.” If criticism was going to justify itself, Hickey argued, then it might do so by being as entertaining as catching a wave or playing a rollicking guitar solo. This is a high bar for, say, a review of an exhibition—sometimes Hickey instead generated energy by creating controversy: thumbing his nose at highbrow orthodoxies, dismissing what he viewed as “political correctness,” even engaging with online comment sections in his latter years. His favorite pastime was to criticize the critics, itself an inexhaustible subject.
In his 1993 book The Invisible Dragon, Hickey launched a salvo against what he called the “therapeutic institution” of the art world: the critics, curators, and organizations that had built the white-cube system as we know it. The catalyst for the book’s essays was a kerfuffle (what was then known, and seems slightly quaint now, as the beginning of the “culture wars”) in which the explicit content of a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition attracted the ire of Washington, D.C., moralists. However, Hickey didn’t take particular issue with the Republican politicians who sought to censor Mapplethorpe—this is what they were expected to do. Instead, he believed that the art administrators defending Mapplethorpe neutralized his dangerous and transgressive qualities, making him not a poet of gay sex but instead an icon of “free speech.” This category error was the true desecration. To Hickey’s mind, these careerists and middlemen and museum functionaries had injured the art world because they had made it dull: The safety of an institutional consensus could serve only the institution builders, not the artists themselves.
At times, Hickey could be withering about the academic cloisters, although he came to occupy such a residence himself. Speaking of his time working as a gallerist, and reacting to the perceived attack of being considered “commercial,” Hickey wrote that, in reality, making money “was what my professors at the University did. They ‘made money’ working in a vicious bureaucracy, so they could spend it in their ‘spare time’ doing exactly what they liked—which, as far as I could tell, was writing crummy novels about working in a vicious bureaucracy, and summering in Italy.”
The Invisible Dragon was couched as an argument in favor of beauty, particularly raw visual beauty, which Hickey struggled to define, but he knew it when he saw it. Beauty was what made things immediately, somatically desirable—encounters that quickened the pulse—and what people desired, they sought to acquire. This inevitably ushered in the question of the market: “The arguments such artists mount against beauty come down to one simple gripe: Beauty sells.” If the people wanted easy-listening music, or to watch Perry Mason reruns or Liberace, who was the academic critic, beset by problems of anti-capitalist art or “institutional critique,” to disagree? Hickey wished for his idea of aesthetics to be simple, in that every individual casts their vote for beauty, and every vote counts:
The unfashionable implication of this characterization is that rhetorical beauty, as we are considering it, is largely a quantitative concept. It proposes to enfranchise numbers of individuals with varying quantities of incentive or excitement. Since this rhetoric can on occasion perform one of its functions more efficiently than the other, we may poll for the “most beautiful image,” the one that enfranchises the most people—probably the Mona Lisa, regardless of what I think.
In this public-opinion canvassing lay the dream of a unified theory: Beauty was the market; the market was democracy. By delivering glitz and spectacle, the system gave the people what it wanted; like the old adage about democracy, it was an imperfect system, but better than all the others that existed. Hickey was one of the first great “poptimists” in passionately wishing for a seamless integration between culture’s highs and lows, championing mass culture while demonstrating a personal predilection for “difficult art.” While his vision was an obvious oversimplification, it had the virtue of avoiding the knots that critics (especially Marxist ones) can occasionally tie themselves into when explaining why one work is good and another isn’t in regards to the politics it espouses or signals or represents—the effort to choose this connective word, Hickey might argue, is where the plot gets lost. A Caravaggio painting might have been politically explosive in its time, he wrote, but only the residue of the image, “ravishing and poignant,” remains for us in the present. Hickey always suspected that behind the curtain of ideologically motivated aesthetics, there was simply a judgment of what was virtuous and what wasn’t. And virtue in art was something he stood resolutely against.
Air Guitar, a collection of essays that had mostly appeared in the magazine Art issues, arrived in 1997, at the “end of history” and before the War on Terror—a time of “uncharacteristic optimism,” to use Oppenheimer’s words. The belief that commercial forces could ensure happiness by distributing the largest quantity of pleasure to the largest number of people perhaps may have seemed like sound logic in the moment; today it seems obviously reactionary, or simply incorrect. But Hickey’s passion for popular art was not an exhibition of the academic’s power of detached analysis at work—the mindset of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies that puts culture under the microscope to discover its underlying structure. His love of Andy Warhol coexisted easily with his love of Norman Rockwell. It was the love of the record collector, the enthusiast who wants to show you his latest finds. As Hickey writes, “We are always falling in love. That’s why we’re critics.”
Some moments in Hickey’s work have aged poorly—to take just one example, a disconcerting use of the word “homey” (as in, “my homey Ornette Coleman”), even in an ironic, uncool-dad tone, rankles. In recent years, Hickey faced charges of sexism; a book of critical essays about women artists, titled 25 Women: Essays on Their Art, intended to rebut the criticism, but instead had the effect of reinforcing the perception. (That can happen when you call Lynda Benglis “a haughty Southern bitch,” even if you mean it as praise.) Hickey attacked “representation” in art, but praised what he called “cosmopolitanism,” which in practice often amounted to the same thing—the sticking point seemed to lie mostly in the perception of being told what to do. He was fond of loose and combustible dichotomies: Edens versus utopias (permissive dreams rather than prescriptive rules), pirates versus farmers (destroyers of institutions rather than their builders). Right or wrong, he seemed to enjoy posing problems. He wanted to be excited, and for readers to feel as excited about what they saw as he was.
In the 2020s, Hickey’s world of yesterday can at times seem antiquarian, riding the wave from postwar jazz to Leo Castelli and punk rock; he rarely passed up the opportunity to lament the loss of a richer, cooler insider’s culture that he likened, tellingly, to “Mom and Pop” small-business ownership. But in many ways, we live in Hickey’s world—in our contemporary, the poptimists have clearly been the victors. When the Philadelphia Flyers mascot and left-Twitter icon Gritty appeared on the cover of Artforum in 2018, it was clear that the gatekeepers had long ago given up the game of trying to steer or remain aloof from the conversation. And rare is the critic who lives completely by the anti-capitalist position they stake out, the question of “ethical consumption under capitalism” notwithstanding; Hickey’s work impels us to consider again how powerful the culture of commerce really is in determining our tastes and interests.
In his final years, Hickey showed diminished enthusiasm for the ever-more-commercialized art world of sprawling fairs and corporate sponsorships that intensified after the peak of his career. His vision of a better, sexier art world to come failed him. But the writing remains: Passion that could be felt on the page would always be worth more in the end than any perfect “unpacking” of an object—if the work is really good, he insisted, it will stand for itself. As Hickey wrote of another infrequently read but powerful critic, “we don’t read Ruskin for his thoughts; we read him for his vision and conviction—for his writing and because he makes us think. We read him because even though Ruskin is occasionally a fool, he is never stupid, never cold, and never boring.” Are we not entertained?