Sometimes, an argument needs way more than 140 characters. And in this case, that argument has to do with critic Dave Hickey’s talk in downtown Los Angeles last night. Hickey, the author of essay collections such as Air Guitar, was in town to promote his latest book, Pirates and Farmers, under the auspices of the Museum of Contemporary Art. I was in the audience and Tweeted Hickey’s rant-talk about the state of the art world. Already, there’s been some media kerfuffle about these Tweets, and they’ve been well covered in Modern Art Notes, followed by the L.A. Times. But I want to take the time to make a more nuanced point, one that goes beyond a few isolated Tweets.
Let’s be clear: I was at the talk because I do have some healthy respect for Hickey as a writer. He stays away from the word salad gobbledygook that is my art world nightmare, and for that I am grateful. I’m also a proud owner of Air Guitar. And as someone who regularly writes about travel, I find his essay on Las Vegas to be poetic and insightful — one that addresses, yet goes beyond all the Sin City tropes. That said, last night’s talk was a disappointment.
Now, before I continue, I just want to say that I wasn’t expecting to write about this talk in an official capacity, so I didn’t take notes and I didn’t record it. But I did want to address some of the general ideas. So please bear with…
Hickey said there are no critics.
First he went after the idea that there are no critics who are there to say “no” to artists. Certainly, that declaration avoids any mention of the fact that the act of criticism is in a crisis at a time when media is atomizing — and it’s a problem that certainly isn’t unique to the art world. What film critic today has the pull of a James Agee or Pauline Kael or even a Siskel and Ebert?
He said there are no critics who can explain difficult art.
This one was especially rich given that L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight was sitting right in the audience. But I also wonder if he perhaps has never heard of writers like Ben Davis and Amy Taubin and Roberta Smith (even if I disagreed with her mightily about that nightmarish Chris Burden show). Hell, turn to blogs like Hyperallergic, where writer Jillian Steinhauer dissected the context of Bjarne Melgaard’s S&M chair just nine days ago, providing some needed insight into a story that was little more than a headline in most feeds. There are lots of writers out there doing their damnedest to explain difficult to art at a time when the media industry is doing as little as possible to support them. I try to be among them. And like many of them, I can’t claim to always succeed, but I sure as shit try. But I guess in Hickey’s eyes, this doesn’t count, because none of these writers are him.
He is no fan of art schools.
Look, I’m no defender of art schools. I think they often churn out tons of boring copy-cat artists bent on hyper-conceptualizing the hyper-conceptual, producing art that has little connection to real life. The Whitney Biennial (which is kind of like a fair of art school artists) often makes me want to claw my eyes out and I think that some artists would be better served working in a Bolivian tin mine than they would in the average MFA program. But Hickey’s criticisms — that most art teachers are “big fucking failures” who want to crush the aspirations of their students — felt like nothing more than totally excellent soundbites that didn’t go beyond Twitter levels of profundity. And all of it seems downright silly given that Mr. Hickey is the proud owner of a Ph.D. and a professor of English. Ultimately, what I’d love to know is why he thinks art school doesn’t work and what the alternative should be.
And there’s the whole bit about identity politics.
This one was confusing because his talk was all over the place and he paused on several occasions to re-organize his thoughts and refer to his notes. But my takeaway on what he said was that identity politics, coupled with art school bureaucratization, had done away with the “art underground,” a term he used to describe the rabble of avant-garde artists who didn’t give a crap what the mainstream thought of their work or ideas. Hickey told the L.A. Times that identity politics
“tribalized and broke up the art underground…it turned it into a tribe of women, a tribe of Black people, a tribe of gay people. It used to be all of us, together, just down in the dirt.”
Um, really? Is this really the underground as it existed? Towards the end of the talk, Hickey was waxing nostalgic about the Max’s Kansas City days, when everyone knew everyone and you could just show up at some random artist’s studio for the hell of it. It’s hard not to be nostalgic for the days when the art world was small. All I’ve ever known is the bloated universe we inhabit now. But I also am wary about being hostage to a false nostalgia. Let’s make no mistake: the Abstract Expressionists drinking it up at the Cedar Tavern, Andy Warhol and the Max’s Kansas City crew, the cool kids at L.A.’s Ferus Gallery were a pretty monolithic crowd: overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. Black artists, Latino artists, women artists were often simply not part of the equation — and, in fact, often built their own institutions apart from the rest of the art world, simply because they had no access to it. (Want examples, see the catalogues from various Pacific Standard Time Shows: Now Dig This!, Asco: Elite of the Obscure, Doin’ it in Public.)
Part of the reason Hickey’s statements in this area really rankled me is because recent years have seen various critics dismiss the idea that identity may be something important in art. (See Ken Johnson in the NYT and Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post.) To see yet another critic do the same was discouraging. Why identity (of the non-white male kind) is not taken seriously by some critics is simply mystifying to me. The effects of prejudice — call it clubbiness if you will — are very real. As Deborah Vankin notes in her piece in the Times, artist Micol Hebron has challenged the poor representation of women in the L.A. commercial gallery scene in her work. Entire biennials go by without the presence of a Latino artist. Important works by Black artists languish in museum collections, rarely put on view.
That said, like some of these critics, I *am* wary of theme shows that trivialize the notion of identity to gain social currency. (See my reference to “Cinco de Mayo” shows in my story about Chicano art in ARTnews.) But that doesn’t mean that the issue of identity should be banished. And it’s certainly no art world-wrecker. The art world is doing that all on its own, largely through money and totally un-transparent backroom dealing. But these issues — money, professionalization, institutionalization and academia, and identity — they’re all tricky, complicated topics that merit some degree of scrupulousness and nuance. Hickey’s talk did everything but. It was a slew of generalities meant to titillate and induce reaction: jokes about a period when Black artists could get accepted to anything and Hannah Wilke’s chest.
I’m no prude. I swear like a sailor and have the sense of humor of a teen boy. But the fact is that from a self-professed explainer of difficult art, I simply expected more.