Dave Hickey: The Bad Boy of Art Criticism

In 1993, a cultural critic named Dave Hickey published a collection of essays positing that the experience of looking at art should be pleasurable. An innocuous-enough assertion, but the art world took offense at the idea that what a work looked like was more important than what it meant. This was, after all, at the height of conceptual art, where the message trumped the media. (Think Jenny Holzer's condoms that read "Men Don't Protect You Anymore.") Not long after, Hickey gave a university lecture during which, as he later wrote, "the faculty rose en masse from their seats in the back row and walked out. Honorariums were withheld. Dinners were canceled. Litigation was threatened." At one panel at Cranbrook Academy of Art, a row of women chanted "pig" during a seminar Hickey was attempting to moderate. He eventually took the small, university press paperback, called "The Invisible Dragon," out of print. It now goes for $200 on Amazon.

Today, the idea that art criticism could be a radical, dangerous force, even within the insular art community, seems quaint—and kind of amazing. Hickey published the book in the middle of the culture wars, when Jesse Helms denounced Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit photographs on the floor of the Senate, and the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts was slashed. Hickey, a friend of Mapplethorpe and one of his most ardent defenders, nonetheless praised Helms for his reaction, which he found profoundly democratic. If Mapplethorpe had the freedom to create pornographic images (albeit beautiful ones), Helms was absolutely correct in objecting to the challenge the pictures posed to his beliefs. Now, 16 years later, Hickey is reissuing the little volume this month with a new introduction and essay further exploring the relationship between democracy and beauty. Whether or not you agree with his more outrageous allegations (he compares Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, to Goebbels), his writing is exhilarating and deeply engaging. At its best, "Dragon" is both a time capsule of a period when dirty pictures could dismantle institutions and a provocation to reignite the conversation about the purpose of art.

Hickey's argument, essentially, is that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on a direct, one-to-one relationship between the viewer and the image. Once we allow meaning to figure into a work's value, we become slaves to the establishment that's in the business of "enlightening" the masses: the museums, universities, foundations and publications Hickey terms, collectively, "the therapeutic institution." He's not opposed to museums altogether, but he prefers they be privately funded—governments should deal with our wickedness, he says, paraphrasing Thomas Paine, not our pleasures. One example: Steve Wynn's gallery (now owned by MGM) of impressionists and other world-class painters he installed at the Bellagio in Las Vegas—a collection first curated by Hickey's wife, Libby Lumpkin.

To some, such as the women of Cranbrook, Hickey's theory seemed to perpetuate the model of art as pretty pictures for privileged collectors. "These people were setting themselves up as guardians of public taste," he says. "My argument was, basically, beauty allows us direct access to art without public oversight." He believes that the pieces in "The Invisible Dragon" are still relevant. "Where 20 years ago I was regarded as a total hedonist, today I'm seen as an intellectual," says Hickey, who now teaches English at UNLV. "My position hasn't changed, but the world has."

In the years since "The Invisible Dragon" was published, Hickey moved to Las Vegas, published "Air Guitar," a combination memoir and pop-culture critique, and won a MacArthur grant. At 70, he still relishes having a voice in the cultural conversation: he writes for Vanity Fair and Art in America. He's working on two new books: "The Connoisseur of Waves," a follow-up to "Air Guitar," and "Pagan America," which, true to form, makes the provocative argument that America is a vast pagan republic—not that there's anything wrong with that. "Martha Stewart contributes more to our civility than the Baptist church," he says. "Where do you learn how to act? Not at church. America is a lot more like pagan Rome than we think. We still sacrifice to objects to gain our social goals." One thing is clear: Dave Hickey still knows how to breathe fire.