Dave Hickey: 'I Will Never Retire From Art or Writing'

"Of what use is a philosopher who doesn't hurt anybody's feelings?" -- Diogenes

 Whatever you think of writer/critic Dave Hickey, you have to give him this: He speaks his mind. Retired from "The Art World" but still more than willing to talk about art, Dave has been experimenting using Facebook as his water cooler but feels that as a medium Facebook has defeated him: Perhaps that is because his musings are often too wide-ranging, esoteric and paradoxical to simply "like."

I recently interviewed Dave Hickey via e-mail. I am posting his interview unedited, except that I did add a few French accents and hyphens where he had missed them...

John Seed Interviews Dave Hickey

Dave Hickey
In 2012, you announced your retirement from the art world. In October of 2013 Pirates and Farmers was published. Would it be fair to call you "semi-retired?"

No. I am retired from the art world. I will never retire from art or writing. Art is the way I think. Whenever I can, I fly to New York, stay in a midtown hotel, get a limo, and go look at art. The art never tells anyone that I have been looking at it. Nobody recognizes me.

In Pirates and Farmers you offer the metaphor that pirates - who you favor over farmers - tear fences down. What are a few of the cultural fences that you feel need tearing down right now? 

I would like to tear down the vestigial fences that remain from the segregation imposed by "identity politics." The class barrier between blue chip artists and no-chip artists could be removed to everyone's benefit. I think the gentle womb of academia could do with a radical Caesarian. I think tenure should be abolished, and graduate schools, as well. I think the wall between 'high' art and 'low art should be demolished too. Since neither is any better or worse than the other--since everything, high and low, is blended in the same digital fastness, why bother? Counting by my clock, Art was obligated to abandon digital means twenty years ago. Technology is not a raison d'être.

You recently stated on Facebook: "I depend on the first person singular as a badge of modesty" and then went on to characterize yourself as "just this guy writing in the desert." As an internationally known critic and MacArthur prizewinner how modest can you really be?

First, except for a couple of Polish dudes, I am not internationally known. I have never been reviewed in any major publication. I have never had a good review. My books sell 100k copies at best. I don't get invited to book fairs. My writing is grounded in Victorian belle lettres, in Ruskin, Lamb, Carlyle, DeQuincey and Dickens. Out of tune with the times? Ya' think. I have six new books about art criticism on my desk. Having writ on water, I am not mentioned in any of them. My phone doesn't ring.

About the MacArthur award? I think it's bullshit. I was grateful for the honor, since it measures the respect of one's peers, but the money was crass, and condescending. I don't fucking do money. I make a living. The whole inference that I couldn't support myself made me look vulnerable, since the idea of supporting oneself is the first prerequisite for an independent critical voice. If you can't support yourself, they can touch you, so you maintain solvency. Now, everyone sees me wallowing in the largess of a poncey foundation, and I have hitherto been free, beholden to nothing and to no one.

I am Dave the Writer--no foundation--no institution---no artist friends---no connections---and no family. I write words and I am not a public servant. I want to be a purist because I do not believe, and I do not belong. So I got this award. I got this new constituency of dudes and dames on the dole. I got this tainted money that I used to pay off my wife's student loans, to buy her some cool stuff, and to refine my game of Texas Hold'em. Five years later, I was trying to put up a giant piece of art-graffiti under the Westside highway in Chicago. It was part of a sculpture show. The alderman went ballistic. The mayor went ballistic. I called up the MacArthur to curry a little hometown juice. The Foundation said, No. We can't help. We don't do that sort off thing. No, no, no, no, no, and don't call back. Today, I like my Peabody Award way better. It looks like a plus size penny.

Neurological research is discovering the mechanisms by which a viewer's brain interacts with art works, including intense reactions that are precognitive (sophisticated interactions with art happen before we analyze them). Have the past decades of art criticism put the cart before the horse by championing the primacy of language and text over visual understanding and aesthetic empathy?

Art starts where language stops, where the word stops and the gesture continues. Language is easy. Theory is easy. Critique is very easy. Art is very difficult. I have been saying this for fifty years. I majored in theoretical linguistics in graduate school to learn my palette, as a painter might study color, but also to learn where language stopped and the mystery began. The mystery of writing, I finally decided, resides in the phonotext--in the music we hear as we read---the sounds and silences. Since most people don't hear this music, I will always be an acquired taste. Also. I am less a critic than a theorist. The simple decision to write about something is an evaluative gesture. Then I theorize about that conditions under which the art might sustain itself in vogue.

 You certainly aren't alone in disliking Jeff Koons, who makes pieces that you feel "... just stand there under the Christmas tree, dead out of the box." Have you read Jed Perl's piece on Koons in the New York review of books? 

Jeff Koons manufactures objets trouvés. Robert Gober manufactures objets trouvés. They are oceans apart. You pick 'em. I find Koons lead-footed. I read Jed Perl's review of Koons: It sounds like a jejune, Manhattan catfight. I can't see why publishing in a periodical publication should mitigate the essential seriousness of what critics try to contribute, but Koon's myopia keeps us gazing down into the cocktail zone. You can't fly a lead balloon, so, if the cards fall right, I think Koons could achieve total oblivion in his own lifetime. His opening game was beautiful but I don't see him managing the endgame that well. He gets over-invested in retro-Fitzcarraldo technological projects. But what do I know? When I was running a gallery in Soho. I hung with Jeff a little in Fanelli's. I was always disappointed in the slow-pitch thud of his wit. So, maybe I find Koons a bit of a pedant. Koons does a lot of things that I like and I hate the art. Robert Gober does a lot of things that I hate, and his art has a diaphanous heart. Go figure.

How do you define beauty in today's art? Or the sublime? Are any contemporary artists achieving either? Beauty is that which elicits precognitive affirmation. It is an indispensable asset to artists who have embarked upon difficult and transgressive career paths. I would pick DeKooning, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Warhol and Mapplethorpe as artists who needed beauty and managed it. So maybe I'm interested in "difficult" beauty---beauty that flies in the face of "the beautiful." Since the art world today is an amoral clusterfuck, not much beauty is really required. The sublime is beauty for boys---anti-sissy beauty---an irrelevant category in this moment.

You recently stated on Facebook: "I think craft, or working within a craft, is probably over." Why do you feel that way? Don't you think that there are some artists who might just come along and prove you wrong? 

That was a stupid, old-guy bullshit thing to say. Craft and technology exist in an extra aesthetic dimension. We can do art with them or without them. My reservation about craft derives from the "Deus ex machina" nature of technique. Lets say you develop a way to make everybody cry, because you want people to cry on this occasion. The question is this: Can I use these devices to make people cry again, not because I care, but just because I can? I would say no. Art making creates a constant demand to subsume technique to the urgency of the occasion, to create more refined technique: fragile meta-techniques of which Edward Ruscha is the master.

You say: "The demotion of Pop Art into Visual Culture is the most outrageous misprision and re-purposing of art in the twentieth century." Can you break that down a bit? Just exactly how and by what process did Pop Art get demoted?

This observation dates me, because, with the exception of Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana, I knew the pop artists fairly well and I found them to be very serious artists. I always found their company very refreshing, very refined and very Beaux Arts. They had taken on the job of redeeming and refreshing popular trash by using premodern genres and imposing the high-art graces of size, scale, color, form, and gesture on popular drivel. When German sociology won the field in the seventies, the image was just the image. Size, scale, color, form and gesture counted for nothing. It was all "picture" for the Germans, so Pop art disappeared into muck of cultural theory. The artists all left town and the kids started collecting Donald Duck dolls. Under the guidance of German thought, art became culture.

As collectors of pop artifacts, I should note, the pop artists sucked. They just didn't do it. Tom Wesselmann wrote hillbilly songs but he knew more about the odalisque than anyone else in New York. Wayne Thiebaud painted cakes but his conversation was all Proust and Joaquin Sorolla, the deft Spanish impressionist. David Hockney painted swimming pools but he was never without an art catalog devoted to some obscure brand of painting--Scandinavian landscape, the last I remember. Ed Ruscha has a good collection of rockabilly records but the images pinned on his studio walls are all 19th century paintings: John Everett Millais, Caspar David Friedrich, and Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire"---a subject Ruscha would address in paintings of his own, exhibited in Italy, the mise-en-scène of Cole's "Progress."

Roy Lichtenstein painted cold, high-modernist Pointillism. Rauschenberg collected junk, but he liked history paintings. He liked Harnett and Peto who inspired his early work. Rosenquist and Warhol liked fancy drawing and painting from the ancien régime. The last time I was in Andy's brownstone, there were four red-chalk drawings by Dante Rossetti of the blonde Fanny Cornforth. They were hanging in the entry hall on forest-green silk wallpaper: "Marilyns après le lettre." I would suggest that none of these obsessions or enthusiasms has shit to do with "visual culture." As a consequence, soggy-thinking and slovenly- looking stole the birthright of 21st century art.

You seem pretty active on Facebook. What do you think of Facebook as a medium of being in touch and hashing out ideas?

 Facebook turned out to be sour gruel. I wanted a Toontown Chautauqua: smart, funny, dry, and just a little chippy. I offered up bite-size bits of wisdom cropped to the attention span of Millennials. I was hoping for responses in that mode. I didn't get them. I tried and tried again and all I got was lame excuses and obsessive money envy. It just didn't work. My present project is to mount a wiki-page to which we all can contribute using our names, and from which we all can all redact anything using our names. My bet is that the page will go black everyday, totally redacted. Maybe a cat picture will survive, but Facebook, as a medium, has defeated me.