Dave Hickey opens his 1993 monograph on artist Robert Gober with a telling image. He’s pondering Gober’s “virulent anti-Modernism” while playing video poker in the Las Vegas airport at midnight—just as Don King and his entourage blow through the lobby “like a large multi-legged beast out of Dr. Seuss.” The scene is pure Hickey, with its convergence of several distinct vectors of American cultural meaning; it begs to be unpacked with semiotic precision and clean comic timing. “High thoughts in low places,” he writes, “—my specialty.”
Hickey has parlayed that speciality into a one-of-a-kind career as essayist, art-world controversialist, professor, MacArthur Fellow, and all-around gnomic oracle. A typical Hickey essay might start with a warm insight from his childhood, then cycle through references to subjects as varied as the clamor of Las Vegas, a novel by Flaubert, and the paintings of Pontormo, before finally seeking traction in “the sheer bleeping, banging, roaring, muscular tumultuousness of American culture.”
Reading him is akin to intellectual parkour, as he hops between the academic and the accessible, with moments of aphoristic verve and a swagger some find charismatic and others narcissistic. “I treat literary prose as performative speech,” he once said. Such a quality is showcased in his enduring collections The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (1993) and Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy (1997).
“There is no one like him; he belongs in the canon of American nonfiction prose,” Daniel Oppenheimer argues in Far from Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art.
At just 134 pages, Far from Respectable is an odd little volume. It’s neither a biography, a cultural history, nor a sustained assessment, although it has elements of each. It also features reporting and literary criticism, as well as autobiographical elements. Oppenheimer employs these materials as a dioramist might, reconstructing a few specific periods—Nashville in the 1970s, the culture wars of the 1990s—to illuminate his thesis: that much of Hickey’s writing transcends criticism to approach the status of art.
The Hickey who sidles through these pages is complexly rendered—beneficent, philandering, brilliant, provocative, depressed, self-dissipating, funny, drugged-up. While Oppenheimer’s admiration for his subject leads him to overstate in places, he’s no hagiographer and frankly acknowledges the shortcomings in Hickey’s behavior, writing, and thinking.
The book smartly evokes the texture and significance of the period in which Hickey rose to prominence—specifically, in regard to conservative attacks on the permissiveness of vanguard art, as personified by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. When a Cincinnati museum beat obscenity charges in 1990 for displaying Mapplethorpe’s exhibit The Perfect Moment, Hickey considered it a hollow victory. By defending the work on free-speech grounds, he believed, the arts establishment had blown the chance to stand up for its true merits.
“The fight,” Oppenheimer observes, “…should have been over whether it was okay or not in our culture to make beautiful the behaviors Mapplethorpe had made beautiful.” The issue, in other words, is whether there is room in our culture for art that beautifies the margins, that legitimately threatens the status quo. (As Hickey once wrote, “I want an art that is so fucking amazing it is illegal in the boondocks.”)
Hickey channeled his frustration into the “cold brilliance” of The Invisible Dragon, a slim but chewy meditation on the nature and uses of beauty in art. That book, Oppenheimer argues, had two main effects: to make “beauty” the cultural issue of the 1990s and to establish Hickey as a freewheeling adversary of what he termed the “therapeutic institution”—the nexus of academics and arts bureaucrats whose power and prestige depend on telling us what art is good for us.
The counterargument Hickey embodies is far more nuanced, even radical—that art creates communities of desire around objects in which we invest our hopes, dreams, and fears, and that arguing about the art we love is the best way to wrangle over the kind of world we want to occupy. Such a process entails an expansive generosity that is central to Hickey’s work.
Not everyone will be on board with Far from Respectable’s reclamation project. When you present as a bad boy, you acquire a lot of enemies. Feminists have found Hickey paternalistic; his acerbic tone can come off as prickly rather than charming, and his broadsides against the academy lead some to dismiss him as a market libertarian. Many theorists find his work too belletristic—“a ‘rhapsodic substitute’ for serious art criticism,” to quote James Elkins’s What Happened to Art Criticism?
“It is as if,” Elkins adds, “writing itself had swallowed critical decorum, proper argument, and academic protocol, chewed them well, and spat them all out in a big spill of prose.” Well, yeah. That’s one way to get as far from respectable as Hickey prefers to be.
Anyway, the haters can relax. The final chapter of Far from Respectable unfolds in 2019 and reveals an ailing Hickey, shipwrecked in Santa Fe, energies waning, provocations mostly behind him. It’s an elegiac portrait, and it bookends neatly with Oppenheimer’s introduction, which is also written in the present tense, a sad story about a book Hickey couldn’t write.
That book, which was to have been titled Pagan America, was intended as a grand summation of Hickey’s ideas about how democracy nourishes itself in the ongoing haggling over the objects of our affection. Such an ethos, Oppenheimer explains, involved “[n]ot an earth spirit paganism of the moors and glens, but a polytheistic, commercial, cosmopolitan paganism of the bazaar and the agora.”
As a glance at the lurid Dada of any day’s headlines will confirm, the large-spirited promise Hickey saw in the jam session, in car culture, in the work of Ed Ruscha, or—for that matter—in weird airport moments is now in widespread retreat. “Art,” Oppenheimer writes, “will not save us, but it might—unstably, unpredictably, miraculously—save us, you and me, for a little while.” But that, Far from Respectable insists, only throws the long-term value of Hickey’s high thoughts and low places into sharper relief.•
Scott Dickensheets is a freelance editor and writer in southern Nevada.