Not Everyone Should Be a Critic

Dave Hickey and the problem of great art going unappreciated.

dave hickey illustration

Editor's note: Dave Hickey died on November 12, 2021. This was one of his final interviews.

Dave Hickey is a sidewinder, a man who’s spent his life sliding laterally from one profession to another, appearing unexpectedly, striking quickly, and then moving on. He was a gallerist in Austin, then a rock critic, a short story writer, a Nashville songwriter, a magazine editor, and finally a professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an art critic. And he was a famous one at that, despite publishing his first book of art criticism, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, in 1993, when he was 52. It won him a Frank Jewett Mather Award and, along with his second, Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997), led to a MacArthur Fellowship. Now 80, he finds himself trapped by poor health in Santa Fe, a city he dislikes. I joined him there for a long lunch one day in July, during which I asked him something I’ve wondered about for many years.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

Why do so many art critics produce such gibberish?
Most of these people, their failing is that they just aren’t good commercial writers. And also, they don’t know what they’re writing about. I mean, I love theory. It’s just what I love to do and think about. But it’s all so soft. It’s soft where it hits the ground. It’s soft where it comes from.

Art critics float in this void between the institution and the marketplace and the schools. They don’t really have a place to put their foot down, and if they do put their foot down, they’re in the wrong place.

Are you working on anything new, yourself?
I’m supposed to be writing about Joseph Cornell. And I have other aspirations, but none that are really real.

Like what?
Well, I’m thinking of writing an essay about what I want from people that read my work: I don’t want them to like it. I want them to write more like me. In other words, the force of my endeavor has always been to improve art criticism.

Good luck.
Yeah, no shit.

When and how did you start writing about art?
Early ’80s. I never thought of it as writing about art. I just thought of it as doing favors for friends. And the person who most influenced me was [Marshall] McLuhan, who’s very Catholic. I’m not a Catholic, but my practice is basically Catholic: it’s about the physical thing. And I liked McLuhan a whole lot. But he was Canadian; he wasn’t a German. So he’s just kind of faded away.

After The Invisible Dragon came out and you were everywhere all of a sudden, and everybody thought they’d discovered you, did you enjoy that?
A little bit, not much. I enjoyed getting a lot of work and having some money in the bank. I enjoyed being paid to think about what I wanted to think about. That was good, but I never, ever thought about it in terms of fame or anything.

And now you’ve got all that MacArthur money.
Well, I decided that I would use that to learn how to play Texas Hold’em. And I did learn, but I lost a lot of money learning.

So now you’re stuck in Santa Fe because of your health?
Well, I have an aneurysm, so I’m not supposed to get on an airplane, but hell, I don’t know. I have COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]. I have just about everything. I never meant to live this long. It was not my plan.

Given that you got started in the art world more than 50 years ago, who do you think was the last great artist?
Probably Bruce Nauman. I don’t know. I’ve never written about Nauman, but he’s a great artist, I think.

The art I like is mostly kind of high modernism, mannered modernism. Ellsworth Kelly does it for me. It’s always new, because the shapes are subtly out of rigor. I think he’s a great artist. It’s Ellsworth and Ed Ruscha—neither of whom liked the other much. I just loved Ellsworth. He was such a good raconteur; he was a good guy. So patient in his madness.

Every time I see a Ruscha, I like it. And I’m suspicious of anybody who’s never done anything that I hated.
Well, my principle is that beauty is the brand. Beauty is Campbell’s Soup. And everything else is the flavor. I don’t understand some of the flavors of Ruscha, but in general, they’re all tolerable.

I’ve known Ed for about 40 years. We have never been friends. I’ve never been to his house or anything like that. I don’t think he even approves of my interpretation of his work, but I’ve written about eight pieces on him. Ed’s a genius. And I think probably I’m involved in doing the opposite of what he does. He trusts his sense of picking up things out of the world. And I’m interested in picking them up and putting them back in the world. Ed wants to pick them out because they’re special. I want to put them back because they go somewhere else.

It seems to me that you’ve purposefully spent most of your career on the margins.
Well, I wrote songs for a long time. “Mama, baby, mama. Let me jump in your pajamas” [a song by Kinky Friedman]. Oh, yeah.

But when you turned to criticism, you didn’t seem to be terribly interested in being a celebrity like Marshall McLuhan.
No, I didn’t. My aspiration was to influence the larger discourse. And I never did. My one fallacy was that I never really understood how much smarter I was than other people. I just didn’t get it.

When you look at where American culture is in the past 10 or 15 years, do you despair? Or do you just think, “Oh, there are always ups and downs”?
No, I think I’d like to go back to where I came in, where every year you were looking forward to the new Ryman show or the new Chamberlain show. Where the art that came out had a kind of historical edge to it. I miss that a lot. That history just died. I think that’s fine, but at the same time, it means you can have really great art out there, but nobody cares what happens as a consequence. •

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jim Lewis is an Austin-based writer.
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