“Ya know what I mean?” Dave Hickey likes to ask. His voice is gentle and lyrical, slightly tarnished by smoking, and very Southern. At sixty-seven, he remarks, guffawing about his large proportions, “rap has sort of reasserted my body type.” He’s often in a Lakers cap. As much as he likes talking, he will often interrupt himself to ask a question: “So what sort of music do you like?… What’s your plan in life?… Why in the hell is it called the Believer for?”
It’s hard to gauge the place of art critic Dave Hickey in the world. Though very well known, he’s not yet required reading—but that’ll change. His passions are idiosyncratic, he drives at no major thesis, nor is he seeking a revolution in taste or even acolytes. It seems he wants to construct an edifice of true things—or, at least, the least likely wrong things—that can be said about whatever subjects are most interesting and at hand.
Hickey is the author of a story collection and two books of essays, including the classic Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997). He began his career in the 1960s as a freelance journalist, but in the early ’90s, he moved to Las Vegas and joined the faculty of the University of Nevada in the art department. Now he teaches English. He’s run galleries in New York and Austin, and was executive editor of Art in America. Six years ago, he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. Hickey counts among his “professional acquaintances” Lester Bangs, James Wolcott, and Hunter S. Thompson (“the puritan do-gooder”).
He writes of his beginnings, “That was the seventies—limos, homos, bimbos, resort communities and cavernous stadiums… the whole culture in a giant, Technicolor Cuisinart, whipping by, and I did love it so.”
This interview took place in two locations: the patio of a breakfast spot in Toronto around noon on a sunny midsummer day, where he ordered eggs and several coffees and waited a long time for a fork. After speaking there for a couple of hours, it continued in a hotel bar, where he could smoke in the courtyard.
His manner is a mixture of courtly and cowboy. It’s easy to imagine him pissed off and unhappy, but he is not the curmudgeon his reputation suggests. For at the root of everything Hickey writes about and speaks about is an advocacy for what he loves—and a kind of regret, not bitterness, at the popularity of what he doesn’t.
At the end of our meeting, he said, with a hint of resigned gallantry, “Please feel free to use whatever I’ve told you, as you wish. It’s not like I’m worried about my, uh, reputation.”
I. “HONESTLY, I NEVER SIT DOWN TO WRITE ANYTHING WITHOUT THINKING, THIS IS A WEIRD THING TO BE DOING! WHY AM I SITTING HERE WRITING?”
SHEILA HETI: In your experience of knowing artists, do you think there’s a discrepancy between why artists tell themselves they’re making art, and the actual reason you perceive them to be making art?
DAVE HICKEY: In my experience, you always think you know what you’re doing; you always think you can explain, but you always discover, years later, that you didn’t and you couldn’t. This leads me to suspect that the principal function of human reason is to rationalize what your lizard brain demands of you. That’s my idea. Art and writing come from somewhere down around the lizard brain. It’s a much more peculiar activity than we like to think it is. The problems arise when we try to domesticate the practice, to pretend that it’s a normal human activity and that “everybody’s creative.” They’re not. Honestly, I never sit down to write anything without thinking, This is a weird thing to be doing! Why am I sitting here writing? Why am I looking at the Ellsworth Kelly on my wall? I don’t know. It feels funny to do these things, but it feels funnier not to, so I write and look. My only justification for the lizard brain thing is that, whatever I’m writing about and whatever I’m writing on, it all comes out the same. If I’m writing about furniture, Dick Cheney, Palladio, or surfing—if I’m writing on coke, speed, acid, smack, booze, panic, sorrow, or just cigarettes, it all comes out Dave writing, so, if altering one’s consciousness doesn’t alter the outcome, maybe it’s not about that.
SH: So if it’s the kind of thing that comes from the lizard brain and is not this gentle, political thing people do at all, then this idea of working hard, which is a very Protestant, American value… I mean, going to the studio from nine in the morning to five at night—it sometimes seems like there’s such a professionalization of art-making. Is it commensurable with this activity that’s—
DH: Well, let me put it like this. I think that if you don’t like it and it’s not easy, you shouldn’t be doing it. You know what I mean?
SH: If it’s not easy you shouldn’t be doing it?
DH: I mean it’s work, but it’s not labor. You have professional obligations like any adult, but it’s fun to solve problems. It’s fun to sit there by yourself with no one telling you what to do. It’s fun to nuance things that no one will notice except in their lizard brains. I enjoy doing it, and it’s easy for me, but there are a lot of people out there who are working too hard at it. [Big laugh]
SH: Why do you think people are interested in art?
DH: I think they want to touch the source of something, you know? It doesn’t make people better. It doesn’t make them happier. It doesn’t make them smarter, and you can’t teach people to do it or like it. So who knows?
SH: Can you teach people how to see more sensitively?
DH: Danger makes us see more sensitively—anxiety—the prospect of the gallows. But you either see or you don’t. I think you want to learn about art because you had an experience of some sort—a totally nonredemptive but vaguely exciting experience, like brushing up against a girl with big boobs in the subway. It’s about that level of intensity. So you want to find out more about it since its sources are so mysterious, and these sources reside in you as well as in the object. But I have no evangelical feelings about art at all. I despise art education. Art doesn’t lend itself to education. There is no knowledge there. It’s a set of propositions about how things should look.
SH: Like an aesthetic proposition?
DH: Yeah. It doesn’t contain any truth. It doesn’t contain any fact. It’s just a proposition to be argued for or against.
SH: There are a number of artists I know who want to make art out of a political impulse, and this impulse seems kind of incompatible with art-making.
DH: The political impulse is fine but moot. Art has political consequences, which is to say, it reorganizes society and creates constituencies of people around it. Miles Davis creates a constituency. Andy Warhol creates a constituency, and any object or occasion that organizes people in terms of what they want is a political constituency. The idea of political content is irrelevant. Content is irrelevant. I always tell my students, “Never forget you’re writing words! You know, word one, word two, word three, word four. The words have to be organized. Nothing else does.”
II. “THE MFA THING IS AN INVENTION OF THE ’70S. ITS RAISON D’ÊTRE IS EVAPORATING.”
SH: So what makes you happy and what makes you sad in culture right now?
DH: You know, I’m deeply engaged in culture, but I’m well out of the trenches, which means if I talk, I talk Frank Gehry. I don’t talk younger architects. I talk Ellsworth Kelly. And I’m happy for that, because when you’re a younger critic you can almost never get the chance to write about people who are older than you are—people who really influenced you—and that’s kind of fun. But there are no public venues to write about art anymore, except for three or four permanent jobs that my friends do and I never could. Mostly I write for commercial galleries these days. There are no serious art magazines.
SH: So there’s no place to talk about art?
DH: No, and my particular age of the critic is just over. There are no influential mid-career critics today. I think part of that is circumstance, in the sense that a whole generation of critics died of AIDS in the ’80s. It was like the plague that wiped out two generations of Neapolitan painters in the sixteenth century. They’re just gone, and those dead guys from the ’80s should be writing most of what I’m writing now, and I should be left to play blackjack.
SH: OK, so what are the supposed art magazines interested in hearing about, if not about art?
DH: They want touting. In twenty years we’ve gone from a totally academicized art world to a totally commercialized art world, and in neither case is criticism a function. We’re all supposed to be positive about art. Nobody plays defense! I mean, my job, to a certain extent, is to be in the net. My job is to mow stuff down.
SH: So in what kind of structure would there be a place for criticism?
DH: Well, I came into an art world of volunteers—six thousand heavily medicated, mysteriously employed human beings who were there because they wanted to be, you know? And all they wanted was to be right—not safe, not rich, not fair, but right! Now we have this vast bureaucratic structure of support. Everybody’s a poll watcher. Nobody’s a voter. We’ve got millions of people devoted to the whole idea that art’s supposed to be fair and good for you. But art’s not too fair, you know? Why should you be publishing books and not your friends? Because it’s not fair, that’s why.
SH: Yeah, whatever.
DH: Anyway, the art world is way too big right now. The art world I came up into was very much like the jazz world I grew up in, which is to say, a relatively small thing. If you got to go see Miles Davis in a little bar on La Brea, that was great, and you didn’t sit around saying, “There was no coverage in the New York Times! Miles is not going to get any reviews!” You know what I’m saying?
SH: Sure, it was for yourself. You were happy.
DH: Right, you were happy to be there, and if the art world today shrunk down to the size and scale of the jazz world, I would be happier now. Things would be freer and a lot less tedious.
SH: I suppose the schools have something to do with the change—the craziness that you have to get an MFA to be an artist.
DH: Thirty-five thousand MFAs a semester, 90 percent of whom never make another work of art.
SH: And do you think that that kind of system produces—
DH: Almost no one. Idiots with low-grade depression. When I opened my gallery in the late ’60s, Peter Plagens—who’s now the critic for Newsweek and still shows his paintings—was the only artist I represented who had been to graduate school. The MFA thing is an invention of the ’70s. Its raison d’être is evaporating.
SH: Which is?
DH: Training sissies for teaching jobs. Well, the official raison d’être was to create an intellectual and pedagogical justification for the most frivolous activity in Western culture, so you go back and read things from the past. It’s the traditional Renaissance desire that artists should be taken seriously, and that art not be a practical but a liberal art. But I tend to think it’s a practice, like law or like medicine.
SH: Right, and nobody wants to be a clown! No artists want to be clowns. That’s a shame.
DH: You have to check out my friend Scott Grieger, who’s a high culture clown, if only because Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner rescued him from the streets of L.A. and paid for his art education.
SH: Do you think humor’s a very important element of art?
DH: It would be if anybody could take a joke! Alec Waugh proposes “seriousness” as a form of infectious stupidity. I agree. Actually, Bruce Nauman is pretty funny. Everybody pretends that he’s not, but clown torture is pretty funny! You know? And, uh, I think Peter Saul is funny, he’s very witty, and I think Ellsworth Kelly is not funny but he’s witty, and Ed Ruscha is extremely funny and extremely witty, you know?
SH: I love Serra but he’s not funny.
DH: No, well, but Richard’s smart. And he’s an artist. He can’t talk without drawing. He’s the real fucking thing. Not nice.
SH: Not nice. No, he doesn’t seem so nice. [Laughs]
DH: But Richard’s really fun to go look at art with, because he will look at anything, and he likes to look at art, and when you see him you don’t sit around. He says, “Let’s go look at art,” so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.
SH: Well, and that idea of taking sculpture off the pedestal—I love that, and I think the whole culture’s off the pedestal.
DH: And Tony Caro did that—he put it on the ground. But in a sense what he did was make the pedestal the art. Caro and Serra, Sol LeWitt, and Don Judd—they made the pedestal the art. It’s like DJs transforming the turntable into an instrument.
III. “GOSSIP IS THE CURRENCY OF THE DISCOURSE, SO YOU SHOULD SHUT UP ABOUT YOURSELF.”
SH: Do you see anybody doing anything that—let’s say radical—right now?
DH: First of all, let me say if I did, I probably wouldn’t recognize it.
SH: You wouldn’t recognize it?
DH: Let me put it this way. When I was a bright young thing, my relationship to my elders was, uh, problematic. It was like—[makes a gesture of waving from across a chasm]. And I thought they were wrong and I was right. And they were wrong, but I’m probably as wrong today. As I always say, the next great art movement may be dust bunnies, you know what I mean? And I wouldn’t recognize it. It’s like, whoa! What dust bunnies did you get from out of your bag!?
SH: How much is the performance important? I think of somebody like Warhol or Pollock, and they had such strong public personas. Who they are communicates their art as well, and, in Warhol’s case, his image is part of the work’s meaning.
DH: Well, the thing is, the work is not really sufficient. Most famous artists are created by their work and the idea of them as a character, and if they’re smart and ambitious, they reinforce that character because they want to win. They want their views to prevail. And you must want to win. I don’t want to be rich, but I want to win. I want my enemies to fall in shambles. I do not want to be fair. I want the art I hate to go away. If you want your art to stay around, and I hate it, get your own fucking critic! So I am not in favor of art—I’m in favor of the art I like.
SH: Yeah, totally. But so do you think an artist has to be part of the discourse? Has to talk? To give interviews?
DH: It’s a social discourse. There ain’t no Frank Stellas at Montana State. But you’ve got to be there, and you’ve got to be interested in other people so you can talk about them. Gossip is the currency of the discourse, so you should shut up about yourself. Never confess, never explain, never apologize, and never complain. But you got to be there. The missing are presumed dead.
SH: OK, you say that art needs talent and courage to be great or interesting, and—it’s a weird generalization to make—but I wonder if you’ve noticed in artists that there’s certain types of ambition that lead to great works of art, and if there’s certain kinds of ambition that lead to shitty work.
DH: Let’s put it this way. If one artist likes another artist, it’s never quite the work, it’s the quality of the ambition they respect. Ed Ruscha said to me once—he was talking about some artist he didn’t like, and I said, “Well, the quality of the work…” And Ed says, “It’s not the quality of the work, it’s the quality of the job.”
SH: Quality of the job?
DH: I mean, are you doing something worth doing? That’s a reasonable question. When you really respect somebody who does something different from you, your respect is for the quality of the job.
[His cell phone rings. He talks to his wife, the art historian Libby Lumpkin. They have a brief, confused discussion about whether or not she’s having two lunches today. He hangs up. I ask him how long he’s been married; about fifteen years, he replies. Has he been married before? He’s had relationships with four women, he tells me—a serial monogamist, he says.]
What I do is I find beautiful, intelligent women, and invest them with enough confidence to leave me.
SH: And do they all leave for the same reason?
DH: I guess. That’s the chance you take if you like bitches, if you prefer women who have their own agendas and their own destinations. I like singers, writers, dancers, social climbers, and divas. So eventually, you’re passed over. Part of this is selfish, though. Writing for one is hard. Writing for two is impossible. And sitting at home writing about cowboys with cancer while Betsy Sue teaches fifth-grade music casts a pall and poses a question mark over every word you write. Living off the work of others makes you a slut or a shit. I’ve tried not to. Anyway, I get along with all my exes. We’re actually pretty close.
IV. “PEOPLE DON’T MAKE LITERATURE, ARCHITECTURE, AND ART—THE CULTURE MAKES THOSE THINGS.”
DH: So what do you write about? Do you write about real people?
SH: Increasingly I’m less interested in writing about fictional people, because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. I just—I can’t do it.
DH: I understand.
SH: It doesn’t make sense to me. And the complicated thing is, I like life so much. I love being among people, I love being in the world, and writing is the opposite of that.
DH: That’s why I became a cultural journalist. I wanted to write, but I wanted to have adventures—I wanted to sit on the beach with Keith Richards and some dude playing the trombone. I wanted to be where it was, and I sacrificed a great deal of literary value for that, but I had a hell of a lot of fun. Back in the ’70s and ’60s, if you could do this, to length and on time—and not many people could, nor can they now—then you could go anywhere you wanted to, and look at whatever you wanted to. But it makes me happy that I set out to make a living out of the writing life and I have done it. Not a great life, of course, or a famous one, but a really cool one. The culture afforded me that, and I am sad that that life is disappearing.
SH: OK, so you can make a living as an artist by selling your work in the marketplace, or by government grants, and they’re both sort of problematic, but which makes the better art, or which is the lesser evil?
DH: I don’t think the government should touch art. Governments are risk averse. They encourage risk-averse personalities to be artists. Some good artists in their maturity—like me—will take a job at a university and continue to produce because they have trained themselves to produce. But the university environment is not a productive environment. It’s oppressive.
SH: It’s what?
DH: It’s not free. You cannot say what you want to. Let me explain. If I sell an article to Vanity Fair, they give me some money and we’re quits. I can take that money and spend it on heroin and Arab boys if I want to. But if I get the money I make from the university every year, that comes with a requirement that I not be a pedophile, that I not be a drug addict, that I not tell the truth, that I not say what I think about the president of the university. That’s what that money is. And if I take a job at a university and I’m a young person, I have six years in which I can’t express my opinion until I get tenure. Now, are you going to remember your opinions for six years? No!
SH: So if you eschew money from grants and from the government, then you’ve got to make money elsewhere—
DH: I wrote reviews of Porter Wagoner albums and squibs for titty magazines, but I fucking wrote them because I was trying to win and avoid all unavoidable compromises that presented me with the fantasies of comfort and security. I just like to write lucid prose. That’s my little thing. Why should it be easier for me than it was for Steve Tyler? Anyway, people don’t make literature, architecture, and art—the culture makes those things. We make books, buildings, and objects. We do our crummy little shit, and the culture assigns value to it, and I don’t think the culture needs government help.
V. “YOU HAVE ALL THE WAY TILL YOU’RE FORTY TO TOTALLY FUCK UP YOUR LIFE.”
SH: Yesterday you said you find yourself in the midst of a generation of young artists with more temperamental affinities than you’ve had with young artists in many years. What’s the nature of those affinities?
DH: Well, it’s very strange, and I think it had to do with Vegas, because Vegas attracts people who are not afraid, not religious, not country, and OK with themselves—people who like to have fun and like to work, people who aren’t fucking depressed, who don’t have issues. For instance, I was having dinner at Spago the other night with Tim Bavington, who used to be my student and is now a very successful painter, and Wolfram Putz, who was one of my students at Sci-Arc [the Southern California Institute of Architecture] and is presently an ultra-chic international architect. Tim and Wolf are doing very well now, much better than I, in fact, so I thought to myself, Why them? First, I decided, it helps that they are both cosmopolitan creatures. Tim is a displaced Brit; Wolf is a displaced German; but what else? And the answer was easy: I had never seen either one of them in a bad mood.
DH: Never. They both have this steady level of equanimity, and when I look at my ex-students who’ve done well, the common factor is always their good humor. The ups are not too up. The downs are not too down. They’re having a good time by not compromising at what they love to do, and my students and I are alike in this. I’ve always had a good time, sometimes with bad consequences, of course. I mean, I’ve blown up my life three or four times—burned bridges while I was still on them. But that just comes from rash decision-making, that doesn’t come from not making decisions! [Laughs]
SH: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s right. At least you can say you’ve made decisions, goddamnit.
DH: I may have fucked up, but it was decisive! [Laughs, hits the table] And I have a pretty high level of equanimity day in and day out, and probably you do too, listening to you talk. Sometimes I get desperately depressed because I’m not cute anymore, or because I haven’t done what I said I would, but otherwise I’m OK. If I can get up, make coffee, look at the sunshine on the wall—hey. I don’t need a blow job before noon. I’m OK. And I think that most artists and writers—most of the ones that I know—are o-kay. They like to go into their studios, they like to see their friends, they like to chase girls or boys or whatever they chase. They were OK when they were a nobody, and now they’re OK when they’re somebody.
SH: I wonder: what kind of teacher are you?
DH: With the artists, I don’t teach, I coach. I can’t tell them how to make art. I tell them to make more art. I tell them to get up early and stay up late. I tell them not to quit. I tell them if somebody else is already making their work. My job is to be current with the discourse and not be an asshole. That’s all I wanted in a professor.
So how old are you, anyway?
DH: Great! You’re a bright young thing. You have all the way till you’re forty to totally fuck up your life. It takes that long, if you’re really talented, to really fuck everything up. You just go up and up and up and up, and all of a sudden you’ve got three ex-husbands, a broken-down Porsche, a bunch of leather clothes, some haute-couture accessories, and no prospects at all. [Chuckles]
SH: [Laughs] Yeah, I keep thinking the fifth husband will be the one. That’s my new goal.
DH: That’s right. Exactly. Hm. It must be hard to find boyfriends in Canada.
SH: How come?
DH: Because it’s such a healthy place! I never have been able to put a name on it, but I really do love the darkness, I really do love the edge.
SH: Wait. I want to ask you a question about America, ’cause you said—it is the superpower—and is there any work that you think has been able to represent the nature of America’s empire?
DH: I think Don Judd, Dan Flavin, and Andy Warhol were trying to. I think they conceived of themselves as the Augustan artists of the American empire. The Vietnam War ruined the moment, but they did it. They created this steady-state, history-less, past-less, future-less moment in art with no precedent and really no consequences—it’s just this stuff—purely American stuff, totally abstract and totally bland. And I like that. I don’t like too much blood or too many explosions. I like bland. I like blank.