28 October 2012

Dave Hickey Resigns

Not long ago I wrote this post prompted by an essay by David Levi Strauss who, to my mind, is the most incisive critic writing on the arts today. In his essay Levi Strauss defends the enterprise of criticism for developing and refining criteria of assessment and judgement. Without critics, he claims, we are reduced to assessing the arts on the metric of commerce and investment. I find the argument persuasive.

Today in The Guardian there comes an interview with critic Dave Hickey in which he announces that he is throwing in the towel. The filthy rich and their minions have, he says, driven him off.
Dave Hickey, a curator, professor and author known for a passionate defence of beauty in his collection of essays The Invisible Dragon and his wide-ranging cultural criticism, is walking away from a world he says is calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing.

"They're in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It's just not serious," he told the Observer. "Art editors and critics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It's not worth my time."
Worse, they have corrupted the youth, who - on Hickey's account - no longer seem to have a clue, or much by way of creative ambition or commitment.
At 71, Hickey has long been regarded as the enfant terrible of art criticism, respected for his intellectual range as well as his lucidity and style. He once said: "The art world is divided into those people who look at Raphael as if it's graffiti, and those who look at graffiti as if it's Raphael, and I prefer the latter."

[. . .]

Hickey says he came into art because of sex, drugs and artists like Robert Smithson, Richard Serra and Roy Lichtenstein who were "ferocious" about their work. "I don't think you get that anymore. When I asked students at Yale what they planned to do, they all say move to Brooklyn – not make the greatest art ever."
And Hickey goes on to depict the consequences - aficionados with buckets of cash but no judgement or criteria for judging, who end up playing roles in what could be a Monty Python skit.
"It used to be that if you stood in front of a painting you didn't understand, you'd have some obligation to guess. Now you don't," he says. "If you stood in front of a Bridget Riley you have to look at it and it would start to do interesting things. Now you wouldn't look at it. You ask a consultant."

[. . .]

"What can I tell you? It's nasty and it's stupid. I'm an intellectual and I don't care if I'm not invited to the party. I quit."

I am not terribly familiar with Hickey's writings (but look here). I do know that he champions beauty (as The Guardian folks point out) and that he does so partly on (small 'd') democratic grounds. On his account exclamations of "beautiful" tend to induce a clatter of contending objections, counter-claims, defenses and so forth  having no grounding beyond those that the community of discussants can themselves bring to bear. Beauty is argumentative and, as such, begs somehow not simply to be to be settled,  but settled without appeal to authority or expertise. Or rather, appeal to authority or expertise is, in such contentious discussions, always deflatable.

If that, in broad strokes, is what Hickey believes, one can imagine his despair at those who have nothing to say, whose only metric is the 'cash nexus.'* Yet it also is disappointing to think that we might lose Hickey's voice and those like his (and, again, I stress that I don't know much about his substantive assessments of this or that artist or work). The value of critics and of criticism is largely to resist the homogenization of criteria for judgement. Without them, things only get bleaker.
* A brief postscript: Only after I wrote this and posted it did it occur to me that in the post Citizens United world, it is not just art but politics that thoroughly conflates cash and speech. Here too the remedy is democratic argument.

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