Recently retired art critic/writer Dave Hickey gave a talk in Los Angeles this week on his new cultural essay book, Pirates and Farmers. Perhaps best known for his classic text Air Guitar, Hickey has never been one to shy away from bold and frank statements about the art world.
As such, some of his comments at Grand Central Market unsurprisingly did not go over so well with portions of the audience—specifically his angle on how the growth of "identity politics" in art has affected the art world itself:
"We have a great big art world with a lot of stupid people in it. It’s just about sales. We don’t do negative reviews. We love everything. It’s all mainstream. Look at what’s out there. I don’t think that’s good, but that’s the way it is. I have nothing against identity politics, it didn’t ruin the art world, it just ruined it for me and Jeremy Gilbert Rolf because we write about difficult art."
Some artists and art writers quickly took issue with this quote, with one artist taking to Twitter: “As a multi racial homo egghead, I sincerely apologize for breaking the art world.” An LA Times art critic had a different interpretation, stating that Hickey believes that “art is now dull because the academic institutionalization of identity politics coincided with the academic institutionalization of art."
Hickey’s irreverent style is a large part of his success at communicating his experience and expertise in the arts. He may not always convey the safest ideas, and he may not express himself in the most politically correct manner that many expect in the public sphere these days, but he has always been a very transparent and accessible figure in a discipline where abstraction and obscurity—feigned or otherwise—are abundant. In this sense, I have always felt that his frankness has always added greatly to the art world discourse by daring to confront the status quo.
Previously I saw Hickey speak at the Laguna Beach Museum of Art, where he had no qualms challenging—and championing—some of today’s contemporary art. He also professed how too many teachers in art schools, specifically graduate art programs, are disturbingly insecure and increasingly view their students as competition, and that this dynamic creates a dishonest atmosphere that unfortunately caters to the art faculty’s fragile and irrelevant egos.
I happen to share a lot of opinions with Hickey when it comes to art and I appreciate his thoughts even when I don’t agree. I doubt that he meant to offend anybody with his statements about identity politics, though I can see how his delivery could be viewed as roughly issued. I personally interpreted his remarks as showing how the idea of a certain “art” used to convey an angle of “we” and has developed into a concept about “I”, so to speak, and that perhaps he is not particularly comfortable with this evolution because his lens is less about subjectivity and more about a larger contextualizing moment. I realize there is no correct answer to this issue.
Still, Hickey never fails to incite dialogue whenever he returns to the public eye. He has always been an exciting voice in the arts, even before he became “the" Dave Hickey. He opened his first art gallery while a graduate student at the University of Texas where he balanced the two pursuits (I can personally empathize with his graduate school/art gallery endeavor). After serving as editor of Art in America, he has continued to contribute to the arts with his widely read books—another one I highly recommend is The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty.
After teaching at the University of Nevada for many years, Hickey has left Las Vegas and now resides in New Mexico.