Dave Hickey

with Sari Carel


zingmagazine
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art & design

 

Sari Carel :: Often you discuss in your essays and writings a principle shift that occurred in American culture and economy as well as in the Art World starting in the early '70s. You describe this change as having considerable influence on the course of Contemporary Art since then. What are the origins and consequences of this paradigm shift?


Dave Hickey :: The art world tends to be driven by its market, and throughout the '50s and the '60s it was a relatively small art world with dealers and collectors and one or two small museums. It was during that period that the most powerful and permanent American art in this century was made—from Abstract Expressionism and Pop, to Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. It was, in a real sense, a great Mediterranean moment created by 4000 heavily medicated human beings. And then in the late '60s we had a little reformation privileging museums over dealers and universities over apprenticeship, a vast shift in the structure of cultural authority.

All of a sudden rather than an art world made up of critics and dealers, collectors and artists, you have curators, you have tenured theory professors, a public funding bureaucracy—you have all of these hierarchical authority figures selling a non-hierarchical ideology in a very hierarchical way. This really destroyed the dynamic of the art world in my view, simply because like most conservative reactions to the '60s it was aimed specifically at the destruction of sibling society—the society of contemporaries.

The art world from the late eighteenth century to the present has worked in a language of generations. Artists worked with their peers and among them to overthrow and supplant the generation in power. Then suddenly in the '70s you have artists who, rather than overthrowing their seniors, are pleasing them in order to get grades and public funding. That is exactly what my problem is with serving on National Endowment panels. I did it, and participated in it, but I have to admit that this is the first time in the history of American Art that an older generation has the authority to decide which works of the younger generation are privileged. This slowed down the style wheel to a virtual stop, and created a culture of mentors and protegés—a hierarchical, parental structure that would last as long as the National Endowment and the big museums and foundations had absolute power, say from '72 to '88.

During this time, it was almost impossible for anything to change, because our culture is composed of a public academic and museum sector that changes slowly, and after the fact, in 30 year cycles, and a private gallery and magazine sector that changes rapidly, sometimes overnight. In the last ten years the academics who have been retiring from American universities are Abstract Expressionists and Formalists hired and tenured in the late '60s, just as these practices lost public credibility. They are being replaced with Deconstructionists who are already out of date, and who will be in power for the next 30 years, talking about stuff that is already over now.


SC :: So you see that as the origin of the shift?


DH :: The first paradigm shift really had to do with the influence of French Theory in the '50s and the '60s. That's the world in which I was educated, and in its secular formulations it still has its virtues. I continue to believe that the bad thing about French Theory is that it has no heart, and the good thing about French Theory is that it has no soul. In the early '70s the influence of French Theory was considerably altered by the resurgence of German Aesthetic Theory—particularly that of the Frankfurt School whose academicized Marxism lent itself very well to the academicized Marxism that was practiced in American universities.

And also, I think there was another set of problems. The powerful arguments of French Theory—as it might be applied to art—revolve around its critique of Metaphysics and the discourse of origins that manifest in speculations about the death of the artist, and the structural ideology of institutions. If your in an institution teaching artists, you can't kill the artist or critique the institution with much credibility; if you believe in group identity and identity politics, you just restored the author in another guise. If you are tenured in a university you have to limit your critique of institutions considerably, because you are part of an institution. In other words, Post Structuralism is not an academic discourse; Frankfurt School and Marxism is. Also, in the '60s new English translations of writers like Adorno, Benjamin, and Lukacs became available. They were much needed because, loosely interpreted, they allowed us to be Mystical and Romantic, to talk about authenticity again, about what artists feel and their identity. In the world I grew up in, the artist was really presumed to be dead, and to most of my contemporaries, issues of artistic identity mean nothing.

They mean nothing to Warhol, they mean nothing to Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Bridget Riley, or Richard Serra. It's bullshit as far as they are concerned. From my view, it is a bunch of Romantic bullshit. I think that we are having now a kind of Counter-Reformation that has to do first of all with the fact that for 25 years, the market for works of art was the kunsthalle, the museum and the university. You were being paid by the state to make art that couldn't sell, and the art itself, because it was totally isolated from the market, simply didn't change. All of that begins to change when the National Endowment no longer gives as much money, when jobs in universities are no longer available, when art stops being a nice safe place to go.

Because for 30 years being an artist was a safe thing to do. You filled out forms, got your check, taught in classes, you flew to Berlin and put up press type on the wall, poured a bunch of leaves in the room, and a bunch of people came, and you had wine and cheese. Then you flew home, and taught your classes, and went to faculty meetings, and applied for a merit raise, which the university gave you because you had a show in Berlin. And that works fine, although it does not create art that changes. So I think we are seeing now the restoration of sibling society, a society of peers. Most of the young artists that I know are interested in what their contemporaries think; they don't give a fuck what old people think. Your peers are who you live with till you die. You can please a lot of authority figures, but they're dead before you need them. So I think it's changing, in good ways but in a lot of silly ways too.

Another reason it is changing is that in the history of art, the tides of influence tend to go back and forth, they tend to be reactive. One generation reacts against another; the next generation, reacting against the previous one, goes back to the generation before that, which is to say the tides of influence in the art world tend to skip a generation. So now I have students who are really into Bridget Riley and Richard Serra; students who study Warhol, mostly as a colorist. When you are a young artist, you look around and you say, 'Gee everything sucks, I am going to go back to the moment right before everything started sucking, and try to find a new way out of that'. So you have a lot of artists trying to find a new way out of '60s art, much in the same way artists in the '80s tried to find a new way out of '40s art—in the sense that Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Francesco Clemente looked back to the early figurative sources of Abstract Expressionism as a place to start.

So that's perfectly natural, and it happens all the time. The problem today, of course, is that art cannot change so fast because it is so highly institutional. The people in the museum are going to be there forever, the people in the university are going to be there even longer. The institutional super structure of the art world, which is always out of date by definition, is really out of date now. I think that you do begin to see small undergrounds, although its hard to stay underground for very long just because if you're any good at all, people really want to look at it, because there is so much boring fucking art. Anybody who sees anything they like, they go crazy. I know artists just coming out of school and they already have a waiting list of 40 paintings, and that's not because they are great artists, it's just that they're not bad artists.


SC :: I am assuming that there has always been quite a lot of bad and boring art, no?


DH :: Not ideologically bad and boring. We have lived with an ideology that says, "If it looks good, it's bad. If people like it, it's bad. If it's appealing it's reactionary". So you have artists consciously making the worst looking art that they can. And it can really be bad, because it usually looks bad even when you are trying to make it look OK. So I'm pretty optimistic.


SC :: So you think the whole premise of underground arenas and artistic practice is not a bankrupt idea to try and work from?


DH :: It works if you want it to work. It depends on what you want. I grew up in a world in which what artists aspired to was to be able to go to their studio, make art, sell a work occasionally, so they can buy some Wheaties, and some records, and listen to records, and make art, and eat Wheaties. And that was their goal: stay away from the straight world, and stay away from the university, and live their lives. So if that is your aspiration, then yes, I know quite a few young artists that are achieving that now. Most young artists don't want that.


SC :: What do they want?


DH :: They want to fly to Berlin, and put up press type, and that's fine 'cause there is an audience over there for that. But I argue all the time that painting today is much more like Jazz than it is like installation art. It is a discourse that people who know know, the people who care care, and the people who don't care we don't give a shit about. Painters are famous the way Jazz musicians are famous—which means the people who care about painting know them. I just wrote a piece for Art Forum about John Wesly. He has been a famous painter for 40 years among people who love painting. I can go over to Cal Arts and ask them if they know who John Wesly is, and they would go, "Huh? What discourse does he participate in?" I am in the art world only insofar as there are interesting things for me to write about. When that stops, or when I stop getting offers to write things, I'll be out. I won't be going around looking for work; it's not like its any fun. When I was a kid, I had a gallery in Texas, I met Leo Castelli, and I thought Leo was cool. And I would think, "When I go to New York, maybe I will have lunch with Leo, or maybe I can have lunch with Sidney Janis." I would be hard put to think up anybody in the art world I would like to have lunch with today. Maybe Leo Steinberg.


SC :: How was Leo cool?


DH :: Well, he liked art and he was a business person who wasn't obsessed with money. He liked gossip and he had a good eye. He understood how it works. He virtually invented the '60s. He treated his artists right: he never let them go, they always left him. When I was a dealer, he told me good things. "David" he would say, "The art goes out, the money comes in."


SC :: So an environment working under the title "Museum of Contemporary Art," is that a paradox to you? Say, institutions that produce shows like the "Whitney Biennial" and the "Carnegie International," are they dramatically failing to present us with successful surveys of the present state of affairs?


DH :: I think it's pretty peculiar. I think it's a little unnatural. I don't think you should grant appointed conservators, which is what museum people are, the power to determine the course of art. I don't think they are worthy, I don't think they are committed, I don't think they know what's going on. Traditionally, contemporary art museums exhibited artists that had a large constituency in the culture of people who cared about art, and wrote about art, and bought art, so when an artist achieved a certain level, a certain vogue in that world, then they would get a show. Museums represent, in my view, constituencies for people who care about art in that area. The presumption that some fricking teenage curator who went to school in Chicago is going to know more about art than a person who has travelled all over the world looking at it, but doesn't happen to have a degree—it makes no sense to me. I don't see why these people should be telling us what to think. I don't think that contemporary art benefits from being publicly administrated.

The main thing is Americans don't like art, they won't pay for art, they don't deserve art. That's just a fact. This is a Puritan republic in which nobody gives a shit about art. When I came to the art world, there were maybe 2000 seriously committed people who would do it whether they got payed or not. Today there are about 2000 seriously committed people who would do it whether they get paid or not. That's fine, those 2000 people created Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop, and Post-Minimalism in its early days. There have been now for 30 years people working for salaries administering the art world, and what have they done?

Art can have public consequences, but it's not very educational. I keep challenging people, "Tell me one thing that you've learned from art." It is not an educational activity. But we like education, and we like things that go away. You don't need to know anything to understand good art. The only justification for an exhibition these days is some educational purpose, or if it's a box office. At the MoMA what goes is what will get them a box office; the MoMA is more market driven than Mary Boone is. Mary Boone will sometimes put something up just to see if people like it. The MoMA would never do that. And there are a lot of artists that would benefit from a show at the MoMA, who are Modern artists like Bradley Walker Tomlin, James Brookes, and many others who never had a major show. The MoMA will put up Picassos, because people will go see that. The perfect MoMA show would be Picasso's paintings of the Holy Land from the collection of Jacqueline Kennedy.


SC :: I understand you are going to do one of these "uber" shows. What are your ideas to make it different?


DH :: Well, its called "Beau Monde," beautiful world, and I am interested in doing a show that has length as well as width. Most shows are comprised of people from age 35 to 45, of all nations, genders, ethnicities etc, etc. My show will start with people from the oldest practicing generation, and also include some people in their '20s, all of whom are interested in fabrication. Rather than dealing with cultural identity, I am interested in the interface of cultures—the impurity and reconciliation of various cultures, about how one culture impacts another.


SC :: You critique works of art with regards to their ideological stance, positioning generosity and inclusiveness against exclusivity, and speaking about works that practice contingency rather than autonomy, and are anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritative at their core. How does that influence your taste?


DH :: I am interested in works in which something happens when you look at them. And also I am interested in works that have either the simplicity or the complexity to change their meanings. Good art, to survive, must change its meaning. If we still had to think about a Pollock the way he thought about it, we would hate it. He was crazy, he was an asshole. He thought he was doing Jungian Expression or something. Works of art have to be free enough in the culture to sustain reinterpretation over the years, and they have to continue to happen, and that's very difficult. Works of art don't have messages. They don't have determinate meanings. They're not just formal objects. Deleuze has a book about Lewis Carroll, The Logic of Sense, which is exactly about the way we perceive and sense things. Lewis Carroll has lines that don't mean anything, but they have meaning. And that's how art works. A Pollock doesn't mean anything, but it has meaning, we can find meanings for it, if we care to. I am really not concerned with what the artist meant. It's totally irrelevant. I have written a lot of fiction, I don't know what it meant, I know that the story doesn't mean what I thought it meant. Artists don't know what they're doing, so why ask them? What matters is, what the consensus of opinion of what the work means on a particular moment. And it really matters that a work of art can survive the changing of its meanings.

I am very concerned with the process of thinking and the process of meaning; I am not really concerned with thought or with what things mean. Works of art, according to TS Elliot, are objective correlatives; they are things in the world that we use to correlate our opinions about. That's not meant to discount the artist. It's meant to free the artist, so they can do what they want, because they don't know anyway. I know some grown up artists who know pretty well what they are doing. Ed Ruscha knows what he expects to get, so do Bridget Riley, Richard Serra, and Ellsworth Kelly. But these are people in their sixties and seventies. Anyone who is much younger than that, if they are any good, are still improvising. And then there are people, like Rauschenberg, who are 70 years old and are still improvising. Bob doesn't have the faintest idea what he's doing, but he is doing it every day. I am interested in that, I don't like rules. I think art is for people who like art, who like to talk about physical things in the world. I don't think there is any difference, say, between talking about the Lakers and talking about Terry Winters. Maybe that the Lakers are better, and you talk about them with different people. They are both occasions for discourse.


SC :: Your art criticism seems to be a choice you've made within the sphere of writing. You use art criticism to write just as much as you use writing to criticize art.


DH :: Yeah, I am a writer. My whole idea in life is to be able to make a living doing what I like to do. I like to write, and I like to write about hard things in the world—I don't usually like to make things up—although I do occasionally. It's fine to make things up at times, because it's so hard to write about things in the world. I am a pretty good writer. I mean some days I write better and some worse, but I have skills, and my view of the world is solid enough that regardless of the topic you give me, I will say some version of the same thing. I wrote a piece called "Earth Scapes, Land Works and Oz" back in '72 for Art in America about Land Art and my position has not changed since then. I have spent most of my career writing about Post-Minimalist art. I write about Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, Ann Hamilton, Robert Gober. Only recently, because of the shift in taste, do I get to write about people whom I have deep temperamental affinities with, like Warhol or John Wesly. For 30 years you couldn't get a job or occasion to write about these people. I like getting assignments, if I didn't get them I would probably not write anything, except maybe Rock N Roll songs. God, I thought of a really good name for a band the other day, I saw it in Newsweek; 'Cloning Pigs for Parts' . . . "We're, like, Cloning Pigs for Parts and we're from San Bernardino . . ."


SC :: You should go into business.


DH ::
Yeah, I make up pretty good band names. My other best one was 'Clown Meat,' which I like a whole lot.


SC :: You being an art critic, as well as a gallery owner in the past, I'm curious to hear what in your mind is the relationship between artists, critics, gallerists . . . what's going on between all these people?


DH :: Well. The art world is very easy. When I was a dealer I used to say, "The artist makes the work, I sell the work, the artist's girlfriend or boyfriend tries to get me to give them the money." That's all it is, it's as simple as that. It's all about the public adjudication of value. I prefer today, since I don't really do reviews anymore, to write for commercial galleries.


SC :: You mean catalogues?


DH :: Yeah. If you write for magazines there is all that educational bullshit you have to put in.


SC :: You mean like general art history stuff?


DH :: All these magazines are written for sophomores in Southern Illinois University. So you have to say things like "Andy Warhol, the Pop artist." You have to tell everybody who John Wesly is. And I find that to be kind of boring. I just did a catalogue on Picabia for Michael Werner Gallery.


SC :: That was a great show.


DH :: It was a great show, I love Picabia. And it was really fun; I could just sit down and write about Picabia, and presume that everybody could read and write, and knew who Picabia was, and who Alfred Barr was. Also you're working with professional editors. Art magazines don't have professional editors. Their idea of good writing is Derrida or something. And also it pays better, and it can have some impact on the life of the work. Nothing you write in a magazine, except for maybe a review, has much impact.


SC :: Doesn't it have a direct connection to the market value of the work?


DH :: Oh certainly, but the market value also has direct connection to the general esteem in which the work is held. Picabia has for many years been a complete cult artist. I was into Picabia, in the mid '70s I bought one for one thousand dollars and sold it for four. He has been an artist held in high esteem by a lot of people for a long time, but without essential market value, and there are people with great market value, Cecily whatever . . .


SC :: Brown?


DH :: Yeah, Brown, I don't know many artists who hold her in high esteem. She has skill, she may get better. Obviously, there is no direct correspondence between market value and sophisticated esteem. But at the same time you can't separate these things. Put it like this, if you've been an art critic as long as I have, it is very important to be what they call "bankable." Which means if you look at all the people you have written about, it is important that their prices go up. In other words, you're not going to spend all your time writing about some bumpkin who carves tree stumps in Seattle. It doesn't matter, the word's not out there, people are not talking about it, its just vanity writing. I do that sometimes, but not very much. Nor is there much good to be gained from doing theoretical analysis. Theory is easy, practice is hard. I used to say theory is playing poker with no spots on the cards. I like to critique the hard world, so the hard world becomes a critique of what you write. And you want to have influence; you want to make people take what you value seriously, and you want people to question what you don't take seriously.

I don't write negative criticism very much. I would never write a negative review of a young artist. There are certain sort of hyper-inflated reputations, which I will occasionally take a shot at. I took a shot at Clemente's Neo-Expressionist paintings, and I love some of his work. I took a shot at Christopher Wool as well, who seems to me an incredibly pretentious artist. But I don't usually do that—it's easy to critique and it's hard to praise—so I would rather tell you why I think something is good. There is really no such thing as an art critic having power; works of art have power, and you have to kind of be right and persuasive at the same time. It helps to understand commerce for what it is, which is a way to make a living doing what you like to do. I don't have a fancy family, I didn't go to Harvard, I don't have a trust fund, I never got a fucking grant and I am not likely to, because I don't have a grant-friendly sensibility. If it weren't for the magazine world, I would probably be teaching Melville in some junior college, and drinking. I would be dead, or still out with some sleazy garage band playing "Free Bird," and "Rock N Roll Hoochy Coo," that's not something you look forward to.


SC :: Yeah, that's not a pretty thing. I remember reading you dropped out of grad school—


DH :: Yeah, I hated it.


SC :: What was wrong?


DH :: Well, I always thought it was about intellectual adventure, and it was really about a lot of people who wanted to be junior professors in a school and that was it. It wasn't exciting. My idea of embarking upon graduate studies was to go some place where the smart people are. Unfortunately, the smart people are no longer in universities, the smart people are writing for [The Simpsons, the smart people are writing for LL Cool J. There are exceptions, and that's an exaggeration, but most of all academic culture is just one big handicap, and I live in it with colleagues that I respect, but it ain't where the thoughts are thought. I kind of like teaching—I mean, I enjoy working with artists. But what I do with graduate students now, is exactly what I did with the artists I represented when I was a dealer. I go to their studios, we sit around and talk about the work with the idea of how can we get this shit looking like something. That's it. I like being around people who work. All of my social talk is with people who have done something between the time I talked to them last, and the time I talk to them now. University people really don't do very much, so you have to talk about pets. I am mostly interested in people who are doing things and are busy. I get along with them.


SC :: So when did you start teaching?


DH :: Well, I was doing semesters here and there, and then I decided I wanted to move to Las Vegas, so I kind of bullied the people here into hiring me, because I had a good resume, and I wanted to have health insurance, and I wanted to have contact with young artists, but not as a critic. Since I have a lot of apparent leverage in art world, young artists don't behave "normally" around me anymore. I enjoy working with young artists, I find myself in the midst of a generation of young artists with more temperamental affinities than I had with young artists for many years.


SC :: Do you like TV?


DH :: Well, I watch it all the time.


SC :: What's you favorite thing?


DH :: Basketball. I'll watch anything. I liked Perry Mason so I like Law and Order which is like Perry Mason. The first half is law the second is order, it's a type of Formalism. The density of the variations they run on that sort of thing becomes interesting. I watch kickboxing movies, which seem to be the most orderly movies that are made. Some guy kills some guy's brother and then there's explosions. I like them because all the people that work on these movies are extremely professional and the plots are very orderly—they all have a kind of coherence that your standard Hollywood movie doesn't have any more. I was telling somebody the other day it looks to me that Hollywood is making foreign films. I mean what fucking universe does Runaway Bride live in. It's like it comes from Belgium or something, what the fuck is that about. The last one I really understood was Encino Man, which was pretty good.


SC :: What was that about?


DH :: It's a high school comedy in which a bunch of kids living in Encino defrost a Neanderthal man who becomes the most popular guy in school.


BEN BUCHANAN :: What about reality TV?


DH :: Oh, I hate that.


SC :: What about cops?


DH :: Kind of, I like the song. The song is great and I like the idea that as long as I keep my fucking shirt on, I won't get arrested. I don't like baseball. I don't like most things, I mostly channel surf. The Simpsons are cool.


SC :: Consistently cool.


DH :: Yeah. I like actually that cartoon on MTV, Daria, with the little girl . . .


BB :: The disaffected youth?


DH :: Yes, the disaffected youth, I think she's great. I recognize that family. I watch whatever comes up. I usually watch Biography but I don't really like it. There is only about one in ten that's any good, but it's interesting to know shit about peoples' lives, and it's also interesting to speculate on what their lives are actually like, as opposed to what you have been told that they were like. I hated Survivor because I teach at a faculty and Survivor is about how bureaucracies work. First you cut off the odd and the weak, then you cut off the strong, then you form an alliance of mediocre people, and the administrator of that alliance gets to be dean. And that's what Survivor is about.


SC :: And they get the cash.


DH :: Yeah, they get the cash. I watch TV without the sound. I am actually kind of annoyed that there isn't any music on MTV anymore, that there are all those reality shows and sit-coms. I'll leave MTV on, and if the picture looks good, I will put the sound on, although the music video industry has collapsed. Its one of those genres in which the first ones were the best ones.


BB :: That's very true.


DH :: Also, I was a songwriter, so I hated MTV. I didn't like that they got their shot at my song, I would rather have them send me a video with a clip track, and let me write to their video. Rather than putting my teenage love song on Mars or something like that.


SC :: I guess you've been around America a lot since you were a kid, moving around with your family, and later on your own.


DH :: Yes, I am a habitual traveler.


SC :: So . . . what's this place all about if it's about anything?


DH ::
I don't have any idea. It's interesting, and its perpetually amazing. It is less amazing than it used to be because a lot of the eccentricity and the regional differences have been smoothed out. In a sense, I like that. I like that anywhere I go, I can stay at the Holiday Inn, and I know where the bathroom is. But I am really interested in people who make it up as they go along and there are still some out there. Regardless of what my colleagues say, you have in this place, still, a lot more options, and a lot more freedom than I see in other places. You can really do some weird shit. You can always leave town as well; go to the edge and declare that the center. You can always leave town and start again and then start 'againagain.' It is possible in good times to live on the margin. Like in the '60s and '70s, their was enough money floating around to get by. I have no idea how I supported myself between '68-'78. This kind of money and fluidity is coming around again, so there is enough money that there is a margin that you can survive on. And that privileges improvisation. I think it is going to get better, I believe in Darwin.


SC :: You believe in evolution and progress?


DH :: No, I believe in deviation. What you want is a maximum field of deviation. And anything that tries to keep things from deviating is against my principles. The more deviation there is, the more new things you have to select and not select from. And that interests me. That's why I didn't like art from '75 to '85; that was against deviation. You had to be a certain kind of person to be an artist, and believe certain kinds of things that I stopped believing when I quit the SDS. So that's my aspiration for the art world, that it would be a place that tolerates intellectual tumult.