Art "That Doesn't Even Exist": Dave Hickey Explains Ennui; and Upcoming Lectures on Art and Art Criticism

"Do y'all mind if I listen to my Ipod?" asked art critic Dave Hickey in a twang, just before striking the first notes of his freewheeling lecture at the packed SVA Theatre on. W. 23rd St. last Thursday evening. "I just put T. Rex The Slider on it." And then the writer of The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty and Air Guitar: Essays an Art & Democracy, to cite two of his most influential collection of essays, launched into an extended riff on the idea of ennui. Addressing how boredom directly relates to the non-existence of a great deal of visual art in contemporary life, Hickey advised the large audience of mostly art students on how to avoid the trap of making boring art, "art that does not even exist."


According to Hickey, who cited Robert Rauschenberg for sharing the idea, art runs in 40-year cycles. After a fresh new idea comes along, it plays itself out over time and eventually become stale. When artists can't claim it anymore, however, they can begin to steal from it, he explained. Hickey advised artists to look for inspiration in works from 40 years ago or to go even farther back. In his own case, as a practitioner of New Journalism, he reached back for writing models in Victorian reportage. "Go back right to the moment before it started sucking," the Texas-born critic-curator and former Nashville songwriter poetically explained. When art adheres too close to the cannon by replicating its conventions and permitted deviations, it's no longer there. It's boring. "Walk through a provincial museum, and it's like listening to AM radio," Hickey said.

In this lecture, as in his essays, Hickey raged against the moment in the late 1960s when art institutions, foundations, councils, etc. embraced the notion that art was good for us. When civic-minded institutions started shuffling misfit students into art classes, professing the virtues of creativity, and dispersing funds to various socioeconomic classes of arts, controlling artists under the patronizing idea of caring for them became "a murderous and ruthless concept." Hickey said he felt much better about the art world when no one was encouraged. While he did not extend his thoughts in the lecture, Hickey writes in Air Guitar that art was more fun when it was a personal discovery shared among friends and not something that we're inculcated to think is good for us. In the chapter titled "Frivolity and Unction," he writes he would like us to consider just how much better we would feel "if art were considered bad, silly, and frivolous."
 
In his SVA lecture Hickey characterized the art world as "an extremely Darwinian system" that rewards "the survival of the luckiest." A resident of Las Vegas, he has written before that at least in Vegas, unlike in the art world, you know the odds. Sounding a new note in his lecture, saving it for the end, he shared his thoughts on the circumstances of his own lucky stature as a famed critic in the art world. (He's even been awarded a MacArthur Fellow "genius" grant, a recognition that I believe he richly deserves.) At the time he started writing about art, he explained, a dozen or so up-and-coming arts writers were ready to take up the mantle for the next generation. They died of AIDS. He was left standing. He was the lucky one.

So, where does Hickey suggest we go from here? Looking for iconoclastic artists like Lynda Benglis and Larry Clark "to kick us through this," he idealizes a convivial democratic society where we chat about art and argue the relative merits of particular works. We'll talk about art not because it's good for us but for the kicks.

Such thoughts may not be appreciated among those who attempt to control what we think about art, but considering art as a pleasurable way to break rules and to subvert the norm can help free artists, and especially for the art students assembled in the theater, from the tyranny of conventions or art's current fashions. Casting aside expectations could also help art aficionados alter the general way we approach the new gallery season in New York. Instead of walking into an intimidating gallery and trying to get it, feeling forced to appreciate the art fashion du jour, we could just as easily turn around and walk out. Then we can search for the art that turns us on, roaming the galleries and spaces where the cool kids run the show, feeling lucky to live in a city with too many people who make it.

Note: A revised and expanded edition of The Invisible Dragon was published in April 2009 by The University of Chicago Press. Details here at Amazon.

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Upcoming lectures in art:
• The School of Visual Arts (SVA) has a fine Fall 2009 lecture series. Upcoming lectures include David Salle (Sept. 29), Robin Winters (Oct. 1), Naked Lunch at 50 (Oct. 10), Sabine Flach (Oct. 13), Sylvere Lotringer (Oct. 29), Lucio Pozzi (Nov. 10), Eleanor Heartney (Nov. 17) and more. See www.sva.edu/events

• On September 25 at 6:45 p.m., The National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts (1083 Fifth Ave. at 89th St.) in partnership with artcritical.com presents an evening of art scholars and writers discussing the work on display at four galleries. David Brody, David Carrier, Linda Nochlin, and moderator David Cohen will discuss the work of Janine Antoni (Luhring Augustine), Maya Lin (PaceWildenstein), Chris Ofili (David Zwirner) and Kehinde Wiley (Deitch Projects). More of these Review Panels are scheduled for the upcoming year.  See www.nationalacademy.org

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