Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Two Readers Project, Ch. 2

“Dealing” by Dave Hickey
From the collection Air Guitar

(For an explanation of the series, see here)

Dave Hickey is a widely interested cultural critic -- best known for his work about art -- whose collection of essays, Air Guitar, is an eclectic cult classic. By page 60, Hickey has sharply (and often hilariously) gazed at Flaubert, Las Vegas, some deeply personal biographical territory, and Liberace. Further along comes “Dealing,” the essay in question.

In 1967, Hickey writes, he was a grad student at the University of Texas, working on a dissertation about what, if anything, can be clearly said about “authorial intentions”:
My professors were helplessly and seductively circular on this subject. They would cite Freud to suggest D.H. Lawrence’s “latent homosexuality,” then cite Marx to infer his “class consciousness” -- then presume henceforth that the textual evidence they had discovered of Lawrence’s latent homosexuality and class consciousness somehow validated their faith in Freud and Marx -- and this just would not do.
One of my favorite things about Hickey is his mocking of the academy.

So, he leaves the “hothouse babble of graduate school,” borrows some money, and opens an art gallery in Austin. He’s 26 years old.

In later years, he is regularly asked questions about his time as a dealer, questions that, his tone makes clear, don’t strike him as all that pertinent:
How could I stand the degradation of selling objects to people who knew nothing about art? Didn’t I feel lonely and alienated out there amidst the pandemic schizophrenia of bourgeois culture? And what about my complicity in the hedonistic commodification of critical practice!?
And he provides a few answers, like, “...I can only assure you that everyone in this culture understands the freedom and permission of art’s mandate” and “Art is not a commodity. It has no intrinsic value or stable application. Corn is a commodity...” and and money are very much alike, in both embodiment and conception. . . . (they) are cultural fictions with no intrinsic value.”

Last month, I saw an exhibition of Joan Mitchell, an abstract expressionist, in Chelsea. The paintings weren’t doing much for me on a visceral level, so I turned to a book of her work that the gallery was displaying on its front table. The book had an introductory essay by Hickey, and I thought he might enlighten me a little. Instead, the piece was riddled with the pompous obscurity for which his work often serves as an antidote. It’s not the first time he’s frustrated me by falling prey to the same traps he likes to warn about.

“Dealing” finds him in his more standard good-to-great form, but that’s not to say I nodded along through the whole thing. Toward the end, he discusses the nature of risk in the art world:
When the Museum of Modern Art acquires your work, for instance, it takes a larger risk than the Arts and Crafts Museum in Hometown, U.S.A., should it select your masterpiece for acquisition. When Leo Castelli decides to take you on as an artist, his risk is substantially greater than that of Bob’s Art and Framing in West Las Vegas, should they grant you an exhibition. So you want to show with Leo and sell to MOMA, because MOMA and Castelli, by virtue of their investment in your work, may, if they are spectacularly wrong, call the value of their entire endeavor into question.
I don’t really buy this. Or, I do, but it’s only half the picture. It leaves out the half where MOMA and Leo, after taking enough risks to build up a certain reputation, are, ipso facto, less likely to be considered spectacularly wrong. In this way, I’m not sure Hickey follows his own argument -- in short, that art is not corn -- to its full conclusion. Something from Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, about gallery owners’ social-driven abilities to make or break an artist, comes to mind, but my copy is in storage, so specific citation will have to wait for another time...

(Read Tim's take here. Next week, the series will continue with a short story by Alice Munro. The specific story hasn't been chosen yet, but I'll let you know as soon as it has.)

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