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The Poetry of Commerce


Not a great dealer, perhaps, since she had more of an ear than an eye, and not a classic art dealer, either, since she preferred selling to counting. . .but when the conditions were right, as they had been yesterday, when she could set the poetry of commerce in motion, as she had done, she could fucking sell some art.

Dave Hickey, Stardumb

“Who needs God when you’ve got Capital?” mused art critic Peter Schjeldahl in a 1997 salute to Las Vegas. The saying might well have stood as art criticism’s motto of the Nineties. After all, it’s clearly the guiding sentiment of Schjeldahl’s mentor, Dave Hickey, an art critic whose influential 1997 book, Air Guitar, is in its third printing and whose ideas pervade the little world of contemporary art. A self-styled renegade, Hickey has spent years proposing a vision of cultural renewal sparked by the forces of the free market, or, as he likes to call it, “democracy.” That vision, in short, is this: The expansion of state-sponsored arts institutions in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies ultimately led to the people’s disenfranchisement and the rote manufacture of artists by a modern-day Academy. Both artist and art lover, alienated from the local communities that should rightly sustain them, are now hostage to the mandates of big government agencies. The commercial sector, however, promises liberation. Only unfettered entrepreneurs can create a vital art, and only paying customers can escape the predigested dispensations of the liberal state.

Like champions of the market everywhere, Hickey cloaks his hostility to the public sector in the rhetoric of democracy and freedom. But Hickey is no watchdog for Western civilization like Hilton Kramer or Allan Bloom. He distances himself from both cultural conservatives and the lefty intelligentsia, fancying himself instead a man of the people. A product of the Sixties (he even played guitar for Janis Joplin), he is a perennial hipster, outsider, and establishment-basher. His latest role is curator of SITE Santa Fe’s Fourth International Biennial, opening in the summer of 2001. Along the way Hickey made a living as a gallery owner, a music critic, and an editor at Art in America, and his criticism is wide-ranging and eclectic.

Hickey is his own ideal American.

Air Guitar, a collection of Hickey’s writings for Art issues, is dedicated to such unpretentious pleasures as basketball, cars, and the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The back flap tellingly sports a photograph of the youthful Hickey accompanied by the caption, “The author as art dealer, 1967.” As it turns out, this youthful dip into the world of buying and selling is the key to Hickey’s criticism: At the age of twenty-six, convinced that his professors were too ideologically hidebound to appreciate his ideas, Hickey quit graduate school at the University of Texas for the more honest, more all-American profession of gallery-owning. (His disdain for academia has only intensified since he took a job as, um, an academic at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.) The story of how he came to reject the scholarly “priests of institutional virtue” to “make one’s way in the world through wit and wile” is classic Hickey, one in which our hero defies the shit at the top and the shit at the bottom in favor of the democratic, “Emersonian” way. Hickey is his own ideal American.

It is Hickey’s aesthetics, however, that made him famous, and the connection he draws between the experience of beauty and the power of the market that have made him such a characteristic figure of our age. The Invisible Dragon, a 1993 Hickey polemic that almost single-handedly inspired a revival of interest in beauty, fortuitously appeared in the same year that the Whitney Museum mounted its notorious “political” Biennial, a ham-handed effort to showcase identity politics that bombed spectacularly. Enter The Invisible Dragon, an attack on the art-world bureaucracy and its “administration of virtue.” Although only sixty-four pages long, the book was enthusiastically embraced by an art world weary of pseudo-radicalism and self-righteous posturing. Hickey received the Frank Mather Jewett Award for Distinction in Art Criticism for 1994. His ideas on beauty started cropping up in exhibition catalogues, gallery statements, and the effusions of acolytes like Schjeldahl and Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight. By the mid-Nineties, Hickey was the latest vogue in an art world he affected to despise. (He returned the favor by publishing, in 1999, a series of vignettes on art world types called Stardumb.)

Viewed in terms of the larger American rage for markets, though, Hickey seems less like an innovative thinker and more like the Fred Barnes of art criticism: In his universe, all things bad come from elite liberal institutions like government and museums; all things good emanate from ordinary people working through their trusted democratic medium, the free market. Hickey simply makes this familiar scheme palatable to the art world by steering clear of right-wing wackos and pretending to derive it instead from sophisticated thinkers like French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, whose politicized theory of sadomasochism Hickey uses to ground his views on aesthetic experience and, ultimately, liberty. In Hickey’s spin on Deleuze, “Sadism is about nature and power. Masochism is about culture and, ironically, the law.” The sadist is identified with the repressive agencies that enforce “‘natural law’” and “‘formal values’” while the masochist “focuses on deferred sublimity and the vertiginous rhetoric of trust.” While “‘the sadist is in need of institutions,’” the masochist craves “contractual relations.” Thus Hickey conceives of art as a contract between the beholder and the image, with beauty as its “signature.” Art both gratifies the beholder aesthetically and instructs her in freedom of contract. Oo la la!

Hickey applies Deleuze’s theory to the avant-garde’s old whipping boy, the museum, while equating it helpfully with the state. The curatoriate may make overtures to alienated beauty—the “invisible dragon”—but these are farcical, for in Hickey’s scheme of things the true artist and the ideal beholder can’t transcend the imperatives of the institution. Addressing a hypothetical aspiring artist, Hickey advises that “when your movement hits the museum, abandon it. Your demure emblem now adorns the smooth state—resides in the domain of normative expression, its status greatly magnified and its rich social contextuality effectively sterilized.” Hence the book’s cover illustration, Ed Ruscha’s rendering of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on fire. Quirky, demotic organizations like the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas are, by contrast, said to be more authentic representatives of American expression.

For several years Hickey could be found dispensing this free-market philosophy of culture in his column in Art issues. Ostensibly “devoted to unfashionable enthusiasms, unlikely objects of desire, and other phenomena held in mysterious esteem by the author and citizens of his acquaintance,” the column was even more powerfully devoted to the programmatic identification of Hickey’s tastes with all that is righteous and democratic. But Hickey’s love affair with the people is ambivalent at best. Indeed, the tuned-in “citizens” with their “unfashionable enthusiasms” are the only ones for whom Hickey has any real sympathy. These people are members of local, intimate communities like the ones that Hickey grew up in, where culture is ordinary, and where “participants” consciously gravitate toward good art—essentially, Norman Rockwell meets Andy Warhol. The rest of us—that is, the majority—are but fodder for the sadism of the institution, and Hickey pretty much can’t stand us.

“Romancing the Looky-Loos,” an essay dedicated to the pensées of Hickey and country music star Waylon Jennings on the burdens of the true and authentic sensibility, is typical of Hickey’s preoccupation with these cultural constituencies. Jennings reminisces about the good old days when he played “for people who come from where you come from,” like-minded people who “understand what you’re doing, so you feel like you’re doing it for them.” But things have changed:

“Right now, hoss,” he says, “it’s completely out of my hands. I’m looking at those people out there, but I don’t know what I’m seeing. And they’re watching me, too. But they don’t know what they’re looking at. My best guess is that they’ll keep on loving me till they start hating me, or their Waylon duds wear out. Because they already hate me a little, just because I’m me and they’re them. That’s why they always go on about how talented you are. Because they hate you. Because if they had this talent, they would be you. The fact that you’ve worked like a dog, lived like a horse thief, and broke your mama’s heart to do whatever you do, that don’t mean diddly-squat. To them, it’s talent. Supposedly, you got it, and, supposedly, they don’t. So eventually you’re bound to disappoint them.”

Looky-loos are, of course, philistines, enviously looking in from the outside. They are fickle, insensitive clods who will never really understand you. Jennings’ brooding self-image—“worked like a dog, lived like a horse thief, and broke your mama’s heart”—invokes the heroic artist who suffers for his art (and all for the sake of “them.”) Indeed, in Hickey’s story, he and Jennings are literally going down that lonesome highway, “sitting in the shotgun seats at the front of his bus, slouched down with our heels up on the chrome rail, watching the oncoming highway between the toes of our boots.” Either you lived like a horse thief, etc., or you’re one of those people, who as Hickey says, “did not live the life—people with no real passion for what was going on.”

Hickey’s association of “real passion” with freedom-loving capitalists and of philistinism with the liberal state is a staple of his writings. “Pontormo’s Rainbow,” for instance, recounts an early encounter with an authoritarian sociologist he sourly dubs June Cleaver, who grills him in the school cafeteria for the purposes of a national study on the deleterious effects of cartoons on children. The moral is supposed to be obvious: invasive, puritanical bleeding-hearts want to deny the TV-watching boy Hickey the glorious pleasures of being “ravished by color.” Then there’s Professor Walthar Volbach, a refugee from Nazi Germany who taught Hickey that “the government” and “the universities” only sponsor “Aryan muscle-boy” art—that is, “official art”—as opposed to the commercial sector, which was “a Jew thing, a queer thing, and a silly woman thing,” a place where truly vital and truly diverse culture can flourish. So Hickey rejects his birthright as an Aryan muscle-boy to become a “soldier of desire doing a little business in the night”—that is, an art dealer. For Hickey, as for many American libertarians, fascism and liberalism are indistinguishable because both promote the power of the state. Advancing from this brilliant insight, Hickey proceeds to liken various art figures to Nazis. In The lnvisible Dragon, Hickey actually compares the Museum of Modern Art’s founding director, Alfred Barr, with Joseph Goebbels.

Hickey’s response to the triumph of the “looky-loos” and their big nanny government is not to withhold his genius from the masses, like the best and the brightest in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but to retreat to Las Vegas, a city that he imagines somehow to embody democracy itself. For Hickey, art is “a betting sport,” and gambling is a metaphor both for the free market and the free individual. Hence he is able to argue that Las Vegas possesses both the “only indigenous visual culture on the North American continent” (you know, the neon thing) and freedom from class stratification. Since the city’s culture is a product of the market’s response to “private desire,” it is unmediated by the state-sponsored custodians of fine art. In Las Vegas, he writes, “there are only two rules: (1) Post the odds, and (2) Treat everybody the same. Just as one might in a democracy (What a concept!)”

This is, of course, preposterous. From the hard-fought union organizing drives to the penthouse suites of the high-rollers, Vegas is a city of profound and obvious class discrimination. And while Hickey has remarked on the “queasy dread” inspired in him by the state’s “diffuse network of proprietary surveillance,” he seems to have no problem with the nearly Orwellian surveillance technology used by the big Vegas casinos. Furthermore, as James Surowiecki has pointed out in Slate, the city is “a supply-sider’s dream: no corporate income tax, no personal income tax, no local earnings tax, no inventory tax, no capital-stock tax, no franchise tax, no admissions tax, no inheritance tax, low property tax, and a right-to-work state. Difficult not to make money when you’re the only game in town in a Third World city-state.”

But at least Vegas is not Washington, D.C., the capital of “this nasty little Puritan republic,” and while relaxing among his beloved neon Hickey is free to deliver his overheated libertarian attacks on the public sector. In Hickey’s version of democracy, it’s all quite simple and direct: works of art are submitted to the public referendum of the free market without recourse to the state’s artificial sanction. Meanwhile, the individual, practiced at negotiation and consensus through cultural relations, becomes a free participant in democracy. And Hickey himself cheers us on in our war with the liberal state while his books and articles are published by the Foundation for Advanced Critical Studies and his salary paid by the state of Nevada. It’s hard to argue with Hickey’s longing for a resurgent counterculture; indeed, genuine discontent with the art world of the Nineties is what paved the way for Hickey’s conspicuous success. But rugged individualism is hardly a new alternative. In fact Hickey merely replaces the radical democratic vision of the left that has dominated art discourse since the Sixties with a radical democratic vision from the right. Nothing better describes the bankruptcy of this vision than his chosen city of Las Vegas, a place with no cultural commissars and no taxes, and where the majority of the people are losers.