Arousing Dissent 

An interview with dave hickey.

As a critic of art and pop culture, Dave Hickey is a contentious character, deemed by one New York Times writer as the "eminence terrible of the art world." The author of The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty and Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, Hickey has garnered both fans and enemies as the leading proponent of a return to beauty in art. The University of Nevada professor rejects the notion among academics that art's highest function is social activism; rather Hickey champions art that inspires an "involuntary" response in the viewer. He is fond of saying that he is less interested in what art means than what it does. Hickey will speak at the Memphis College of Art on Friday, February 23rd, and spoke with the Flyer last week.

Flyer: What will be the topic of your [MCA] lecture?

Dave Hickey: I thought I would talk about the role of the audience in the art world, because books and paintings and works of art in this culture are almost totally accepted on the consumer side. Art isn't art until someone likes it -- the artist doesn't validate it, the dealer doesn't validate it, rather the public validates it. Different kinds of art are defined by different kinds of publics. And so when you start making art, it is relatively important to understand who you are making art for, whose mind you want to change, who you want to impress, whose money you want to put in your bank account.

There is an ambient assumption in the art world that we can somehow educate everybody to like art; that if we just had enough wall texts and museums and acousta-guides and that sort of thing, then artists would be okay. I really don't think this is the case. I don't think that artists necessarily benefit from a broad mainstream audience. The patronage of Laura Bush is probably not what you want if you're an artist, but it is what museums want, of course, and it's what a lot of institutions want, because those are the people with the money. So, I thought I would discuss the complexities of a culture that is dominated by the power of the consumer side.

Given the fact that an MFA in art as a credential to teach is no longer practical, what do you think that students should be getting out of an art education?

Well, to be honest, I don't know. It should be the time that you prepare for the rest of your life. A graduate art school or art education is a relatively small trajectory, a four- to six-year trajectory, and artists need to be working on a 20-year trajectory. So I try to encourage my students to have goals that extend beyond the end of school, so that when they get out of school they can somehow continue working. I would say that 80 percent of people who graduate from art schools never make another work of art, probably because the art they're making is so tied in to the conditions of art education.

The real problem is that serious art as a contentious visual practice really only exists in big cities where people have enough money to buy what their friends don't like and what confuses them, where there is enough power and complexity to enable that. And it simply doesn't happen in smaller cities in America or even Germany.

And you would include Memphis in that definition?

Oh sure! As a place where people make [art] and look at it and talk about it and buy it as a serious avocation, that happens in L.A., New York, Cologne, maybe it happens in Houston. It happens in great big cities. When you're an artist in a small city, there is a tendency to regard yourself as part of an art community dissenting from the local norms. But in a big city, you usually regard yourself as an artist who is dissenting against the art community. In small cities, the pressure to get along with all the other artists and art educators and professionals in town is just enormous and that tends to control your art more than trying to please some used-car dealer.

Well, I know the Memphis art community is rather inbred. There is often a relationship between getting one's work in the marketplace and having some other kind of credential as a member of academia, society, etc. There is an underbelly of artists who have attempted to initiate a counter-discourse, but none that gains any kind of real foothold. As such, Memphis creates its own circle of local celebrity artists that don't really compete in the art world on a national or international scale.

All medium-sized cities do that. The hardest thing to do in a small city as you have doubtless discovered is to seriously dissent from what is going on. For example, the people that run your newspaper might very well hang out with the people who are on the boards of the schools or hang out with the people who are on the boards of the corporations. You've got to be in a city that's big enough that you can have a real community of dissenters -- in which there are rich people who are dissenters, where there are corporate people who are dissenters, where there is a continuous community of dissent or at least an enthusiasm for art that can distinguish itself from what goes on at the country club.

I just think art is a cosmopolitan practice. If you live in New York, you can make a living making art about hating New York; if you live in L.A., you can make a living making art about hating L.A. If you live in Memphis, you can't make art about hating Memphis. You have to leave, or you can make art about loving Memphis and you can paint pictures of happy musicians and the river and all of that.

The South is very peculiar in the sense that it is almost entirely a literary culture. It's not a picture culture. Most of the art tends to be extremely literary. Since the South regards itself as a place where the best days are gone, there's a kind of built-in nostalgia in all of the art that you see. It is the home of the photograph of the weathered door. I don't think that good art is grounded much in nostalgia, rather it is usually grounded in some promise of the future.

Dave Hickey Lecture

Friday, February 23rd

Memphis College of Art

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