Criticism book: “I write love songs for people who live in a democracy”

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Hickey died last month, aged 82, of heart disease. “I’m blue about Dave,” wrote a woman I know who worked with him in an email, “but frankly I’m surprised he lived as long as he did. . Let’s just say the man’s tires did a lot of off-road driving. It was part of the Hickey mystique (not too strong a word). About a dozen years ago, I lectured as part of an annual series at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Hickey had given it the year before. When I told a curator how happy I was with the association, he winced. Apparently Hickey had. . . Behaved badly. This news did not surprise me. It also made me all the more happy with the association.

But that departs from Hickey’s essay. Criticism, he continues, “is the written equivalent of air guitar – bursts of silent and sympathetic gestures, with nothing at heart but memories of the music. He does not produce any knowledge, does not state any facts, and never stands alone. “

The analogy is so apt that it’s easy to ignore how unexpected it is (which also allows you to ignore an additional stack of assertions). Clever and unexpected are words that apply to much of Hickey’s writing. But the most important words here are “never be alone” and they are the most important because they convey a double meaning (another kind of stacking of assertions).

There is the obvious sense of criticism requiring prior creative work to allow its existence. “To me, it was intelligence that comes after,” as the literary critic Denis Donoghue, who also died this year, once said, with great modesty. But there is also the central meaning of Hickey’s entire business – as a writer, teacher, citizen.

Not only criticism, but art, in all its forms, is related to society. The subtitle of the book “Air Guitar” is “Essays on Art & Democracy”. At first, Hickey describes what he does: “I write love songs for people who live in a democracy. It’s hard to imagine a more wonderful statement of intent. Art is inherently elitist (sorry, but it is). Democracy is not inherently elitist (some people, different, have a problem with this too). In “Air Guitar,” the book, Hickey writes that he “had no experience of high art that was not somehow confirmed in my experience of ordinary culture – and which did not, to a certain extent, reform and redeem that ”. For Hickey, pleasure and rapture – love songs – are the bridge between art and democracy.

Dave Hickey, left, in 2008 with New York art critic Peter Schjeldahl.Libby Lumpkin via AP

Art and democracy, for Hickey, enlarge each other. It seems fitting that for many years his residence hall was the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Art enriches mundane and democratic existence – and art could mean the Liberace Museum and Waylon Jennings as well as Caravaggio and Velázquez – even though that same mundane and democratic existence prevents art from being airless and sterile. “A lot of art is just . . . a rating of liking something, ”Ed Ruscha remarked to Hickey. “It doesn’t matter what it is. Hickey was a great admirer of Ruscha, who figures, and they were friends, who also figures. It was Ruscha who made the statement, but surely it was no coincidence that it was Hickey who provoked it.

He has written enlighteningly about – and was equally passionate about the subject of – Robert Mitchum as well as John Ruskin, Chet Baker as well as Gustav Flaubert, surfing and muscle cars as an aesthetic experience, Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and Miami Beach architect Morris Lapidus, and Hickey very much approved of the work of the two men. Such a range is as rare as it is impressive. But such a scale is only an intellectual blow unless the thinking is sharp and the writing is good. They are. Plus, Hickey could be very funny, in his devious and vinegar gunslinger way.

You can see the occasional affinity with a few other art critics. Hickey had something of the enthusiasm of Robert Hughes and much of his pleasure in going against the received opinion. Like Jerry Salz, he was very good at a sort of shtick – although Hickey was Armadillo’s world headquarters, via CBGB, not Borscht Belt.

It is not an art critic, however, who is perhaps Hickey’s closest relative, but a film critic: Pauline Kael. The kinship is there in the way each has chosen a particular facet of culture – art in their case, film in theirs – as a means of writing about the whole of culture. Kinship is there in the energy, the spirit and the unfolding of the voice. It is also there in a writer’s devotion to the demotic and absolute horror of the cant. This is especially the effect that a varied personal story can have on prose and sensitivity.

Pauline didn’t start writing about cinema until she was 30, and didn’t start writing for The New Yorker until she was almost 50. pair of movie theaters. For much of this time, she was a single mother. Having to live life can be an excellent, albeit rare, preparation for writing about culture.

So, too, with Hickey. His career was as much a roadmap as a CV: Texas, Southern California, Texas again, New York, Nashville, Texas again, Nevada, New Mexico (died in Santa Fe). Hickey owned and operated an art gallery and spent some time in Andy Warhol’s orbit. He was later a country songwriter and musician and (wait for it) a journalist. There were several stints in high school, which eventually led him to teach at UNLV.

Hickey was a child of the best of the 1960s: an anarchist with an appreciation for hierarchy, a skeptic capable of strong convictions, a radical who understood (and even respected) the traditions on which he pitched. bombs. Perhaps the biggest contradiction Hickey embodied was being an ardent populist whose zeal extended to maintaining high standards. He himself was one of those people living in a democracy for whom he wrote love songs, and these songs were carefully composed.

Hickey understood that the best reason to write about art and culture – really, the best reason to write about just about anything – is to celebrate your topic in order to share it with others. To write in this way is to be a servant of something greater, richer, and better than you. And by serving that something that’s bigger, richer, and better than you – a painting, say, or a novel or a movie – you can make yourself and your readers a little bigger, richer, and better. A love song is different from a national anthem, but in a democracy, and when performed well enough, they can sound surprisingly similar. Or they can if the performer is someone like Dave Hickey, not that there ever was someone like him.


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.


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