“I do not want to be fair. I want the art I hate to go away. . . . I am not in favor of art—I’m in favor of the art I like.”
—Dave Hickey, 2007

On July 9, 1975, the guest on Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. was the author and journalist Tom Wolfe, whose book The Painted Word had lately sent shockwaves through the art scene it described so unflatteringly. A sanguine Buckley delivered zingers but left the more tedious work of interrogating Wolfe to the three panelists in their thirties. Two of them, Frances Barth and Tony Robbin, both Ivy League–affiliated painters who taught art history, mounted an impassioned albeit ineffective critique of the book. They had little success in undermining Wolfe’s main thesis—that art criticism had a disproportionate influence on painting at the time—and their fervent tone rather supported Wolfe’s contentions about the art world’s insular and cultish quality. The third panelist, introduced by the host as “Mr. David Hickey—an art dealer and a critic and a former editor of Art in America,” cut a figure unlike those of the dour, casually dressed painters. Hickey was at once insouciant and dapper. His outfit consisted of worn indigo jeans, polished black leather boots, and a tailored dove-gray jacket paired with a stylish black collar shirt. This sartorial choice, whether deliberate or subconscious, was Hickey’s way of straddling the fence dividing elite public intellectuals such as Buckley and Wolfe and the SoHo bohemians whom he had joined a decade and a half earlier after leaving his native Texas.

Hickey was at once insouciant and dapper.

Hickey’s contribution to the television program validated this cross-cultural gambit. While he was there as a mere panelist, the force and subtlety of his arguments placed him on par with the host and his high-profile guest. Unlike his co-commentators, who vented their resentments at Wolfe, Hickey engaged the author by drawing him into a jousting match over the influence of Clement Greenberg. “You’ve met some of these artists,” he needled—“Johns, Rauschenberg, and these people. Do you really think that men of this intelligence and sophistication could actually be seduced by Greenberg’s sort of primitive discourse?” (He did concede that such “primitive discourse” had had a salient influence on the Abstract Expressionists.)

Wolfe had been able to brush off or debunk with ease the objections to his book made by Barth and Robbin, but Hickey’s rhetorical mischievousness—“Well, would you think then that there are Rembrandts tucked away at the University of Wisconsin?”—kept him in an alert and even defensive posture throughout their exchanges. Decades after, with Hickey’s subsequent output as an art critic and an analyst of Western culture (as he has referred to himself) now in hindsight, it makes sense that he would be the one to challenge a sharp-witted and bigheaded Wolfe. The two even found common ground, as when Wolfe agreed “100 percent” with Hickey’s deadpan assertion about the imperatives of art: “That’s one of the great privileges, you know, that you don’t have to like it at all.” This is fitting, because hindsight also shows Hickey to be that rare sort of individual whom Wolfe described as going “in the opposite direction of the Freight Train of History.”

Dave Hickey was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on December 5, 1938, and died at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on November 12, 2021. He was eighty-two. For those of us who knew Dave well, his death was not unexpected, but it was still a shock. As Dave’s wife Libby Lumpkin put it: “The world just got darker.” Earlier last year, the University of Texas Press published a critical biography of Hickey, Far from Respectable. The author, Daniel Oppenheimer, makes a solid case for why we need to read and reread Hickey now: not only did he produce some of the best English-language essays on art and culture of the last century, but in our times those writings have proved themselves more prescient than ever. In the canonical The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Art Issues Press, 1993), Hickey outlined how the “new puritans” from the progressive Left took over and transformed the new “therapeutic institutions”—museums, art schools, and fund-granting bodies. By prioritizing virtue over beauty, these institutions disrupted a delicate ecosystem in which works of art were validated by individuals who “correlated” into communities around such beautiful objects, the “icons of happiness,” as Hickey called them.

The Invisible Dragon was the book that put Dave Hickey on the cultural map, but it was his second nonfiction book, titled Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (Art Issues, 1997), that made him one of the most recognizable names of the art scene in the Nineties and Aughts. He had already been writing for publications including Artforum, ARTNews, the London Review of Books, Rolling Stone, and Art in America, where he served as an executive editor until, according to Dave, he was sacked for doing lines of cocaine on his desk. (He claimed that his employer objected not to the cocaine but to the scratches on the furniture.) Air Guitar, which he once referred to as “a very serious critique of abjection and institutional cowardice,” went through multiple reprints, and became popular enough to generate its own question on Jeopardy.

The book turned Dave into something of a cult figure. He traveled across Europe and North America, conducting seminars and giving lectures in which, in the words of one critic, he wove emotional nuance into intellectual rigor. In his talks, Hickey praised commitment to objects (as opposed to what he called the “creation narrative”), pleaded for subtlety and against generalization, and advocated for “the great privilege of not having to like it” and for honoring personal taste. He raged against the urge to see art in terms of content. “Content,” he proclaimed in a 2007 interview published in The Believer, “is irrelevant.” That includes political content, because while “art has political consequences . . . the idea of political content is irrelevant.” With more than a hint of libertarianism, he insisted that “the government should not touch art.” He warned against “care” as inextricably linked to “control,” citing the Turner Prize, which he said “was designed to keep British art on the steady pace of post-conceptual minimalism.” He thus restated the “first principle of Foucault: care is control.”

From the start, his goal was freedom, unconditional freedom for all.

Hickey knew his French theory well: he studied it in the linguistics Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Austin, from which he dropped out without finishing his dissertation. That departure, like every other professional withdrawal in his career, can be read as a testament to his integrity: having internalized the core message of poststructuralism as a critique of power, he recognized the incongruity of remaining within the institutional hierarchy while confronting institutional tyranny. He wrote about this conflict in his column at the Texas Observer in the late 1960s, describing the fatuousness of teaching “meanings” of literature and “the rewards of studying it—the two attributes of literature which are irrelevant unless you must read it for a living or grade.” As a graduate teaching assistant, he resented “being a cop” and having the “police power” of grading his students on how well they imitated their instructor. Hickey did not want to be granted an authority to exercise power over others. From the start, his goal was freedom, unconditional freedom for all.

In another Texas Observer article titled “Language and Freedom,” Hickey said that “what human language is necessary for, is freedom,” and that “only by using human speech can a man simultaneously assert his membership in the community and his individuality within it.” A good pupil of Orwell, he realized that the danger to freedom of expression in America would come from the dissolution of meanings, in the vein of reductionist Newspeak where “true” also means “false,” “good” means “bad,” and “war” means “peace.” When language, a “fantastically complicated and sensitive instrument,” is corrupted, “even with all the words in the world and the sacred right to speak them, the individual is silenced.” Presaging cultural impasses half a century avant la lettre, he explained:

The simplest way to rob a man of his individuality and his freedom is to censor his language or blur its distinctions so that he can only say one of two things: yes or no. This is a standard tactic, sometimes necessary, but hardly honest. General statements are always used to incite violence, since they eliminate choice by censoring the language. If “all whites are racists” is true, then there is no freedom. And true or not the language is being used coercively.

So Hickey advocated for looking at art with great sensitivity and as an aesthetic thing-in-itself, outside of the “quasi-Protestant ‘cult of content’ ” and the moralizing “utopian bureaucracies” within the “therapeutic institutions.”

Nor did Hickey enjoy being subject to authority himself. Despite all the honors and accolades that he received over the years—the 1994 College Art Association Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism, a 2001 “Genius Grant” MacArthur Fellowship, and the 2006 Peabody Award—he was forever skeptical of organized arts. The “creative” bureaucracies were still bureaucracies, just as Marxist professors could still be self-interested careerists. Because he cared for students—his own, and students in general—he spoke about the dangers of predatory faculty complicit in the explosive growth of the mfa programs, who rather appreciated the near-total attrition rate because it provided a measure of job security. He warned art students of what he termed the ’79 Datsuns of art instruction: jealous of others’ talent because their own studio careers have either fizzled out or never took off in the first place, their only recourse for paying a mortgage on a house with a spa was to push through as many mfas as possible, stifling nonconforming outliers and encouraging compliant mediocrities along the way.

I met Dave in 2012, the year he announced his “retirement” from the art world. The reason he gave was the dilution of aesthetic discourse by growing insularity, and the reluctance of critics, curators, and magazines to support art that demonstrated real taste (as opposed to a preoccupation with identity or social relevance). Dave also said that he quit because he was about to get fired. During the last decade, when he published three more books, the ranks of the easily offended multiplied, and Dave’s sagacious witticisms prompted more indignation than reflection. His health deteriorated, and during a convalescence, while unable to do serious writing, Dave took to Facebook and conducted something of an inverse Thoreauvian experiment in “simple living”—while Thoreau retreated into solitude, Dave created an online commons where interested folks could talk art. In 2015, I compiled and edited two pendant volumes based on those Facebook exchanges, and in 2016 Dave and I held several events to promote the books. After that we celebrated two birthdays together (one his, one mine), and continued to speak on the phone often.

In the last few months, as we discussed Oppenheimer’s book, which I was getting ready to review, Dave shared a few things that have lingered in my mind. One had to do with the definition of art. We went over a few possibilities before Dave suggested this version: “When you take away everything boring, what’s left is art.” The other came out of a conversation about identity politics, the cult of victimhood, and the increasingly common reliance on emotion in public discourse. In Dave’s view this was a zeitgeist problem. “Feeling is unresolved thinking,” he said.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 5, on page 94
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