A year ago, on the eve of his retrospective at the Guggenheim, artist Maurizio Cattelan announced his retirement. Recently, another esteemed figure, the cultural critic, curator, professor and one-time art dealer Dave Hickey, called to let The Observer know that he, too, is taking a step back. Mr. Hickey, winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and author of numerous catalogue essays, became well known for his 1993 book The Invisible Dragon (in which he, controversially at the time, championed beauty) and 1997’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, a collection of his writings on a wide range of topics published in the form of his “Simple Hearts” column in the now-defunct magazine Art Issues. In 2001, he curated the biennial exhibition Site Santa Fe. Most recently a professor of criticism in the department of art and art history at the University of New Mexico, he left teaching last year. In the following interview, conducted by phone from Santa Fe, and via e-mail, he explains his reasons for (partly) retiring, why he’s against group shows, contracts and other forms of art-world bureaucracy, why art critics have no power, why art dealing is “the last really honest thing [he's] ever done… the last thing…where you were punished for your mistakes,” why artists should join gangs, and what he’ll be up to next.
Sarah Douglas: Your writing on art has been influential on a lot of people. Now you’re retiring from the art world, at least partly. Why?
Dave Hickey: I’m retiring because my time is up. Last summer I wrote catalogue pieces on Ken Price and John Chamberlain. They were both my friends and my essays turned out to be inadvertent obituaries. I take this as a sign. Also, most writing about art these days is so bad that my secular readership has disappeared. Nobody but professionals and grad students even look at it. So no more e-mails from civilians, no more notes from John Updike or Steve Martin, no more crazy hipsters from Berkeley knocking on my door. Also, the art world has turned nasty for some reason and my gentility has come out of the closet. I cry when people scream at me, unless we’re just haggling about prices.
But you’ll still be writing?
I will be writing, however, revising material for three anthologies and writing another book. The first is a book of essays about the work of women artists because no such book exists. I have about 20 essays about art from Bridget Riley’s to Elizabeth Peyton’s. I wanted to do something for my late friend [New Museum founder] Marcia Tucker, who actually introduced me firsthand to the art world. We agreed on nothing at all so I thought I’d dedicate a book to her about art she would have hated. That would be very Marcia and Dave. I’m also revising a second volume of Air Guitar called Connoisseur of Waves,which is a little more focused on architecture, jazz, movies and surfing. I am writing a book called Pagan America that has grown out of an essay of mine called “American Beauty.” I also have a completed book of shorter essays called Pirates and Farmers that is light, funny and very mean spirited.
Hmmm…a sort of partial retirement then?
In other words, I plan to disappear like Marcel Duchamp, which is to not quite disappear. I’m about to leave…oops, I haven’t left yet but keep on looking. I’m about to leave. I’m giving it all up for chess, that type of thing. I’m actually giving it all up for statistics. My mother was an economics professor. I’m proficient in math, and statistics, game theory, symbolic logic and all of that. I want to write a creative writing book about the statistics of literary prose accompanied by software so you could compare the statistical shape of your writing to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Ray Carver or David Foster Wallace. My idea is to provide professors a way of teaching creative writing without having to read quires of crap. Also, I really believe that most of the problems with literary prose tend to be statistical. They have to do with sequencing, and the calculus is helpful in gaining this sort of information. When I was in graduate school I invented a grammar based on the paragraph rather than the sentence—very radical at the time. I also had works by writers in three states of revision so I could say: the numbers are like this here, and then here and then here. So I could make empirically based observations about intention. Hemingway means to do this. Gertrude Stein means to do this. D.H. Lawrence means to do this. I was fighting against professorial Freudian and Marxist musings on the artist’s intentions. I hate all that woozy political and psychotherapeutic crap applied to books and art.
In a lecture in Michigan not too long ago, you talked about the problems inherent in art education—that it’s not something that can actually be taught. The conundrum of grading, for instance. I think you said that in your class one would earn an A for not turning anything in.
Well, I think artists should be proud and too cool for school. I told my students in my last class that I always had my TA grade their papers. They asked why I didn’t read their papers. I asked them how much they would enjoy teaching a swimming class where everybody drowned. So, I’m quitting teaching, too, and saving myself from that sort of desolation. Also, I’m too far away. I’m not competent to critique the work of young artists over whom I have so much leverage and experience. It’s like crop dusting with a 747. Bad for the crop and bad for the plane. This doesn’t mean I’m that much better, just that I’m way older. What do you say about a painting or a story by a kid who hasn’t seen a million paintings or read a million books? Also, nobody cares if it’s good, anymore, and everybody hates it when something’s really great.
You wrote about bureaucracy in the art world a few years ago in Art in America, specifically about the “knights templar” who “guard the grails of biennials.” This was on the subject of the heated exchange of letters in Artforum between Robert Storr, the Venice Biennale’s curator in 2007, and a few of his more vocal critics.
Wasn’t that amazing? Until Jerry Saltz’s TV show Work of Art, it was the most ludicrous moment in the history of contemporary art.
In one passage you said, “30 years in the art world and hundreds of biennials had not prepared me for the world these texts revealed: the conferences, committees, agendas, proposals, symposia, position papers, tourist boards, prize adjudications, directorial appointments and preening philanthropists.” And, “I hated the whole affair for the same reason I hate the Final Four in college basketball: it means too much to its competitors and too little in the larger scheme of things.” Is it that kind of pervasive bureaucratic professionalism part of what’s driving you away from art?
A few months ago, I sat on a panel about John Chamberlain at the Guggenheim, with Susan Davidson and Donna De Salvo. In the past, Richard Armstrong would have called me and said, “Show up at 5 p.m. We’ll pay you.” Instead I got a 10-page contract from the Guggenheim that stipulated that my words could be reproduced “in any media that exists and in any media yet to be invented.” I read this contract to my students. They all fell out of their chairs. A 10-page contract to sit on a panel! To which nobody came!