I’ve always liked Dave Hickey. This was initially because his Air Guitar was the one book of art theory or criticism I could read without feeling like I was choking down something unpleasant because it was supposed to be good for me. So, last October, when Hickey famously “resigned” from the art world (the exact meaning and consequences of which only time will tell), I was eager to hear his reasoning, which, I figured, had to be pretty good.
Hickey’s complaints, first reported in The Guardian and immediately quoted basically everywhere, carry an echo of a quotation (often misquoted) from Hunter S. Thompson’s Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ‘80s: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason…Which is more or less true. For the most part, they are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse.”
Last night over after-dinner drinks, a friend told me about Damien Hirst’s collaboration with the Olsen twins: the twins’ signature black patent leather Nile crocodile backpack (which, apparently, is a thing), released as 12 limited-edition designs embellished by Hirst. The Nile originally sold for $35,000; the Hirst edition goes for $55,000, with the proceeds going to Unicef. Nobody’s going to hate on Unicef, but Hirst’s spot paintings already had an air of an artist who’d become too big to fail just phoning it in to make a buck. Repeating the spot imagery on a luxury backpack starts to feel like the art world’s version of the Portlandia “Put A Bird On It” sketch.
Big shots make big targets, and any museum-vetted multimillionaire artist is going to draw some flak. Jeff Koons has attracted criticism ever since his public relationship-as-performance with an Italian porn star-politician (a pretty special combination in itself) was widely written off as an obvious publicity stunt. Hirst has always attracted skepticism, mostly of the “but is it art?” variety, for his dead-thing-in-a-vitrine work, but they were at least monumental. His spot paintings look lazy by comparison, and stamping them on a bag reinforces the idea that he’s become not just a brand, but nothing but a brand. Warhol would approve, maybe, but a lot of us, I think, are tired of it.
What makes us uncomfortable, I think, is the implication that this collaboration may actually be between equals. We dread that there may be some hypocrisy in our criticism of the balls-out consumerism that allows a pair of twins who got famous getting their diapers changed on television to sell handbags for five figures. Are art world celebrities so different from the garden variety? More to the point, are art world celebrities any different from ourselves, and our friends, if we got the success we pretend to disdain but secretly covet? We want to see ourselves as the kid who points out that the emperor’s new clothes are nothing at all, and when one of our darlings pairs with one of theirs, we start to feel the tickle of the breeze on our own naked back.
The truth, I think, is that there is no difference. These art world titans fill our need to have something to worship, and to hate. Like soccer moms flipping through tabloids in the checkout line of the grocery store, we need these gods and demons, to love and to fear, to envy and mock. In the end, the fact that they happen to be artists is entirely incidental. Like everybody else, we’re drawn to epic personalities, and like everybody else, we’ve been eating a mile of their shit just to see where it comes from. That we happen to prefer the flavor of artist shit over actor shit, or musician shit, or athlete shit, is an incidental consequence of subculture, class, and education, and has no bearing whatsoever on the essential nature of cults of personality.
This at least would seem to explain Hickey’s “fuck this shit” decision to opt out of the whole thing. And Hickey is one for whom the system worked: I’m sure the man’s received his share of rejection letters, but I’m also pretty sure that it’s been a while. His criticism can hardly be called a case of sour grapes, but it must resonate with anyone who’s doing good work, not getting the recognition it deserves, and seeing what look like heaps of laurels being stacked on the heads of lazy hacks. The temptation to sweep the chessboard onto the floor and walk away is certainly understandable.
Here’s the thing: gods you don’t believe in can’t touch you. It doesn’t matter what million-dollar deals are being done between people you’ll never meet. It may be interesting, and sure, we may wish for a slice of that action, but it can only suffocate you if you bury your face in it. Art is like Calvinball: if you don’t like the rules, you can change ‘em. I’m not going to second-guess how Hickey wants to live his life; it sounds like he’s got some book projects he’s into, which look interesting, and while they’re not directly about art, I was never entirely sure that Air Guitar was, either. But opting out isn’t the only option on the table for anyone else who feels that way. Nothing the big shots are doing, however frustrating, however misguided, need stop you from making that work, writing that blog post, or running that apartment gallery.
Bumper stickers make for lousy arguments, but there’s one out there that slings a butchered quote spuriously attributed to Mahamta Ghandi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The actual quotation isn’t quite as pat, but it’s a decent thought for anyone who’s frustrated with the way things are, whether in the art world or anywhere else:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
P.S. Fuck you, Olsen Twins: This is how to use a crocodilian as a fashion accessory: The author’s wife Stephanie Burke with one of Jim Nesci’s reptiles, at Big Run Wolf Ranch.