I have to engage in the dangerous practice of attributing a quote to someone based on another person quoting them. I sold Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar a couple of years ago, so I don’t have the direct quote anymore. If you want that book, go to McKay’s in Nashville and see if it is still there. It was a mistake. I don’t regret getting rid of The Invisible Dragon but having an “all Hickey must go” moment was a bit hasty. Reasserting beauty in the mid-90s art world was a necessary thing but it felt like The Invisible Dragon was written in an obtuse, dense manner to discourage debate or at least determine a winner of the debate before it even began.
Air Guitar, by comparison, was more direct and approachable. It is a series of essays of one person’s life with art, in Hickey’s case as a songwriter, an art dealer, a critic and an instructor. How you live with art and how it shapes you or at least confirms what you believe to be true about yourself is a lot more interesting to me and a lot more valuable to people that are trying to figure out why they should care about art than burdening them with theory that you can take or leave, even as an artist, without it affecting the quality of the work.
So here’s the Hickey quote from Air Guitar, thanks to Chuck Twardy from Las Vegas Weekly:
“I have never taken anything printed in a book to heart that was not somehow confirmed in my ordinary experience,” he asserts in 1997’s Air Guitar. “Nor have I had any experience of high art that was not somehow confirmed in my experience of ordinary culture.”
Who you are as a person determines how much wiggle room is in that quote. How curious you are as a person sets the stage for your ability to let a wide range of art function in this equation.
There are things we seem to have given up on in my lifetime: that the US men’s soccer team will ever be competitive, passenger train service to Nashville and that the majority of the western population can meaningfully engage with art on a regular basis. 2 out of 3 of these problems are Herculean, bordering on Sisyphean, in their need for education, training, funding and infrastructure. The art problem is not difficult, but the people tasked with it (artists) have decided to “specialize” and treat it like you need a medical degree to “get it”. If you don’t live in NYC, the conversation you hear in every other city with artists is that there is a lack of “criticality” in the art scene. Naw, dawg. There is just a lack of knowledge of art history because no one really teaches it anymore other than to hop on a soapbox and view 500-year-old art through a 21st century lens and a lack of steady exposure to rock solid art in the flesh. You want the average art crawler (whose primary goal is free wine) to walk in on a Saturday night, look at your pile of hair and beads with a random postcard and scrap of paper arranged on top of a shoebox and have “a moment” based on nothing more than your artist statement about your “practice that investigates the juxtaposition of post-structuralists concepts of language and contemporary gender conversations in an emergent post-urban, return-to-land movement.”
If you want criticality, I’ll give it you: 75% of this garbage and needs to go. I’m not being holier-than-though on this. 50% of my stuff has gone over the years. You and I can discuss whether I kept the correct 50% but at least I know that I make a lot of mistakes. A lot of stuff out there is obtuse and navel-gazing in order to try to look smart and justify being $70k in the hole because of graduate school. Either that or it is nihilistic because your worldview is so cynical that you don’t even think that the thing you have committed your life to pursuing is actually worth the pursuit. On top of that, there is a 50/50 shot that your craftsmanship is lost in some sort of lo-fi 90s aesthetic so you don’t even give people the pleasure at looking at something that is well-made. If you want to know what I’m thinking at a lot of art receptions, it’s the quote from Mo’ Better Blues that the Roots (ironically) use to open Things Fall Apart:
“Everything, everything you just said is bullshit. Out of all the people in the world, you never gave anybody else, and look, I love you like a step-brother, but you never gave nobody else a chance t- to play their own music, you complain about... That's right, the people don't come because you grandiose motherfuckers don't play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then people would come, simple as that.”
The Roots used this clip in frustration that they were trying to make intelligent music, to make albums instead of hits, and still having to play 200 nights a year to make money, rather than making some sort of Kriss Kross song and being able to take it easy. In reality, what they ended up doing on the album that opens with them venting their frustration was make an artistically-satisfying album and finally managing to put together a couple of great songs that could act as singles to sell said album. You can do both and it makes sense that it would take them a while to find that balance. You can play the “shit” that they like sometimes because if you love music as much as the Roots do then, as high-falutin as your artistic goals may be, you still probably like some of the same “shit” that they like and want to play it sometimes. You’re talented enough that you might accidentally play something that we can all agree on. That’s not a horrible thing. If I had to write an artist statement now, something that would not just sit for a show but encompass my career, it would be that I want to follow Peter Buck’s summary of R.E.M.: “the acceptable edge of unacceptable stuff.” You can’t get everyone. I get it. But you can write both “Stand” and “Belong” and not explode from sort of internal conflict. You can write “Man on the Moon” and still have a song on an album where you fill a room with 12 music boxes and let them rip just to see what would happen. And “Stand” is a decent song anyway. The art world could be a lot more generous and a lot more approachable and open some doors so that people could have a high art experience that is confirmed in ordinary experience. What is the art for if not to point to that?
There’s a scene in L.A. Story where Woody Harrelson’s character and Steve Martin have a disagreement about Martin’s humor during his daily weather report for his TV station:
Woody: You're doing some sort of intellectual thing.
Steve: Intellectual? It may seem intellectual to you, because you were educated with a banana and an inner tube. This is an intellectual-free zone.
Woody: More wacky, less egghead.
The Woodys of the world might not be reached. I’m not saying that you have to make drawings of Game of Thrones characters to get people actively involved but throw them a rope.
So here’s the deal, I think, in my own tiny way, sitting out here in the artistic hinterland, this is my job and probably what I should be writing about. It is how I teach my lecture class and how I should teach my studio class. Moving forward, I’m going to try to take one piece of art (not mine) and show how it is woven into my life. Sometimes the connection is tangential. Ask my students or my family. There is a large chunk of my time that is spent answering the question “How did you get there from what we were just talking about?”
The Book of John
Leningrad - Anna Reid