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It's All in What You See

And to influential critic Dave Hickey, pop culture icons provide one way to define our relationship to art. His refreshing ideas have shaped the art world of the '90s.

September 14, 1997|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

LAS VEGAS — The insistent telephone keeps on ringing.

First it's an artist, an old friend in Texas just wanting to schmooze. Then another artist, calling from New York, hoping for feedback on a recent installation. Next, a curator in the Southwest inquiring about the E.T.A. of an essay for a museum catalog whose deadline looms. Then the artist about whom the catalog is being written, wanting to clarify a critical point. Then an editor in L.A., checking on another essay in progress.

At each ring, Dave Hickey gets up from the dining room table, where he's talking with a visitor, and answers the call with equanimity, promising to call back later. Outside the sliding glass doors of his apartment living room, nine stories above the desert floor, the temperature at 10 a.m. is creeping past 99 degrees. A beige blanket of heat-dancing smog hovers over the dusty clutter of gambling palaces, strung out like bright bijoux along the Strip.

Such is a typical day for one of the busiest, most prominent American art critics of the 1990s--an art critic who lives, contentedly if with seeming incongruity, in a Las Vegas high-rise rather than a metropolitan center associated with the avid pursuit of High Culture. Notwithstanding Hickey's position as professor of art criticism and theory at the University of Nevada campus a few blocks away, Vegas probably doesn't register first when influential art criticism comes to mind.

"I like Las Vegas a lot," the affable, elegantly bluff writer offers in casual defense of his adopted hometown, heavy traces of his native Texas drawing out the vowels. "Mostly because there's not much vertical social structure here. Any time I'm living in a town where I've met the mayor, there is not much vertical social structure! Know what I mean?"

An antipathy toward "vertical social structure" might be said to be a cornerstone of Hickey's endlessly fascinating position as an art critic, one that has elevated him to the ranks of the most sought-after writers and lecturers on art in the country today. A small-d democrat to his marrow, he hasn't much patience with aristocratic notions of High Culture, which thrive on traditional ideas of exclusivity.

For him, art is magical precisely for its stunning--and stunningly useful--capacity to reorganize the audience.

When art is doing its job, he believes, it creates motley, heterogeneous communities of admirers, who happily cross rigid boundaries based on class--or on race, gender or any of the other much-discussed categories of modern identity. And American society, with its resilient democratic premises, is where this hopeful phenomenon can blossom.

That basic idea circulates through the 23 remarkable essays in Hickey's eagerly anticipated new book, "Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy" (Art issues Press, 216 pages, $17.95). In prose as entertaining as its often unexpected cultural subjects--Liberace, Chet Baker, professional basketball, Andy Warhol, magicians Siegfried and Roy, Norman Rockwell, Perry Mason--he ventures out into the vernacular landscape of late-20th century America in order to illuminate the odd relationship we now have to art.

"Air Guitar," in bookstores this week, is a sequel of sorts to "The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty," a slim volume that suddenly seized the national stage in 1993 and catapulted Hickey to the forefront of critical discourse. The book led with the startling assertion that, for art, "The issue of the '90s will be beauty." And so it has been, created by Hickey's audacious writing.

In an art world wearied by furious battles over censorship, fractious identity politics, an art market collapse and declining sources of public and private funding, his left-field argument about beauty as a pressing issue carried the force of shock.

It spawned symposiums, special sections of art magazines and exhibitions, from the 1995 Whitney Biennial to "Beauty and the Beast" at Paris' Museum of Modern Art. In the four years since its publication, Hickey has toiled in overdrive, writing essays for 23 exhibition catalogs and dozens of magazines, commuting to Harvard, UC Santa Barbara and Rice University for visiting professorships and lecturing at nearly 60 museums, art schools and colleges around the nation. He also pocketed the Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, the highest award in the field.

All this from a 64-page paperback--a chapbook, really--published by the L.A. small-press, Art issues. "The Invisible Dragon," now in its fourth printing, has sold more than 8,000 copies--unheard of for a small-press book of art criticism.

Its ubiquity, however, is marked by an inescapable irony: Loved or hated, the book has been widely misinterpreted.

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