In October of this year (2018), I signed a contract with The University of Texas Press to write a short book on the writer and critic Dave Hickey.
I’m a huge admirer of Hickey, and although he has gotten a fair amount of attention, at least within certain circles, there’s still work to do on him. Thus the book. The plan is to release it in 2020.
Here’s a few paragraphs from my proposal, to give you a sense of it:
Twenty-one years ago, Art Issues Press released Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy. At the time Hickey, a former editor of Art in America, was well known in the art world but almost entirely unknown outside it. An earlier book of criticism, The Invisible Dragon, had been a cult hit, and over the decades he’d run with a lot of genuinely famous people—Waylon, Andy, Keith, Dennis—but he wasn’t famous himself. There was no reason to believe that this second small book of criticism would change anything about that. In the two decades since, thanks in large part to Air Guitar, he’s won the MacArthur “Genius” Prize, been feted from New York to Vegas to LA, and amassed the kind of passionate adoration, and fierce hatred, that no critic has seen since Susan Sontag dropped Against Interpretation. Both The Invisible Dragon and Air Guitar give off such a charismatic charge that they're still, all these years and printings later, pressed from hand to hand as though the giver is passing along some kind of secret lore. He’s been painted and sung about. He’s written songs, curated shows, and owned art galleries. He’s done most of the drugs that were around in the 20th century. And he’s influenced generations of artists, art critics, musicians, and writers. He’s as loved and loathed by the hipsters at N+1 and The Baffler as he is by the tenured faculty at the Art Institute and the senior editors at Artforum.
At the heart of the Hickey legend are, really, two Hickeys. One is the writer. This Hickey is capable of extraordinary subtlety and vulnerability. He has been a champion of gays, women and other underdogs in the art world, and a dedicated enemy of the “Aryan muscleboys” who would keep them down and out. He masterfully applies haute French theory to the grittiest realms of pop culture, illuminating high and low in the process. He writes catalog essays that pass the most severe academic muster, and personal essays that are among the most beautiful things that have been written, period, in the last few decades. Hickey the writer has exerted a seminal influence not just on art writing but on American art itself, academic aesthetic philosophy, and the general practice of nonfiction writing in America.
Then there’s the other Dave Hickey. The persona. This Hickey can be a crusty, wrinkled old white asshole who likes to say obnoxious things just to get a rise out of those who are easily provoked. The persona has cost him jobs and fellowships, needlessly alienated young artists and writers who might otherwise find his work liberating, and blinded him to currents and relationships in the art world that he himself might find liberating.
It’s both Hickeys that have built, in concert and tension, the legend. In the long run it is the writing that should remain, with the persona informing but never obscuring our understanding and appreciation of the writing.
This book will be the first substantive effort to take on Hickey the writer and thinker. It will explore--stylishly, intellectually, and essayistically--who he is, what he has been saying, what's special about how he's saying what he's saying, and why the world would be better off if more people read and understood his work.