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Critic’s notebook: ‘I write love songs for people who live in a democracy’

What kind of art critic would make such a statement, let alone mean it? Dave Hickey (1938-2021), that’s who.

Dave HickeyUniversity of Chicago Press/Toby Kamps

Dave Hickey’s best-known essay, “Air Guitar,” shares a title with the 1997 book in which it appears. Here’s the essay’s third sentence: “People despise critics because people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing.”

In and of itself, that’s an attention-getting statement. Actually, it’s a set of statements. Hickey had a gift for piling up assertions, doing so in such a way that they seem as casual as blinking — and thus as unobjectionable. But the statements become even more attention getting, the last one especially, insofar as Hickey was one of the most prominent art critics of the last several decades: a MacArthur “genius” fellow, winner of the College Art Association’s prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award. More important for our purposes, he was also, hands down, the most bracing art critic of those decades.


Hickey died last month, at 82, from heart disease. “I’m blue about Dave,” a woman I know who worked with him wrote in an e-mail, “but, frankly, I’m surprised he lived as long as he did.” Let’s just say the man’s tires did a lot of off-road driving. That was part of the Hickey mystique (not too strong a word). A dozen years ago, I gave a lecture in an annual series at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Hickey had given it the year before. When I told a curator how pleased I was by the association, he winced. Apparently, Hickey had . . . Behaved Badly. This news did not surprise me. It also made me all the more pleased by the association.

But that’s getting away from Hickey’s essay. Criticism, it continues, “is the written equivalent of air guitar — flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures, with nothing at their heart but memories of the music. It produces no knowledge, states no facts, and never stands alone.”


The analogy is so shrewd it’s easy to overlook how unexpected it is (which also makes it easy to overlook some further piling up of assertions). Shrewd and unexpected are words that apply to a great deal of Hickey’s writing. But the most important words here are “never stands alone,” and they’re most important because they convey a double meaning (a different kind of piling up of assertions).

There’s the obvious meaning of criticism requiring a preceding creative work to enable its existence. “Mine was the intelligence that comes after,” as the literary critic Denis Donoghue, who also died this year, once put it, with beautiful modesty. But there’s also the meaning central to Hickey’s entire enterprise — as writer, teacher, citizen.

Not just criticism but art, of every sort, stands in relation to society. The subtitle of the book “Air Guitar” is “Essays on Art & Democracy.” Early on, Hickey describes what it is he does: “I write love songs for people who live in a democracy.” It’s hard to imagine a more wonderful statement of purpose. Art is inherently elitist (sorry, but it is). Democracy is inherently not elitist (some people, different ones, have a problem with that, too). In “Air Guitar,” the book, Hickey writes of not having “had any experience of high art that was not somehow confirmed in my experience of ordinary culture — and that did not, to some extent, reform and redeem that.” For Hickey, pleasure and delight — love songs — are the bridge between art and democracy.


Dave Hickey, left, in 2008 with New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl.Libby Lumpkin via AP

Art and democracy, for Hickey, enlarge each other. It seems fitting that for many years his academic home was the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Art enriches mundane, democratic existence — and art could mean the Liberace Museum and Waylon Jennings as well as Caravaggio and Velázquez — even as that same mundane, democratic existence keeps art from being airless and sterile. “A lot of art is just . . . a notation of loving something,” Ed Ruscha once remarked to Hickey. “Doesn’t really matter what it is.” Hickey was a great admirer of Ruscha, which figures, and they were friends, which also figures. It was Ruscha who made the statement, but surely it’s no coincidence that it was Hickey who elicited it.

He wrote illuminatingly about — and was equally passionate on the subject of — Robert Mitchum as well as John Ruskin, Chet Baker as well as Gustav Flaubert, surfing and muscle cars as aesthetic experience, the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and the Miami Beach architect Morris Lapidus, and Hickey very much approved of both men’s work. Such range is as rare as it is impressive. But such range is just an intellectual stunt unless the thinking is acute and the writing good. They are. Also, Hickey could be very funny, in his sly, vinegary ornery-gunslinger way.

You can see the occasional affinity with a few other art critics. Hickey had something of Robert Hughes’s gusto and a lot of his pleasure in going against received opinion. Like Jerry Salz, he was very good at a sort of shtick — though Hickey’s was Armadillo World Headquarters, by way of CBGB, not Borscht Belt.


It isn’t an art critic, though, who may be closest kin to Hickey but a movie reviewer: Pauline Kael. The kinship is there in how each chose a particular facet of culture — art in his case, film in hers — as a means to write about the entire culture. The kinship’s there in the energy and wit and deployment of voice. It’s also there in a writerly devotion to the demotic and absolute abhorrence of cant. Most of all, it’s there in the effect a varied personal history can have on both prose and sensibility.

Pauline didn’t start writing about movies until she was in her 30s and didn’t start writing for The New Yorker until she was nearly 50. Along the way she worked as a cook, seamstress, advertising copywriter, textbook writer, and managed a pair of movie theaters. During much of that time, she was a single mother. Having to live life can be an excellent, if rare, preparation for writing about culture.

So, too, with Hickey. His career was as much road map as resume: Texas, Southern California, Texas again, New York, Nashville, Texas again, Nevada, New Mexico (he died in Santa Fe). Hickey owned one art gallery and managed another and spent some time in Andy Warhol’s orbit. Later, he was a country songwriter and musician and (wait for it) newspaperman. There were various stints in grad school, finally leading to his teaching at UNLV.


Hickey was a child of what was best about the ‘60s: an anarchist with an appreciation for hierarchy, a skeptic capable of strong beliefs, a radical who understood (and even respected) the traditions he was throwing bombs at. Maybe the biggest contradiction Hickey embodied was in being an ardent populist whose ardor extended to maintaining high standards. He was himself one of those people living in a democracy for whom he wrote love songs, and those songs were exactingly composed.

Hickey understood that the best reason to write about art and culture — really, the best reason to write about pretty much anything — is to celebrate your subject so as to share it with others. To write in this way is to be a servant of something greater and richer and better than you. And in serving that something that’s greater and richer and better than you — a painting, say, or novel or film — you may make yourself, and your readers, a little bit greater and richer and better. A love song is different from a national anthem, but in a democracy, and when performed well enough, they can sound surprisingly alike. Or they can if the performer is someone like Dave Hickey, not that there’s ever been anyone altogether like him.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.