Conversation with Dave Hickey

Conversation with Dave Hickey
Art bubbles are great,” said Las Vegas–based art critic and provocateur Dave Hickey at Frieze last October. “Imagine how exciting the collapse will be.” Since the 1997 publication of his essay collection Air Guitar, in which he tackles topics ranging from jazz to Norman Rockwell, Hickey has gained a cult following among art cognoscenti. Sarah Douglas gets his take on biennials, fairs and vulgarity

How have things changed for artists in the past 10 years?

There is a problem with the mechanics by which they ascend from being wispy, fashionable newcomers to stable prestige artists. Traditionally, this would happen through a gradually accrued panoply of exhibitions, scholarly articles, acquisitions and criticism. I don’t know how it happens these days, or how the prices will hold up long-term.

Art and money never touch,” you wrote in your 1997 essay “Dealing.” That is, one never really buys anything but rather translates his or her “faith” from one system of value to another. Have auctions destabilized that process?

Yes, and I am not alone in my growing distrust of the auction houses. It’s hard to be specific without inviting litigation, but there is a lot of unease out there among serious players about auction house practices. Good art is still available and being made, of course, but there is no art too sorry to offer at auction these days. So collectors are absolutely on their own—as they were, I should note, from about 1879, with the demise of the Salon system, until the founding of MoMA, in 1929.

How are galleries different?

Now they’re department stores. Stables of artists once embodied the taste of the gallerist. Now everybody has one of each: your Iranian minimalist photographer, your elegant object maker, your Berlin pornographer. Galleries were once known for the artists they exhibit. Now they’re known for the clientele they represent. So they make more profit, but they have less power and influence.

You once told me you find it refreshing when art publications publish prices.

I do. I write about the gap between price and value as I perceive it. I write about artworks that I find too costly for their value or that are worth more than their price. Unfortunately, the live, magnetic attraction between price and value has evanesced. The whole discourse of public cultural significance has disappeared, and if meaning doesn’t matter, if price is everything, then everything’s just a “collectible”—an icon of personal enthusiasm like Gong Show memorabilia and Barbie dolls. The market can’t have stable values with this kind of high volatility, as you’ve pointed out. Of course not. What we have today is a highly unstable futures market, and whether it’s pork bellies or Picasso, that’s just gambling.

How does the Whitney Biennial relate to the general process of endorsing artists these days?

Since the 1970s, works of purported public consequence have been shown there. Most of these works were ephemeral and/or ugly. In the commercial galleries, you had works of equal seriousness that were more attractive and archival. These two worlds remain divided. And who cares anyway?

What about biennials in general and their globe-trotting curators?

You mean those people flying around the world on the public dime trying to find some idiot in the boondocks who makes identity art with television sets? They’re obsolete but not endangered. They think art spaces are laboratories for the interaction of cultures. They’re not. They’re places where you put cool stuff, stuff you love. That’s why art fairs have replaced biennials. Cooler stuff. Higher stakes. Better fashion sense.

Do you enjoy fairs?

I love art fairs. I see art. I talk to people who like art. One thing I did notice in Miami last year is that the big galleries’ selections of younger artists tended to be pretty lame—crocheted pink octopi, fake mahogany appliqué on sea-turtle shells, things like that. We’ve gone through 40 years of art becoming more vulgar. Personally, I think we are back, in a stylistic sense, to where we were after Pollock and de Kooning, on the verge of a period devoted to gradual refinement. You’ve got to recognize the end of things when they end. So I ask you: Can you get more vulgar than Richard Prince?

"Conversation with Dave Hickey" originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's March 2008 Table of Contents.