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The Adam Smith of Art Criticism
on August 15, 2012
I fully understand David Hickey's impulse in writing these essays. The strongest essay being the one in which he reacts to the Academy's defense (or not) of Robert Maplethorpe during the culture wars of the 80's. I thought it was really incisive and a truly creative way of seeing things, and it gave me a lot to think about. As to his more general thoughts on Beauty, the essays themselves are cogent and in the abstract, if not in the particulars, convincing.
Hickey is basically ranting against the "Academy" (or Art Establishment), and not because he sees it as colluding with the market, like some reviewer inferred, in fact, quite au contraire. In these essays Hickey defends the marketplace for being the ultimate arbiter, through democratic wrangling, of value, beauty, and meaning.
Again, I do get the impulse behind this kind of thinking. It must be born of years of looking at too much uninspiring art sanctioned by the Academy due to its prescriptive value instead of that thing that good art can do, which is move us in ways that perhaps will always remain essentially undefinable. And boy is there ever a lot of that crap out there passing for Art (and the word Art still implies "good", even after all these years since Greenberg).
Hickey decries the Academy (in which he includes even what I find to be our no-real-lover-of-the-arts Government) for funding such art on the basis of it being "good for us" instead of "making us happy". And he does this by riffing on the Declaration of Independence and by quoting Thomas Paine. And again, I feel his pain; but I think his approach might be simplistic. In essence, Hickey calls for Beauty to be determined in the Forum, the laissez-faire marketplace. Given that in this day and age a lot of the art sanctioned by the Academy has precisely to do with investigating the deleterious effects of the market on the production of "true" art, I can see where he might have ruffled some feathers; and I smile at the thought of that.
I love his attitude and his writing; and I viscerally feel what he is longing for, but his solution does not ring true. And I say this as a person who believes that markets work for the good of the people, most of the time; but even laissez-faire capitalism needs some regulation when decisions made according to its principles do more harm than good. The market alone has made as many mistakes about what is good art as the Academy has. Norman Rockwell is still crap, as is Thomas Kincaid. Unfettered democracy might produce what the people want, and Hickey has the right to slap the word "Beautiful" on the result; but I don't think it's that easy. That being said, the book is a good read and gets one really involved in determining and arguing one's own value system.