(design/edited Leo Edelstein and Yanni Florence, associate editor Judith Elliston)
Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Dave Hickey
from the Pirate issue
Pataphysics: You’ve written about the ’80s as being a time when ‘opportunities to write hip stories about pop subjects disappeared’ and ‘pop stories about hip subjects were all the vogue, and it was no fun anymore.’ Do you see any possibilities for an expansive journalism developing in the future?
Dave Hickey: To be honest, no. Although I continue to practice something like belles-lettres journalism, I would be the first to admit that it is, for all intents and purposes, a dead practice. The kind of expansive journalism you are referring to, I think, must function as an urgent, expressive, social endeavor; it responds seriously to the moment and to the tangible social discourse of the moment; it presumes an audience and a delivery system, and, at present, neither of these exist, nor are they likely to come into being. For the past ten years, most of my essays have been published by Gary Kornblau, who has labored mightily to create a venue for expansive art journalism in Art issues magazine. Were it not for this venue, these essays would not have been written at all.
It needs to be said, however, that even though Gary has managed to keep his publication alive and lively for over a decade, he has done so through his own solitary effort and thanks largely to the patronage of Patrick Lannan. The project remains commercially un-viable and, in recent years, has become the locus of an escalating academic hostility that bodes ill for its survival. In truth, Gary and the people who write for his magazine constitute a tiny, inconsequential coterie of dissenting amateurs in the highly professionalized Los Angeles art world. It is a nice magazine for which to write, and there are doubtless other venues like Art issues, scattered around the globe, but I doubt if any of them will make the slightest dent in the massively-funded status quo. I would like to be proven wrong in this but I don’t think I will be.
P: Saul Bellow has talked of novellas and shorter fiction as being more appropriate today. Would you see this as being true in terms of your fiction?
DH: To me, as a writer, the issue of length is purely personal. I think of writing in terms of music, so I write prose pieces that can be read in one sitting, so the first words will resonate with the last. Also, temperamentally, I am a sprinter, not a long distance runner. Actually, I am a hurdler, since my writing (fiction or non) always strives to negotiate a field of hard historical circumstance.
As a reader and critic, however, I disagree with Bellow. I suspect that long fiction is the ideal format for dealing with the intricate surface complexity of this particular cosmopolitan moment. During the past year I have read some very lovely long fictions by Peter Carey, Peter Ackroyd, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, A.S. Byatt and Robert Stone, all of whom deal gracefully with the fluidity and hybrid contingency of contemporary life. The ‘theoretical’ disrepute of long fiction, I suspect, derives from the academy’s Germanic contempt for the horizontal ‘inauthenticity’ of story and melody—from its obsession with the virtues of ‘depth’ over those of ‘breadth.’ Academics, secure in their dachas, are welcome to these immobilizing passions.
P: An art critic was once asked why he didn’t write on film since he liked it so much. He replied that film, unlike visual art, didn’t have a ‘problem.’ Would you agree with this?
DH: No, I don’t. I think that there is some perfectly spiffy art out there and that movies generally suck. Also, I am not a public servant. ‘Helping’ cultural endeavors that have a ‘problem’ is not my job. I write about things that interest or offend me regardless of their moral or commercial viability. The fact that, at the moment, art is being practiced in an antediluvian theoretical environment is no longer any concern of mine. ’Twas ever thus, I suspect, and I have had my little say about contemporary conditions. Contexts come and go, institutions flourish and wither, practice continues or it doesn’t.
P: Hank Williams talks in the first person in your piece ‘A Glass-Bottomed Cadillac’—a kind of hybrid criticism/fiction. How would you distinguish your process in writing a piece like this, as compared to, say, writing on David Salle for Artforum? Do you prefer one over the other?
DH: Actually there’s not much difference in the process. I accept an assignment, gather such materials as I need, then try to conjure up a voice in which I can speak my little piece. For an assignment like the essay on Salle, I am more or less obligated to speak in my own voice—on my own dime, as it were, as a bankable art critic. The Hank Williams piece is a little different. Since all the material in the essay comes out of the air—out of the bar talk and studio talk of Nashville musicians and songwriters—I found myself thinking about a line in Auden’s poem about the death of Yeats: ‘He became his admirers,’ and decided to construct a persona for Williams out of the stories people told about him—to invent a post-mortem voice for him, so he could tell these stories about himself and ‘become his admirers.’ In retrospect, the accent I invented is a little more East Texas than South Alabama. It’s still close, though. My point is that, by one means or another, it’s all journalism. I am interested in the texture of the lived world and whatever imaginative strategies I might invent are always in its service.
P: Do you like looking at art as much when you’re in Las Vegas?
DH: I like looking at art anywhere. Looking at art in Las Vegas does have its eccentricities, however, since, unlike most places in the United States, Las Vegas has a vibrant, up-to-date, indigenous visual culture, so you look at whatever you look at in the context of the Strip, which, even though it is not art, sets the visible parameters of the environment. As a consequence, to be look-at-able here, art must first distinguish itself from the Strip and then mount some visual challenge to its hegemony. Your garden-variety, abject-assemblage kunsthalle fodder looks ludicrous here, as does the sort of distressed pattern-making that passes for ‘decorative painting’ in New York. Vegas is the hot-center of state-of-the-art visual technologies. None of them go untapped here. This makes it a tough room to play. Steven Wynn’s high-dollar paintings at the Bellagio, however, do kick some butt. They make Vegas more like it is, which is to say more visible, and Vegas make the paintings more like they were—generous, sophisticated occasions of visual pleasure.
P: Frank O’Hara spoke of the speed of writing poetry vs. the extended concentration of time with painting, and speculated on the differences in his poem ‘Why I Am Not a Painter.’ Have you ever been interested in making visual art?
DH: I made one painting in high school: a portrait of Miles Davis’ band that I copied off an album cover. Having completed it, I decided that, if I planned to continue painting, I would need to own more than one brush. This seemed excessively prissy to me, so I quit. The truth, however, is that I don’t make visual art because I like visual art in ways that most artists don’t. Most artists—or rather most good artists of my acquaintance—are permanently dissatisfied with the selection of art that the world has to offer, just as I am permanently dissatisfied with the selection of criticism the world offers up. Existing works of art may intimidate my artist friends and challenge them on occasion, but other people’s art rarely pleases them or interests them in the way it pleases and interests me.
As to the issue of speed. I am a slow writer, and painting, even the slowest painting, has always seemed very fast to me. Also, writing is not a very athletic activity, so I have always envied artists’ recourse to the body’s memory and imagination. I also envy the mindless preparatory rituals of making art—the whole getting-ready-to-do-art part of it. Writers are either writing or they are not writing. Usually not. The good part of being a writer is that storage is not much of a problem.
P: In The Invisible Dragon you discuss the control of the institution and arts bureaucrats. Duchamp predicted that in the future artists would go underground—is this conceivable in an increasingly gentrified context?
DH: It is not only conceivable, it is in fact happening. If you haven’t heard about it, that’s wonderful. Undergrounds are supposed to be, well, you know, under ground. They come into being because any fool knows that institutions, once they go bad, can’t be fixed, only destroyed or abandoned. Speaking for myself, I am now and have always been a permanent advocate of going underground. I grew up in underground cultures and I am delighted with the intimacy, freedom and privacy of these new, knock-about societies whenever I am afforded entrance. We sit around in bars, drink, smoke and talk about things. All hopelessly boho and un-fundable, I know, but there is really no alternative, since a great many young artists are making paintings and sculptures these days, and these practices, which in my youth were considered beaux artes endeavors, no longer are. Beaux artes practice in this moment is defined by institutionally-sanctioned, government-regulated, biennial-ready, post-minimal installation strategies informed by Germanized identity rhetoric. Thus, at present, the practice of making any peculiar, portable object that comes in different colors has more in common with making jazz than it does with making ‘contemporary art;’ it seeks that realm of private sociability, and, as a consequence, painting and sculpture are increasingly practiced as high popular arts in the United States; they are patronized beyond the pale, in the underground, by adepts, enthusiasts and devotees. The New York Times may never hear about it, but someone will, and that someone will care. This is preferable to everyone hearing about art about which no-one gives a damn.