Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

Essays on Art & Democracy
By Dave Hickey
Art issues Press

It is a humbling thing to come upon writing by a contemporary you distantly respect and realize that, pretty much hidden from sight, he has been doing work that leaves your own flopping around on the deck. But it is also a thrilling thing. Two decades ago, I edited a dozen of Dave Hickey's record reviews--I particularly recall one in which a fictional skateboarder named Martin extolled Aerosmith's Rocks. Although these somehow failed to attract much attention over at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, adepts of the form quickly recognized their audacious smarts. Yet good as they were, they didn't come near to preparing me for the "essays on art & democracy"--most of them written for the Los Angeles-based Art issues--that constitute the "memoir without tears" Hickey calls Air Guitar.

What's more, neither does Hickey's prize-winning 1993 minicollection, The Invisible Dragon, which to my taste turns a mite obsessive after driving home the welcome, essential, and mysteriously less-than-obvious point that Robert Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio achieves its power by advocating the unusual sexual acts it depicts. Having sought asylum as an art professor at the University of Nevada after a garishly checkered freelance career in trades that included Nashville songsmith, gallery owner, and worse, Hickey has a tendency to hector when addressing the museum system and its attendant "therapeutic institutions"--institutions that, after all, pay his health insurance (such as it is). Over a mere 64 well-argued pages, you start thinking, Enough already. Indeed, something similar happens two-thirds into this book, only at a much higher level--here you find yourself thinking, Hey, he is mortal after all. Finally obliged to theorize his impolite tastes, judgments, and ideas, Hickey lays his prejudices a little barer than altogether becomes them.

Even caught in that old trap, however, he's as good as it gets, starting with his prose. Although his diction is often highfalutin (he was doing a doctoral thesis about Foucault and Derrida way back in 1967), his rhythms aren't, and he's more than fluent in colloquial English--I mean, the guy can flat-out write. "Between the Jews and the Blues," he has Hank Williams say, "the only redneck thing about my songs was me singing them through my nose." Stuck in the middle of "A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz," a discourse on Liberace that looks like a light-hearted tribute from one Las Vegan to another and instead establishes the keyboard-stroking closet king as a pivotal actor in the battle for gay liberation, is an epigram every critic should write on the blackboard till the chalk breaks: "Good taste is the residue of someone else's privilege." Then there's the freelancer's epitaph: "If This Dude Wasn't Dead, He Could Still Get Work." And the title essay lays out the plain truth of our shared calling with startling eloquence and wit: "Colleagues of mine will tell you that people despise critics because they fear our power. But I know better. People despise critics because people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing. It is the written equivalent of air guitar--flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music."

I should immediately add that although Hickey means every word of this disclaimer, he also means to sandbag us--the essay in question ends up situating criticism on the barricades of democratic militance. Hickey is a master of this kind of setup. "My Weimar" moves from a hilarious nightmare in which Marx and Montesquieu beat him for the check to an expatriate professor's analysis of how "Aryan muscle-boys" returned from World War II to take over the American avant-garde and its therapeutic institutions. "The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market" celebrates planned obsolescence in automobile design, which it traces to Chicano low riders. "The Delicacy of Rock-and-Roll" (delicacy? what?--well, it's a "comic delicacy," as opposed to jazz's "tragic theater") is in substance a memoir of the underground film society at the University of Texas. "Shining Hours/Forgiving Rhyme" starts as an indelible sketch of a jam session his jazzman dad took him to and ends as a no-holds-barred defense of Norman Rockwell.

As should be obvious by now, this book's chosen objects of critical scrutiny are rarely highbrow. CÚzanne gets most of one piece (and gets slammed, too), and there's a lovely essay up front on Flaubert's "A Simple Heart." But in case you've forgotten, that story turns on "an obnoxious parrot named Loulou," who is transfigured into a gaudy simulacrum of the Holy Spirit by the devotion of its doggedly uncomprehending protagonist, the servant FelicitÚ. Hickey believes FelicitÚ's simplicitÚ was conceived by Flaubert as a reproach to the sensibilitÚ of his friend George Sand, and the parrot as an argument for replacing Sand's "aristocracy of feeling" with a democracy of desire: "a society of the imperfect and incomplete, whose citizens routinely discuss, disdain, hire, vote for, and invest in a wide variety of parrots to represent their desires in various fields of discourse."

No aristocrat he, at least not so's he'd tell us about it, Hickey identifies with FelicitÚ, and devotes Air Guitar to his own parrot collection, which in addition to the specimens already noted includes Hank Williams, Perry Mason, Chet Baker, and LSD; the illusionists Siegfried and Roy, the wrestler Lady Godiva, old color Hollywood cartoons, and basketball; his dead Texas journalist pal Grover Lewis; the provincial bohemias of his peripatetic childhood; talking art with the postman, the paperboy, and anybody who might buy some from him; and the slot machines, gaming tables, dress code, and neon architecture of his adopted home, Las Vegas. My list mixes up Hickey's autobiographical sequence; Air Guitar certainly does "work as a book," as publishers who won't publish collections are always complaining they don't. It defines a present, then flashes back to childhood and works through school and the freelance years whose "church," Hickey tells us, consists of Perry Mason reruns on daytime TV. And immediately after explaining how that could be so--Mission Impossible, by contrast, is "The Church of the Small Business Guy"--he launches the final third of his book with a thematic overview.

In essence, "Romancing the Looky-Loos" is a defense of participatory connoisseurship against the idle curiosity of leisure-consuming spectators. Among devotees of popular culture, no issue is more fraught with complexity, but when it comes down to cases almost all such devotees--who are also, let me point out, connoisseurs--go along with Hickey: "In the world I grew up in, . . . you used the word `spectator' as a term of derision--not as bad as `folksinger,' of course, but still a serious insult." Hickey is alert enough to groupthink that you'd think this consensus would make him suspicious, but it doesn't, in part because the evidence is so strong. Just as he claims, most worthwhile arts of any "level"--W.B. Yeats or Bugs Bunny, disco or abstract expressionism--are initially supported by like-minded communities. And just as he claims, reaching an audience of undifferentiated consumers is always intensely alienating for the artist and certain to subject the work to distortions of perception it was not designed to withstand. So Hickey is right--we need "undergrounds." Perhaps, however, his art-world orientation (plus his age) renders him unrealistically pessimistic about the prospects of undergrounds in general.

And much worse, he's ignoring or denying something else: sometimes connoisseurs are one-upping status addicts, and sometimes spectators add dimension to a work that no comfy little community can approximate. In the like-minded community I live in, fans who move on when spectators move in, a process Hickey regards as perfectly natural, earn their own terms of derision: "contrarian," "hipper-than-thou," even "trendy," an insult Hickey reserves for first-wave spectators. And as a Perry Mason fan who boasts in this very essay that he helped convince Warner Bros. to sign Funkadelic, he must understand that strange and wondrous things sometimes happen to the hugely successful. Designed for mass consumption, Roots and Roseanne, E.T. and Superman III would feel altogether more commonplace if they weren't. Megasales didn't normalize Prince, whom he seems to like, and never playing to fewer than 3000 spectators defined Led Zeppelin's music, which he probably considers inferior to Aerosmith's. Well, too bad for him.

But all this is simply to afford myself the opportunity of arguing with a rather large kindred spirit, which Hickey rightly identifies as one of the signal pleasures of democracy. His book survives this divagation, and indeed takes up a variant on the looky-loo argument in a more convincing finale called "Frivolity and Unction" before embarking upon an obscure envoi about a fictional Spaniard with whom Hickey discusses bean counting while attempting to collect a gambling debt. I wish I believed the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is quaking in its boots--it ought to be. Given how he feels about therapeutic institutions, do you think Hickey would turn down a National Book Award? My guess is that this old freelancer would cash the check. Here's hoping we get the chance to find out.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, 1997