Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]


While awaiting the new collection of critical essays Dave Hickey assured me was in the pipeline when we saw each other in Las Vegas last August for the first time in 30 years--during 12 of which the guy who once wrote me Aerosmith and Kinks reviews was known to the world as the author of Air Guitar, the finest such collection since the halcyon days of Kael and Sontag--I thought I could do worse than take a look at the University of Chicago's new edition of his shorter and less stunning 1993 The Invisible Dragon. The main thing I took away from it the first time was the unfashionable and to my mind self-evident notion that works of art--most specifically Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of fisting and other such arcane sexual acts--were, among other things, acts of advocacy. Formal elegance my ass, comme on dit.

The new edition, however, is in fact new. Hickey did in fact revise--when I looked back to see whether I'd marked the same passages this time as last time (because he's so free with the bon mots, the answer was often no), I noticed a lot of rewriting. Not only has he excised considerable throat-clearing and marginal verbosity, he's expanded on ideas here and there. He's also added a fifth essay, "After the Great Tsunami: On Beauty and the Therapeutic Institution," as well as an uncommonly substantial "Introduction to the New Edition" (and I enjoyed the acknowledgments too). And he's changed the subtitle slightly, from "Four Essays on Beauty" in small type to "Essays on Beauty" in large type--and in red.

Especially in the wake of the new material, that's the nub. Hickey believes not in art that is good for you but art that is, as Ashford & Simpson once put it, good to you. And he believes that beauty constitutes an argument for whatever content happens to be beautified. Myself, I've always preferred to cite "pleasure" when launching such points--about, say, M.O.P.'s robbery rap "Ante Up"--but since Hickey's focus, especially in this book, is the visual arts, beauty is the pertinent term for him. He reminded me that my late friend Bob Stanley, one of two painters I've known well, changed his tune about a decade into our friendship. Early on in his tutelage he was all over flatness and concept. But by the early '70s, painting trash and trees and his friends, he was talking mostly about beauy. Bob devoted the last ten years of his life to female nudes. These never gained much commercial traction--which, by the way, Hickey would probably hold against them. In addition to believing in beauty, he also believes in the market. Not capitalism, he is careful to specify here--the market.

So, some bon mots. "Many artists of consequence, like Degas and Picasso, are found guilty of profiting from the theft of proprietary iconography." "Anyone who has loaned work to a museum exhibition can tell you that the work in the museum is something other than the work in one's home. Visiting the exhibition can feel like visiting an old friend in jail. The work hangs there among a population of kindred offenders, bereft of its eccentricity, yet somehow, on account of that loss, newly invested with a faintly ominous kind of parochial power." "Art is not idolatry, [curators] argue, nor is it advertising. Advertising and idolatry, however, are indeed art, and the greatest works of art are always inevitably a bit of both."

Articles, June 19, 2009

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