Her voice is so sad. You just know she was never on top of the world. She was never on top of anything.”
Dave Hickey is sick—he has a fever and would be better off at home in front of the TV watching college football. Instead he’s tooling his white Cadillac El Dorado through the sunburned October streets of Las Vegas and singing along with the woman on the car stereo: “I’m on the top of the world, lookin’ down on creation... ” He’s on his way to speak at an art opening on the campus of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and he’s dressed entirely in black, down to his cowboy boots. Feverishly he taps his free hand to the corny rhythm. But this isn’t the song he wants me to hear, and he interrupts it, fast-forwarding the tape. “Now, this is one of my favorite songs,” he says, as the woman’s voice fills the car again and we pull into a parking lot at UNLV. “It’s incredible. And it’s all wrong as far as pop music is concerned.” The famous art critic, never at a loss for words, gushes over the blasting speakers. “Incredible,” he says again as the second verse begins. I laugh nervously. Hickey guides me through a dissection of the four-minute song’s sophisticated structure—the turnarounds and verse extensions, the modulation—getting more excited as the last part approaches. I know what’s coming. I’ve heard the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love” since I was a teenager. I hate this song.
The final chorus fills the parked car, 75 seconds of the seventies—Karen Carpenter’s multilayered ah-ah-ah-ah and a fuzz-tone guitar. “This is the most beautifully structured rock guitar solo,” Hickey says, singing along and pointing out highlights. “Then he does this little kind of Scarlatti figure …” Scarlatti? “Yeah, Baroque figure.” The song ends and Hickey, who at sixty looks like a cross between Ed Asner and Uncle Charley from My Three Sons, turns the tape off and quickly sobers up. “Anyway, that’s really cool,” he says in his soft Texas drawl as we climb out of the car. “But it’s like a perfectly made little machine—signifying nothing.”
I’ll say. But as we walk across the campus where he has taught since 1989, I’m humming that damn chorus, thinking about poor Karen Carpenter, and thumbing through the files in the back of my brain. I love a good pop song as much as the brilliant art critic does, and I’m wondering whether I’ve blindly dismissed the Carpenters all these years. Or whether Dave Hickey—former engineering student, short-story writer, music journalist, Austin gallery owner, New York editor, Nashville songwriter, and postmodern fringe-dweller who snorted speed with Billy Lee Brammer, drank codeine with Townes Van Zandt, and hobnobbed with Andy Warhol—is just pulling my leg.
A lot of people are wondering the same thing, now that Hickey has become the best-known art secret in the country. Hickey’s second book of essays, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy , published in 1997, has sold 20,000 copies in a field where 3,000 is a big success. (His first book, The Invisible Dragon, has sold about 15,000.) His guest lectures at universities are crowded with the young; his ideas are picked over by the cognoscenti. And though being a top art critic is not going to get you on Letterman, Hickey shows signs of breaking out of cult stardom and into the mainstream—if against his wishes (he regularly turns down requests to be on the NewsHour). “You can make the case that he’s the best critic in America,” says Robert Christgau, the dean of the world’s rock critics . Says Los Angeles art writer and teacher David Pagel: “He’s less of a critic and more of a philosopher. He’s in that great American tradition of Emerson and Jefferson—the public intellectual.”
Beauty is Hickey’s old-fashioned touchstone. In an era in which, as critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker recently, art theory has “carefully excluded—or downright insulted” beauty, Hickey has written that “Nothing redeems but beauty, its generous permission.” While many modernists celebrate form and concept, Hickey seeks out the beautiful—and finds it where others find banality (Norman Rockwell), phoniness (Liberace), or sordid pornography (Robert Mapplethorpe). Hickey sees sanctimony where others see sanctity (Mark Rothko) and integrity where others see glitz (Las Vegas). He loves the silly and hates the solemn, and his essays are a constant granting of permission to viewers to do what he does: like what they like without fear. “Art ain’t rocket science,” he has written. He relentlessly attacks the art establishment—universities, museums, foundations, and critics—anyone who would tell anyone else what he or she should like or admire. Hickey himself is more like a supercharged cultural guide than a critic, making connections between, for example, Jackson Pollock, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Dickens in an essay that begins with Warhol and ends with the Rolling Stones.
For Hickey, it’s all about looking at the art, not thinking about what the artist meant to do—or about what critics, teachers, and art historians say the artist meant. This bothers some writers, who call Hickey a reactionary for what they say is an outmoded beauty standard that ignores history and, especially, modern understandings of racial and sexual dynamics (“Beauty is what makes you feel good,” he says). “It’s a very dangerous thing to call for a return to such a notion of beauty,” says Amelia Jones, a professor of art history at the University of California at Riverside. “There’s a long history of that being invoked to exclude [what isn’t thought beautiful] and to empower the person making the call.” (She also thinks Hickey is a hypocrite: “One thing that really bothers me about him is that he markets himself as being outside of the Institution while he teaches at UNLV. It’s self-serving and not accurate.”)
Hickey thinks such criticism is all too politically correct. Ignore the gallery card next to the painting, he says. Look at the picture.