In the LA Review Books, Jacob Mikanowski reviews Dave Hickey’s recent essay collection Pirates and Farmers. A few years ago, Hickey made a very public exit from the art world, calling it a “nasty, stupid” place. It’s no surprise then that this essay collection, according to Mikanowski, appeals to people who cherish aesthetic experience but care not a wit for the art system:
So what to do, in the face of all this stupid money and academic disdain? In his disarmingly elegant new collection of essays, Pirates and Farmers, Dave Hickey offers a solution. Actually, he offers a couple. One is to ignore the main scene completely, and focus on the margins: areas of fugitive production, odd vernaculars — places where art flourishes in what Hickey calls the “sunshine of absolute neglect.” These include Mexican brothel photography, Ghanaian movie posters, Playboy in the early Hefner years. The other option is to ignore the division entirely, and treat the art world as a single, unified ecosystem, with art works at its center. In this model, charismatic objects vie for survival, taste plays the role of nature red in tooth and claw, and everyone else — dealers, collectors, critics, artists, spectators, historians — is just there to keep the whole machine running.
Art should be central to our conversations about the art world, but it isn’t. Prices and institutions are. In one of the sharper polemics in the book, Hickey describes how in years of speaking and consulting to “associations, projects, groups, departments, endowments, foundations, alliances, and committees,” all tasked with promoting the arts, not one person has ever “even mentioned a work of art.” Instead, they busy themselves with community, creativity, and control. As a countermeasure, Hickey presents a series of essays on various topics — influence, formalism, provenance, collecting, and quality — that add up to a kind of practical handbook to thinking about the social life of art.
Along the way, he explains the difference between pirates and farmers, posits a theory of the visible unconscious, and agitates for the abolishment of the MFA. He picks up a few tarnished cultural icons, like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and leaves others in the mud, like his old comrade on the culture-reporting beat, Hunter S. Thompson. And finally, he relates a number of adventures from his checkered career: being in and out of the running for lead curator of the Venice Biennale, selling country songs in Nashville, hitchhiking to New York as a kid, covering Gregg Allman’s drug trial for The Village Voice, and doing loads and loads of drugs on his own. Through it all, Hickey demonstrates his humor, rhetorical acuity, and tremendous range. He might be the only critic in America who can shift easily between Gilles Deleuze’s logique du sens and the rules for Ultimate Fighting, and sum up the whole of Foucault in a three-word phrase: “care is control.”
Image: Dave Hickey, via wowhuh.com