Taken from the January issue of Dazed and Confused:
Dave Hickey is one of the greatest art critics currently breathing. His seminal 1997 essay collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy was a glorious firecracker up the art world’s bum, and his recent book of “essays on taste”, Pirates and Farmers, is another mind-expanding and laugh-producing zing around his ever-buzzing brain. His long career has taken in running galleries and curating, appraising, criticising, buying and selling art. He’s written songs, short stories and magazine articles about music, art and literature. He’s toured with bands as both a journalist and a musician. He “did a lot of drugs.” He taught at the University of Nevada for 20 years and has written the best stuff about Las Vegas we’ve ever read. We phoned him at home in Santa Fe, where he’s working on a mystery novel. “I think I’m fucking up,” he happily announced, “but I’m having fun.”
FICTION VS IRL
Finding true weirdness in the real world
I started off writing fiction in graduate school and sort of lost interest in it. This was in the 60s, and the world was so much weirder than anything I could think up. Also, I just like to write about physical things. I don’t do people that well, but you can always trust an object. So I started being a freelance writer and when you’re a freelance writer, you don’t suggest essays, you take what comes, and I actually liked that. So if you asked me to write about furniture I’ll still write the way I write, you know what I mean? I like getting weird assignments and being able to go to places and look at what I want to look at. So I’ve spent 40 years paying absolute attention to things for two or three weeks and then never thinking about them again.
The perks and pitfalls of rock journalism
If I remember my life correctly, I’ve spent most of it sitting at a desk or sitting in an airport. I had a really great time writing about rock’n’roll. What’s not in those essays is the women whose lives I fucked up living like that, of course. But it was really great to just be able to go and see what there was to see. And talk to who you wanted to talk to. I mean, with the freelance work that I do, your life is basically confetti: little pieces of paper floating in the air. So you just write it and move on and write it and move on and try not to get bored. Not getting bored has always been
an important motivator in my life.
“Not getting bored has always been an important motivator in my life”
THE ART OF DEALING
Discovering the art world’s inner circle
I actually opened my gallery (in Austin, Texas, in 1967) so I could get out of graduate school, and because the commercial art world at that time was a much more interesting place. It was Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis and all these interesting people and it was really fun. And very, very secret. It was a small operation. The art world that I came into was 6,000 heavily medicated people, none of whom seemed to have jobs. You had to say you were something, so I started saying I was an art dealer, and then I became an art dealer. I liked it, I just found that being a dealer I was spending more and more time with rich people and less and less time with artists, and that’s not my bag.
ON THE ROAD
The itinerant life of a dedicated drifter
I just move, you know? When I was a child my dad played in dance bands so we lived in hotels, basically. And then for my whole education before college, I went to 17 schools, I lived in 13 cities. I’ve been on a thousand road trips and rock tours, either playing or writing about it. I just have the propensity to leave town. To be honest, one of the motivators is that I’ve never been able to put my roots down in any particular place. My connections with the art world are very wide, but they’re basically really shallow. I have better friends in rock’n’roll. I never understand in the art world quite what it is that’s motivating people. I know people who would die to go to parties: I can’t get my head around that.
“I liked it, I just found that being a dealer I was spending more and more time with rich people and less and less time with artists, and that’s not my bag”
Protecting students from the machine
I really detest universities and schools, because they force you to generalise. If I’m teaching an art history course, I have to talk about Robert Morris. And I hate Robert Morris. You’re always having to talk about people you fucking detest. But I really honestly enjoyed teaching graduate students in art, because, well, I’m kind of the catcher in the rye. I think all students need protection from the machine, you know, so I just tried to keep them from getting killed in university.
Finding inspiration in academia
For ten years in Vegas I had really good students. And it’s really fun to have good students, because you sit down and you talk with them, and they say ‘Oh yeah yeah yeah Dave, I get it,’ and then two weeks later you come in to see some fucking thing you never could’ve imagined. It’s sort of chastening if you want to have your way, but it’s amazing to discover the shit that comes out of an educational environment.
“I’m always trying to keep my students from being as miserable as I was”
VIVA LAS VEGAS
The good life in the city of sin
Vegas was a good place to teach artists because you didn’t get any religious people, you didn’t get any treehuggers and you didn’t get any identity people. You just had art people that were there to have fun and work. And Vegas is a great place for work: everybody works there. The best relationships I’ve had have been with the women I’ve lived with and the students I’ve had. I was so miserable in school, but I’m always trying to keep my students from being as miserable as I was.
THE MUSIC MAN
Ditching songwriting for art criticism
I like to write songs. I remember Lou Reed saying once that the hardest thing in the world to write is a greeting card. This was like writing greeting cards; you’re operating in a very restricted area of expression. To be honest, I made what may have been a terrible decision: I was trying to get away from drugs, and you can’t really be in the music business and get away from drugs. So I realised I could be an A+ art critic and only be a B+ songwriter, and so I chose to be an art critic. And that was probably the wrong decision, because a B+ songwriter makes about 50 times more than an A+ art critic.
Looking back with no regrets
I keep trying to ruin my health, but it seems to be still here. I’m already about 40 years older than I ever planned to be. I’ve had 40 years of golden time, judging by my lifestyle. Except for getting out of the music business and fucking up my first marriage, I really don’t feel too bad about anything, you know what I mean?
Pirates and Farmers is out now, published by Ridinghouse
Image courtesy of O'Gara Bissell Photography