Dave Hickey recently published Pirates and Farmers: Essays on the Frontiers of Art (Ridinghouse, 2013), a collection of essays on taste and 20th-century art. The book is threaded with personal tales of insouciance and the opinions of a man who has decided he’s through with the art world, but will never be done with art. Hickey spoke over the phone from Las Vegas with Charles Schultz, Associate Art Editor, about his thoughts on taste, changes of style, the history of art as a history of boredom, and the world of pirates and farmers.
Charles Schultz (Rail): You open “On Taste” with the provocative suggestion that our inability to separate taste from desire is the root of our bloody global conflicts. Can you extrapolate a bit on this?
Dave Hickey: All wars about culture are wars about taste—about tacos, purdah, vestigial tribalism, Aryan blood, and sacred soil. These are all dispensable attributes. I look out the window and see a post-ethnic, post-culture cauldron. I look at the art world wading obliviously into the goody-two-shoes, gerrymandered mainstream, and I’m daunted.
Rail: The title essay of your book, “Pirates and Farmers,” sets up a kind of conceptual foundation for many of the other essays in the book. You define farmers as rule abiders and protocol followers. Pirates, on the other hand, transgress rules and treat protocols like nothing more than suggested routes. When did you come to realize you were a pirate? How did the realization occur?
Hickey: Early on. At first I thought I was an escape artist, but as soon as I had the chops, I started marauding and plundering. Have been ever since.
Rail: Farmers and pirates play by two very different playbooks. In “Vogue” you write that “the art world is a vulgar place to be if you are not pathologically servile.” If so, wouldn’t the art world be total farmer territory?
Hickey: Maybe farm animal territory. I meet a lot of sheep in sheep’s clothing. Actually, the art world is so creepy that I can’t tell what the fuck it is. I read the blogs: Eric Clapton’s selling Richter, Bob Dylan’s welding gates, and Sharon Stone’s hosting her seven thousandth gala.
My impression: farmers have just about rid the art world of pirates. They know us when the see us. This is the first thing I learned teaching at universities: it’s all about territory. You take over the student lounge for the ceramics lab, you win. How much pasturage you control counts most. There is a nice book by Jane Jacobs (Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, ) that deals with this issue at length.
I first became aware of this divide when I was doing visiting professorships. I immediately discovered that you need the department secretary on your side if you are going to function in an art department. I used to take them flowers, candy if they were fat, and tell them they were pretty so they wouldn’t fuck up my paperwork, but they always knew I was “trubble”—that I was a pirate. No amount of flowers or candy could erase that impression. The distance between pirates and farmers is profound and irrevocable, and it’s a hassle. On the upside, pirates can make a living without having to curtsy too much.
Rail: In “On Taste” you write, “art that exists in the world, in the possession of civilians, is the accumulated hard copy of cosmopolitanism and civilization.” Why is the art that is privately owned rather than that which is collected by museums and institutions the hard copy?
Hickey: Art in a museum, just by being in a museum, loses its influence on new art. It dwells in the realm of public accreditation. This is fine but it’s not the same as wild art that’s still alive in the street. Art in Sunday school is not an emblem of change-inducing sophistication.
Rail: How about style change? How do you account for changes in style. Is it a reflection of shifting taste from one generation to the next?
Hickey: In my view, art history is about boredom. That’s the engine. Art changes because we get bored. History is dead but time is not, and we still get inured to things. I’ve conjured up a lot of theoretical reasons for style change, but ennui is the best one I’ve ever come up with.
Rail: You refer to curators as “certified sleazebags.” How have you come to hold these folks in such high regard?
Hickey: Well, that’s a little over the top, but honestly, most curators only value their own ideas. They impose these ideas on defenseless art from which they learn nothing. They give us no pleasure or knowledge. They champion group shows and I have a big problem with group shows. If I could abolish group shows from museums and group crits from graduate schools, I would be happy. They are both modalities of social control. You work your butt off to get out of a pigeonhole so some curator or professor can fit you into a new one.
Rail: One place that doesn’t crop up in this series of essays is Marfa, Texas. As an art critic who is from the Lone Star State, what do you think about Marfa?
Hickey: I’ve been there a lot. I used to go down there just to see Don Judd, and I finally decided that I didn’t like Don very much. I would go down there and it was like being in a prissy European novel. I would listen to Don complain about people not giving him enough money, telling me how much purer he was than I, and how many European princesses he knew. I remember once he was complaining that the locals kept shooting his dogs. I wanted to tell him that Texans do this sort of thing to people they don’t like.
But I love the art in Marfa; I love the Judds; I love the Flavins. If the Flavins had been installed when Don was alive, they would have been a temporary project because they blow everything else away. I love the Jack Wesleys, but I hate the food. The last time I was in Marfa, a bunch of supermodels had just flown in on a private jet with their own salad chef.
Also, I grew up in West Texas. It’s my home country. Everybody looks at Marfa and they see the sky and the clouds, and the sublimity of the landscape. I see four sweating illegals loading a generator onto a flatbed. It’s a destitute country, with a lot of desperate people in it, and living amidst destitution hardens your heart. I prefer the bums in Las Vegas, where there is poverty but less destitution. If I’m going to be panhandled, I prefer high-hearted Vegas panhandlers with signs that say, “Will Dance for Food.” If I don’t have any crack in my pocket, I give them a 20.