“Far from Respectable,” by Daniel Oppenheimer, is the first book to examine the life and writing of this polymorphic critic, a writer whose best works, Oppenheimer argues, are classics of 20th-century American criticism that belong in the canon of American nonfiction prose. I agree with Oppenheimer’s assessment. Like the criticism of Walter Pater or H.L. Mencken, Hickey’s best essays will outlive many of the artworks that occasioned them: His prose is that good.
Hickey was always an odd duck. The son of a part-time jazz musician and an amateur painter, both stifled in their artistic aspirations by the obligations of parenthood and the necessity of day jobs, he grew up with a pair of battling parents in a series of rented homes in various towns. But in those homes, books and art and music were “domestic accouterments,” to use his term.
He was familiar with philosophers Michel Foucault and Herbert Marcuse, but also with smash-mouth Texas football and California surfing, which gave him a variety of arrows in his polemical quiver. In attacks on the art world establishment, he was rhetorically devastating. As Oppenheimer observes: “He attacked as a populist, a champion of the common viewer’s instincts and preferences against the dry philosophizing of elite academics and uptight bureaucrats. He also attacked as a highbrow, dancing circles of French theory around the middlebrow moralizing of art bureaucrats.”
It was this intriguing blend of high and low that made Hickey such an unmistakable voice, one that spoke for a new generation. “The Invisible Dragon” had been published in a small initial run with little fanfare, Oppenheimer writes. “But slowly, and then quickly, it became a phenomenon in the art world, passed from hand to hand, like samizdat, particularly among art students and young artists.”
Hickey viewed the arts as occasions of joy, experiences in which “high” culture reforms and redeems popular culture while being influenced in turn. His preferred milieu, the scene of his real education, which he saw as the base of true cultural life, was the little bookstores and galleries and bars in which art, music and ideas were passionately discussed.
By the time of his greatest fame, however, Hickey came to see this vision as a lost Eden. The academic system proved formidable in institutionalizing the creative impulse, and with the rise of social media, desire is instilled by algorithms and paid influencers, the entire process tracked by a capitalist surveillance system as encompassing as any government system envisioned by Foucault. The lone genius in a studio creating something never seen before seems as old-fashioned as a buggy whip.
Oppenheimer regards this failed prophet with a reverence that led him to take his family on a pilgrimage to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Hickey lives, to meet his idol, now an old man with health issues, paying for the years of youthful abuse of his body. Oppenheimer wanted to discuss Hickey’s writings, but he admits, “I was also there to see Dave in person before he died. Because I knew that if I didn’t, I would regret it.”
The visit was a success. Oppenheimer writes of the man who became a father figure to him in a style that owes more than a little to Hickey’s example: “[H]e knows better than most that we are all struggling, self-sabotaging creatures. Embedded in his work is the conviction that the joyful and passionate instantiations of ourselves that sometimes emerge in the presence of art and culture are too precious to casually or presumptively reject. One could even say that there is a Christian quality in Hickey’s writing, though it’s a Christianity of the early years, before Jesus signed with a major label, when the faith was a haven from the sternness of the Pharisees rather than an inheritor of their paternalistic moralism. His is a sinners’ church.”
“Far from Respectable” is a worthy introduction to the writing of a major American critic and should instill a desire to experience Hickey’s delights firsthand.
Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.
Far From Respectable
Dave Hickey and His Art
By Daniel Oppenheimer
University of Texas Press. 152 pp. $24.95