You’re in a nightclub where you can’t get a fix on the crowd, though the talk pulls you in: it’s loose, breezy, a laugh in every shout. “You think everyone in here is talking sex and death, don’t you, just like in every other joint in town,” says a man in his midfifties who must have looked exactly like Jean-Paul Belmondo when both of them were in their midtwenties; now he might be a professor, and the woman he’s sitting across from might be one too. “Sex and death,” she says. “Can’t lose with that.” “You lose,” says the man. “Everyone here is talking art and politics, just like we are.” “We are?” the woman says with amusement. “When you get down to it,” the man says, “that’s all anybody talks about, at least around here. Around here, we’re talking art and politics even when we think we’re talking sex and death.”
They gaze around at the beatniks huddled in a corner, and the female office-workers eyeing what looks like an outrageously gay Elvis impersonator leaning on the bar (“My God!” says one of the women, “It’s a Liberace impersonator!”). A few business types so boringly dressed you could fall asleep looking at them are pounding their table over last night’s Perry Mason rerun. A male-and-female construction crew is arguing about zone defense. A woman strolls in through the front door and straight out the back door singing Chet Baker’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily” to herself. A man finishes examining the endless strip of Edward Ruscha service-station photos on the walls and turns to watch a thin guy in a cowboy hat and a fancy western suit climb onto the empty bandstand. “He’s so skinny you can almost see right through him,” he says to no one in particular. “You can see through him,” says the Belmondo look-alike, as if he’d scripted the thin man’s act. His face splits in a grin as the guy takes the mike:
Howdy, this is Hiram King “Hank” Williams, the old Driftin’ Cowboy, born on September 17, 1923, in Georgiana, Alabama, died on the road to Canton, Ohio, on January 1, 1953, and speaking to you now from beyond the sunset by virtue of that special privilege granted to dead hillbilly singers on the occasion of their having been dead longer than they were alive. And first…
This is the mood of Dave Hickey’s high-flying new collection.
The book is mostly drawn from Hickey’s “Simple Hearts” column in the Los Angeles journal, Art Issues, with such exceptions as the title piece, which appeared in these pages as “Critical Reflections,” and “A Glass-Bottomed Cadillac,” Hickey’s Hank Williams seance. Now professor of art criticism and theory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and at least on the evidence of his book jacket a Belmondo ringer in 1967, Hickey goes for the usually hidden art-and-democracy subtext every time, and he never seems to force it to the surface. He finds the theme–the citizenry engaged in a grand arm-wrestling tournament–in Liberace’s closet, sixth-graders’ responses to a study on the effects of cartoon violence, Warhol and Brakhage movies, Pollock’s drip paintings, and Julius Erving’s moves to the hoop. His writing is like great talk–especially great graduate-student talk, where the smallest details of speech or dress can assume impossible significance only to be cut off at the knees by a wisecrack, then raised up again by “But what I really mean is–.” Thus it’s no accident that when Hickey wheels Hank Williams’ shade, or his corpse, onto the stage, Williams isn’t there to sing but to give a lecture. He tells a long story about walking into a drugstore and leaving with a blow job and a mystery–an unsolvable tale about performers and audiences–and then turns the story into an argument, a thesis, critical theory:
People kept telling us how country songs had to be simple and true to be great. Fred [Rose] and I knew that was bullshit. We knew they had to be clear and perfect. Because if they were, they’d be the only clear and perfect thing in the stinking ditch most of us live in. Let me take an example. ‘She’s my Eskimo baby, she’s my Eskimo pie.’ Now, that’s George Jones, and that’s simple. And that, God help us, is probably true. But it’s also bullshit. Today I passed you on the street and my heart fell at your feet. That’s not simple and that’s not true. But it will never come undone. Because it is clear and perfect about the feelings, which, unfortunately, your average Southern boy would no more admit to having than he would admit to having the clap. So, however much my songs made me into a rich Somebody, they never made me into one of the boys.
Hickey’s Williams could well be describing Hickey himself. His arguments–which most often, and most effectively, come in the form of stories, mini memoirs, memories that have been touched so many times they have become personal legends, personal legends that he now means to make into public discourse–are almost always clear, or carried forward by such strength of narrative voice, such giddy confidence, that they seem absolutely clear. (“Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege”–that sounds clear; I’m not at all sure what it means. And never trust any critic’s “of course”; it means the critic isn’t sure.) They are often perfect. (“Shining Hours/Forgiving Rhyme,” about a postwar jam session in a Texas suburb–two African-Americans, two Irish-Americans, a Jewish refugee from Germany, and a wide-eyed kid–as refracted years later through memories of Norman Rockwell, is almost too perfect, Walter Benjamin as Frank Capra, and why not?) But Hickey’s arguments are not at all simple.
Hickey’s position on the art world–ideally not “a ‘world’ or a ‘community’ or a ‘market'” but “a semipublic, semimercantile, semiinstitutional agora–an intermediate institution of civil society, like that of professional sports, within which issues of private desire and public virtue are negotiated and occasionally resolved”–at once deflates pretension, raises the stakes, and subjects any work you might name to an instant, merciless cross-examination. His celebration of Chet Baker almost leaves the trumpeter and singer and junkie behind in an abstraction of singer and song no more stable than a cloud painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. His argument about ’50s car cults (“We were voting with cars–for a fresh idea of democracy, a new canon of beauty, and a redeemed ideology of motion”) can sound like “She’s my Eskimo baby, she’s my Eskimo pie” and feel like Bataille’s “The Notion of Expenditure” or Pauline Kael’s “The Glamour of Delinquency”–that is, you can sense a mask of mystification settling over your face even as you feel scales falling from your eyes.
So you blink, and when you open your eyes Hank Williams is gone. The smile on the face of Jean-Paul is sly now, almost smug. You move in, ready to take him down, to really get the talk going, to make the guy show his cards, but he’s already got them on the table–most of them, anyway. You realize that this was the argument he was looking for all along.
Artforum, November 1997