interview by BILL POWERS on new religions
portrait by ALEXIS DAHAN
BILL POWERS — Does the title of your new book, Pagan America, come from the idea that once art is divested of its religious content then it becomes pagan? Does that also mean secular?
DAVE HICKEY — No. Secular doesn’t exist. Art’s still a religion, just a pantheistic religion in which we sacrifice rather than are sacrificed for. Anytime you pay more for an object than it’s worth, that’s a sacrifice to the power of the object. When you buy an Armani, what you are paying for is the power of that suit. Basically that is a pagan sacrifice. Christianity doesn’t have as much leverage anymore because it’s built on guilt. You’re born and somehow you already owe this guy for killing his son for you. Jesus, I’ve got a mortgage already?
BILL POWERS — How do you see religion in America?
DAVE HICKEY — America has some very peculiar aspects that make it congenial to paganism. There are 2,800 Protestant denominations. How many gods does that require? Also, America has no culture. It’s a mercantile society that isn’t very big. It’s got about six cities and a whole lot of really boring small cities. But all the small cities are virtually the same, so we form cults around stuff. When I was in school the world was divided between Beatles people and Rolling Stones people. Now, we didn’t speak to each other, but among Rolling Stones people you could speak about Rolling Stones shit. That was the objective correlative. The best thing about these cults in America is that they are nonexclusive. You can belong to as many cults as you want to. I belong to the Warhol cult, the Miles Davis cult — all these different cults.
BILL POWERS — In the art world, it’s easier to gain membership if you have cash.
DAVE HICKEY — Not really. You do need good judgment. There’s a rule in the art world that the person who contributes the least to the value of the work gets the worst deal. In other words, if you are a great big collector and Larry Gagosian is a little bitty dealer, then you get the best deal. If you’re a little bitty collector and Larry Gagosian is a great big dealer, then he gets the best deal.
BILL POWERS — Would you agree that the first rule of art dealing is that you have to get off on something personally if you expect others to buy into your product?
DAVE HICKEY — You can sell anything. When some of the galleries were complaining about Conceptual art, my friend Max Hutchinson said, “If you can’t sell a handful of air with an idea in it, then you’re not a fucking art dealer!”
BILL POWERS — By the same token, if there aren’t people you won’t sell to, you’re not really an art dealer either, right?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s the definition of being a real art dealer, as opposed to a merchant. Popular art is defined by the size of its market. High art is defined by the exclusionary quality of its market. It doesn’t really do you any good to sell a good piece to a nobody.
BILL POWERS — Rudolph Stingel says that great art is generally made during an empire’s decline. Do you agree with that assessment?
DAVE HICKEY — Yes, but most of the great art I know achieves its complexity because of the presence of repression. How did Shakespeare write? How does John Dryden get around the fucking king? You know what I mean?
BILL POWERS — John Currin says American art is doomed to be folk art because no real masterpiece can be made in a democracy.
DAVE HICKEY — Well, I think the John Chamberlain sculptures being shown right now are a pretty great example of masterpieces being made in a democracy. And besides, John Currin is a Republican. I loved John when he was painting babes with big boobs, but once he went into nymphomania he lost me. Also, I don’t like a picture of anything, period.
BILL POWERS — Unless it’s a babe with big boobs?
DAVE HICKEY — You are correct about the folk art thing only in this sense: Braque and Picasso were outsider artists.
BILL POWERS — I get the feeling that outsider artist today has been reduced to those with either severe drug problems or emotional instability.
DAVE HICKEY — Or you live in some little bitty town and you paint the American flag with the entire text of the bible scrawled in the white stripes. Outsider art is basically a naive form of high art. Outsider art is usually naïve Rauschenberg or naive de Kooning.
BILL POWERS — What do you mean when you say, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!”?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s from Tom Dowd, who produced “Layla” — and also produced Coltrane.
BILL POWERS — Could that apply to art criticism? Or is the real problem in American culture that we are, in fact, only interested in choruses and not verses?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s a reasonable presumption, but if there’s no verses, there’s no chorus except for maybe “Bang a Gong” and a few other songs. I wouldn’t say there’s no art in America because it’s democratic. I would say there’s no art in America because it’s all school-marm art and stupid. I hate student art. I hate student writing. I hate student basketball. I hate student football. I hate anything that isn’t fucking professional.
BILL POWERS — Isn’t that a troublesome position to find yourself in as a teacher?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s what I’m fucking teaching them! I try to tell them stuff that’s useful.
BILL POWERS — Why did you leave Las Vegas for New Mexico?
DAVE HICKEY — Because my wife got offered a tenured job in Albuquerque. She was working for Steve Wynn and all these gangster types in Vegas, where she did well because she’s tough, but she just got fucking tired of it.
BILL POWERS — And were you tired of Vegas?
DAVE HICKEY — No, I never get tired of gambling and staying up late.
BILL POWERS — So what’s your game: poker, blackjack, roulette?
DAVE HICKEY — Lately I play video poker, mostly because when you play Texas Hold’em in casinos you eventually learn that half the people there are raptors who want to win and the other half are just herbivores who want to sit at the table and lose. Also, It’s hard to play with people who don’t know how to play. That takes a lot of the fun out if it.
BILL POWERS — What are you after?
DAVE HICKEY — Hell, I want to win, but I want to win the way you win at bridge, which is by knowing shit. When you play Hold’em at a casino in Albuquerque you deal with a lot of people there who have money, who will always stay in the game to see the flop, which means the flop doesn’t mean anything so you never know what the fuck you’re up against! I’d rather play with Doyle Brunson than some fucking hillbilly. It’s like golf: you want to play with people who are approximately as good as you are.
BILL POWERS — But not, like in tennis, with people who are better than you?
DAVE HICKEY — You can learn from people who are better than you are, but you still want to win. Also I don’t have a great face — too many tells. My business is expressing myself, which isn’t great when it comes to poker. For cards you want to be like a fucking Navajo.
BILL POWERS — Did you once say that history happens because people save the things they love?
DAVE HICKEY — I probably did. When I was at Southern Methodist University, I used to study differential equations with these two Zuni guys. They were off the reservation. Their tribe had been sent to engineering school to learn how to build roads back home. They couldn’t understand why you would ever need art in a museum because Zuni art hasn’t changed in five thousand years. We are historical people and the crisis of criticism arises from the basic fact that we get bored. When you’re bored with it, it’s over. That’s what drives the machine: ennui. What survives and still eludes ennui, survives — the live pattern and adaptability of a painting over time. I have a bunch of Ellsworth Kelly paintings at home and they don’t get old. They are just the way they are.
BILL POWERS — As a counterpoint I would argue that some things survive because they can go it alone. For about a century the Alhambra, in Spain, was basically a homeless shelter before the Spanish figured out it could be a tourist trap. That’s an example of a culture surviving without any custodianship.
DAVE HICKEY — They degraded the Alhambra because they were Christians, but they didn’t have the balls to tear it down. Think about the hierarchy of street tagging where you measure the value of a tag by how long it is able to stay intact. If it stays untouched for a week, that’s fine. If it lasts two weeks, that’s great. If it lasts a month, you’re fucking Raphael.
BILL POWERS — In the noir writing class you taught, you pointed out that the protagonist in most of, say, Raymond Chandler’s stories, is actually a void, an empty suit. Some people have made that same observation about the Don Draper character in the series Mad Men.
DAVE HICKEY — My theory about all genres of fiction — and noir fiction especially — is that we’ve gotten to the point culturally where serious literature is defined as such if it’s about your mother or your sister or your drinking problem. Genre fiction is defined by people who deal with strangers. That has nothing to do with literary quality. I read this book recently, The Emperor’s Children, about the family of some famous New York journalist and it was so boring, all this family shit. I don’t think people have families anymore — except poor Mike Kelley, who died of an apparent suicide at 57 in February 2012. Someone should have warned him that memory lane is a one-way street. He just drove himself back into nothingness.
BILL POWERS — I heard someone define self-acceptance as the ability to stop wishing for a better past.
DAVE HICKEY — I really don’t do the past.
BILL POWERS — You’ve made a correlation between Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol, saying that Cindy Sherman doesn’t ask what comes after Warhol, but what should have come before him.
DAVE HICKEY — What is the precedent for Warhol? The publicity still. I think Cindy is the closest thing we have to Andy today.
BILL POWERS — Should there be a moratorium on Andy Warhol? Is he too ubiquitous in conversations about contemporary art today?
DAVE HICKEY — Andy was my friend and one of the primary reasons for my being here, but people still don’t understand that Andy was talented. He was an artist. A lot of people don’t understand that Kobe Bryant is talented because they never saw him play. A lot of people don’t understand George Washington was talented because they never saw him ride a horse. There is a physical gift that saves these creatures and that comes from another place.
BILL POWERS — So in your estimation we aren’t oversaturated with Warhol?
DAVE HICKEY — We are oversaturated with popular culture. The mistake people who try to follow Andy make is to assume that Andy’s exploitation of popular culture was what his work was all about, when actually his painting was really closer to mimicking 18th-century portraiture.
BILL POWERS — My friend says that he likes Warhol but hates seeing his influence in other artists’ work.
DAVE HICKEY — I agree. Ed Ruscha warned me that you can’t forget that you may be living in a real bad time and that everything people value is crap.
BILL POWERS — Maybe the whole 20th century is a wash? It’s all one long 1970s.
DAVE HICKEY — Which was great and theatrical for rock and roll. It was crap for art, so art could be going through a sandy patch. There’s really no way to be certain.
BILL POWERS — Would you say that an artist is someone with the ability to embed thoughts or feelings in material?
DAVE HICKEY — There’s nothing embedded in art I like. I would say art is largely defined by its ability to transgress the patterns of contemporary culture and still offer a new pattern in it that might change the future, because pattern is visual survival. Pattern is the mother of memory. David Hume said culture is that which outlasts the lifetime of its maker, and I think that’s a pretty good definition. I also like my friend Morris Peckham’s assertion that what happens with a species is that you become so safe that you forget how to confront disorienting behavior. So we have invented art, which has rules designed to be broken and then we break those rules and come to terms with that rupture and that’s our way of going out to fight the tiger. Art is there to train people how to deal with disorientation, that’s its primary social function.
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Michitaro SuzukiRead the article
Zoe KazanRead the article
French TwinksRead the article
Ed RuschaRead the article
Damon and Paul McCarthyRead the article
Dave HickeyRead the article
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