Dave Hickey: 'If you want to be an icon of virtue, this is the moment because you’ll stand out'

The outspoken cultural critic and art historian shared his thoughts on the market during a talk at Frieze art fair in 2007—here is the transcript

Cultural critic and art historian Dave Hickey Photo: Nasher Museum Of Art

Cultural critic and art historian Dave Hickey Photo: Nasher Museum Of Art

The question of how to sell without selling out is especially relevant in the contemporary art world and there are few people better qualified to grapple with this thorny topic than Dave Hickey. Not only is he a professor of English at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Hickey is also one of America’s best known art and cultural critics, admired for his aversion to academicism and his robust analysis of the effects on art of the rough and tumble of the free market. Last month he delivered a keynote speech at Frieze: “Schoolyard Art: Playing Fair without the Referee.” Here we present an edited transcript. The lecture is available as a podcast at: www.friezefoundation.org/talks

The title of this talk comes from a legend about the great basketball player Julius Irving, Dr J, who was famous even in his schoolyard days; he wanted to be a professional player so much that he always played by the rules even on the school yard. He would call fouls on himself.

Any of you who have been around the art world for the last few years will realise the aptness of this comparison because whatever rules there may have been, no longer apply. There are people out there who like art more than money. The only bad thing is that there are a lot of artists who like money more than art. This is a problem but consider the benefits. There has never been a better chance to draw attention to oneself by behaving honourably and honestly and meticulously. If you want to be an icon of virtue, this is the moment because you’ll stand out.

If you behave well, if you behave correctly, if you make art that will still matter in 200 years, all you can lose is money. Did anyone get into the art world to make money? I got into it for sex and drugs but not for money. Why is everyone worrying about money? What are you going to do if you get a lot of money? Are you going to buy a boat? Are you going to buy an apartment in Paris? Jesus, stop it! Unless you have an incredible drug habit, I don’t really see any reason to have money at all. I really don’t care about money, as my wife will tell you. I do care about being right.

Did anyone get into the art world to make money? I got into it for sex and drugs but not for money

My rule is Leo Castelli’s rule and a lot of what I’m telling you today comes from Leo. Leo said: “You can’t be right all the time but you can never be wrong.” If you go by that rule, you’re going to be OK. Leo’s idea of being wrong was to sell something for too much money. The example he gave was a painter named Jennifer Bartlett, who was represented by Paula Cooper Gallery. Jennifer had a little bubble moment, she began selling her pictures in the high six figures—they really deserved to be sold in the low twos. So I asked Leo what was wrong with that and he said: “It hurts Carl Andre’s prices.” Which is to say, the prices of everybody’s work are compromised by selling art for too much money. For a dealer, this is virtually impossible to avoid these days. My friend Bob Shapazian, who was director of the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, quit. And why did he quit? He said: “I’m not an art dealer anymore. I sit around, a crate comes in, I see who the crate’s from, I go to the waiting list, I make up this outrageous fucking number and send it out. That’s not being an art dealer. I am creating value but it is not real value.”

What we have here is a strange moment which is the return of primary practice. In the 80s and 90s, you had one of the biggest hypocritical moments in the history of art. You would walk into a gallery and in the front room would be the work of somebody called something like Hernando which was completely composed of confetti and dog turds. There would be a serious essay about confetti and dog turds—their interchangeability, their social relevance, the way they relate to late capitalism. And then, if you could get into the back room with your shoes clean, you would buy the Donald Judd that was back there. We went through two decades of what was mostly a secondary market in which the front room was just a place to put up installation art with popcorn machines, that nobody had even the faintest interest in selling, as a loss leader to lure people into the back room to buy the Donald Judd and the Claes Oldenburg.

With the collapse of this moment, a lot of things happened. The public funding disappeared. With public funding gone, the power of the museum receded. Kunsthalles closed like little violets across the country. At the same time we have seen the development of a business world which benefits from a condition of borderline hyperliquidity. I was talking to the president of the Venetian Resort hotel and casino in Las Vegas. He said: “You wouldn’t believe it. We are bringing money home by the bucketful, we bring bucket after bucket of money. We are running out of buckets.” When you run out of buckets, when you run out of places to put your money, that’s hyperliquidity. And I needn’t tell you that hyperliquidity is good for the art world because if you really want to piss away some money, the art world is the place to do it. There is so much money out there at the moment it just makes you cry. And it’s harder and harder to get hold of it unless you’re selling art. So we have a bubble. Art bubbles are great. Art bubbles suck money into the art world. Who gets hurt in an art bubble? Greedy artists; stupid collectors. Who else? Nobody with their wits about them gets hurt in an art bubble.

I needn’t tell you that hyperliquidity is good for the art world because if you really want to piss away some money, the art world is the place to do it

Also institutions today have the power of sucking all the money available in the community into the museum. I said to a friend of mine who runs a museum on the West Coast: “You’ve had 17 installation art shows, are you ever going to show any objects again?” He said: “If I show objects the people on my board just buy them, and then they don’t give me the money.” What has changed is the whole format of the art world as it existed before 1970: you had artists who worked in their studios; they took their work to galleries; the art galleries sold this work to members of the community. When a community had purchased a critical mass of this work it was presumed that it had some aspect of public virtue and you had to show it in a museum.

So what we’re dealing with for most of the 20th century is the transformation of objects of private delectation into icons of public significance. This is what happened when I was growing up in Fort Worth. There was a moment, and I’m ashamed to admit it, in which every mid-century modern dining room in Fort Worth had a Maurice Lewis [Editor's note: due to a transcription error, we mistakenly published the artist Morris Louis as Maurice Lewis] on the wall. So, quite naturally, the museum had a Maurice Lewis show because it presumed you could look at a Maurice Lewis and figure out something about Fort Worth—which you could but you didn’t want to know it. The same thing happened with Frank Stella. When Stella’s work permeated the New York art world to a sufficient level, there was a Frank Stella show at MoMA [in 1970]. One of the interesting things about this process is that the museum shows did not depend upon the professionalism of their staff, they depended on the collective taste and wishes and desires of the community. So when you were looking at the Frank Stella show you were thinking: “What is it about these that turns on bond salesmen?”

It was a fairly straightforward business. The transformation from private delectation into public significance took place through the auspices of honest brokers. An honest broker is a critic like me who is not going to lie but who is actually going to try and figure out what is important about Frank Stella. It is going to be a magazine editor who does not lie who publishes a review of the exhibition. It is going to be a curator or a dealer who has staked his or her reputation on being right about this.

The last example I remember: in 1971 Bruce Nauman joined the Leo Castelli gallery. Marcia Tucker at the Whitney put up a big Nauman show and Phil Leider, the editor of ArtForum, assigned the critic Peter Plagens to review it. What this means is that Leo Castelli who does not compromise, Marcia Tucker who does not compromise, Phil Leider who does not compromise and Peter Plagens who does not compromise, endorsed this work by Bruce Nauman. This is especially important because they all have very different taste. So this represents a consensus of investment from people whose job it is to be right, and to never be wrong. In economics we call this a “price point”. Phil Leider’s investment was a price point. Another price point was when Leo Steinberg, one of the great art historians, would stake his art historical reputation on Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who were then these two virtual unknowns living on Ludlow Street. This was a major risk. But, if Leo Steinberg takes that risk, and if he succeeds, that’s a price point. Ask yourselves: Who can give you a price point today? Who is never wrong? Who makes a profession out of never being wrong? Nobody. Who is the dealer who tries to be never wrong? Who is the dealer who tries never to sell anything for too much money? This world no longer exists.

The art market in the 20th century is first of all a finite market which means there are always more works of art than there are people to buy them. What does that mean? It means, as Leo says, that somebody has to buy two. Somebody has to buy four or five. If the art does not change, nobody’s going to buy two. To maintain itself in public vogue, art needs perpetual reinvestment, an artist needs one show after another show, one essay after another essay—all these are occasions for stylistic development. If I happen to have written about your frog paintings last year and if you put up another show of frog paintings, I’m not coming by. But, if Barbara [Gladstone] calls me and says: “You haven’t seen the salamander paintings, Dave,” then I’m going to rush right over.

What happens when you have an institutional market is that nothing changes. Installation art did not change, though it had great moments of innovation. In 1968 Bruce Nauman invented the plywood box. Do you remember the plywood box? I’ve been in every plywood box in the universe. You could not make the plywood box go away. I’ve been in plywood boxes with coal on the floor, with cotton on the floor, I’ve been in plywood boxes you climbed into with a ladder, I’ve been in plywood boxes in which there was nothing there except for, written on the wall, the tiny word “boogie”. All of this created a steady-state market place in which there was nothing to drive style change. The logic of an institutional market is: “We don’t care. We’re just filling up this hole in our schedule.” It’s really more important [to institutions] if the person building the plywood box is a Zuni [Native American] warrior than if we’ve ever seen the plywood box before. And the presumption is: We don’t have style development anymore because history is over. I date the end of history to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. When they shot JFK everybody said “Oh God, it’s so terrible it’s the end of the world.” When they shot Bobby, everybody said: “Oh no, not again.” And the end of history is pretty much marked by: “Oh no, not again.” The problem is that even though history may be over—time keeps on going. Not having history doesn’t disable ennui. The art world works on ennui, that’s the only thing that makes it go. I am bored with giant cibachrome photographs of three Germans standing behind a mailbox. It doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means I’m fucking bored with it.

The art world works on ennui, that’s the only thing that makes it go. I am bored with giant cibachrome photographs of three Germans standing behind a mailbox. It doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means I’m fucking bored with it

This is the crisis that happened, with the death of installation art, with the enormous escalation of available capital, with the collapse of institutional authority; all this created the world that we live in today and the art fair is the embodiment of it.

Another appropriate analogy: a couple of years ago I was at one of those hotel art fairs, where you walk down the hall and every door is open and there are little sculptures sitting on the bedspreads and light works stuck up on the walls. I was walking through one of these, and I was thinking it was kind of strange, it was like Amsterdam without the prostitutes. You’re walking down the hall and looking into all of these rooms with all of these things. Then I went home that night and turned on the television. This was two days after Americans had entered Baghdad and overthrown Saddam Hussein. There’s a guy with a camera, walking down the hall of the Baghdad Hilton and every door is open. In here you can buy Xerox machines, in here you can buy ancient Sumerian artefacts, in here you can buy everybody’s medical records in Iraq. Every room was full of stolen shit. And the analogy between that little moment in the hotel and the little moment in Baghdad put a special spin on the art fair phenomenon for me, the idea of absolute, raw, rapacious capitalism.

I have no problem with it, I love it when people buy art. When I walk through Frieze looking at everything, I’m saying to myself, “Does this meet my standards?” My standards for any gathering of art are: is 99% of this bullshit? Yes. But, is 1% of it interesting? Yes. That’s about your percentages for anything in the world.

My standards for any gathering of art are: is 99% of this bullshit? Yes. But, is 1% of it interesting? Yes

Eventually some dealer will think, “I’ve got this great idea. I’m only going to show art I like.” Everybody else will go, “Oh, no, don’t do that. You’re fucking kidding. Everybody’s got to show one of each.” When you walk to their stands at art fairs, dealers currently ask you: “Would you like to see my Iranian minimalist? If not, our Berlin pornographer is quite interesting. We’ve got one of each here for any taste.” What this means is that the dealer currently has no power. One day one dealer may say to himself: “I’m going to gather power the way Leo did, I’m just going to show stuff I really believe in.” That’s going to really change things. And the art world as we currently know it will disappear.

As exciting as this moment is now, imagine how exciting the collapse is going to be. It’s really something to look forward to. Boom! Thousands of Icari plummeting into the surf. Eventually all the windows where you sell your soul are going to be closed.

After we published this transcript, Hickey sent us the following letter, published in our January 2008 issue:

Letter to the editor: A double affront

I am writing to express my extreme disappointment at your decision to print, yet again, the transcript of Dave Hickey’s remarks at the Frieze Art Fair. Mr Hickey’s flat-footed, semi-grammatical, counter-factual purée of name-dropping and inside jokes might be okay as art-fair chit-chat but it is totally unworthy of publication in even the rankest tabloid. If I were Robert Shapazian, Paula Cooper, Jennifer Bartlett, Barbara Gladstone, or anyone else whose name is bandied about in this farrago, I should be mightily annoyed with Mr Hickey. If I were Robert Storr, another letter-writer like myself, I would be aggrieved by the fact that Hickey did not deign to drop my name. If I were an art collector in Fort Worth, Texas, a city that boasts large holdings in the work of post-painterly abstractionist, Morris Louis, I would be surprised and dismayed to discover local investments in a previously unheard of artist named Maurice Lewis. Hickey owes all these people his most abject apology.

Why would The Art Newspaper publish Hickey’s remarks twice, then ship them off to France for translation and further publication? Why would Frieze Magazine send Hickey’s remarks out as a worldwide pod-cast to poison the hearts of geeks and gamers in the Hebrides? Why, in fact, would Hickey even grant permission for this sort of multi-front assault? And why, having granted his permission to reprint, would Hickey refrain from editing the factual, grammatical, and social infelicities from his remarks. I can only hope that Hickey was not paid a sou for any of this free publicity, and that, when the bubble bursts, he will be first among the flaming icarii plunging into the surf.

Dave Hickey,

University of Nevada, Las Vegas