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Made You Look

In Far From Respectable, Daniel Oppenheimer considers the enduring beauty of Dave Hickey’s ideas about beauty

Daniel Oppenheimer’s Far from Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art is a Texas mongrel. It’s a book born out of the love of one man from Austin writing about another man from Austin via anecdote, confessional memoir, critical assessment, and scholarly exegesis. It’s a mongrel with teeth. A few pages in and it’s clear that Oppenheimer isn’t just writing about Hickey. He’s also, in his own way, writing like Hickey … which means big ideas sidle right past if you’re not paying attention.

Northwest of Austin, in our neon homeland of Las Vegas, the art-and-culture crowd remembers Hickey’s irascible tenure at UNLV (1992-2010) and his $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship (2001). They remember how he held court in the velvety womb of the Peppermill lounge and curated the legendary exhibition, Las Vegas Diaspora (2007), which launched the careers of Tim Bavington, Sush Machida, and David Ryan, among others. Las Vegas is prime Hickey territory, Oppenheimer knows, but he’s more interested in these questions: Are Hickey’s award-winning books Air Guitar (1997) and The Invisible Dragon (1993) still relevant? And are they beautiful?

To find answers, Oppenheimer puts Hickey’s position on art and democracy in his sights. A quick version of Hickey’s argument goes like this: When we connect with works of art — visual, musical, literary, architectural — we’re so thrilled or touched or abashed or bored by the aesthetics that we communicate our findings to others. These exchanges about the cultural objects we love or hate allow us to participate in, and construct, democracy from the ground up. Born of democracy, art influences democracy. The problem is that, as fellow reviewer Travis Diehl notes, Hickey largely omits the question of access. If not everyone gets a whack, then art’s role in democracy is handicapped.

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A more promising path from art to democracy is via Hickey’s promotion of beauty — the foundation upon which he erected his genius in the 1990s. Oppenheimer neatly dissects Hickey’s argument that defending provocative art against censorship by shouting “free speech” misses the point: It’s the power of the artwork, or its “beauty,” that should be defended because that’s what got the censors so riled up in the first place. Explaining how and why Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs are as beautiful as a Michelangelo fresco is more compelling than defaulting to the First Amendment. The latter is exactly what happened when Mapplethorpe’s titillating exhibition was censored during the opening volley of the ’90s culture wars. For Hickey, it was a missed opportunity. Explaining how and why that opportunity was lost occasioned not only some of Hickey’s best writing, but also some of the best art writing of the 20th century — writing better than the art it describes.

Since Hickey made his reputation defending beauty, Oppenheimer brings in another writer, the philosopher Alexander Nehamas, to get at what Hickey meant. For Nehamas, beauty invites us to keep coming back for more. A person you’re attracted to — or whom you find beautiful — makes you want to know more about that person. The same goes for books, art, music, and so on. You play “Billie Jean” again because it’s not exhausted: It’s still enticing you. Per Oppenheimer, while Hickey argued that our reactions to beauty prompt us to share our views ( Hey! Have you seen the latest Barrick exhibition?), he missed the next step. Hickey explained how beauty is social, but omitted the come-hither quality in which beauty pulls us back, and deeper, again and again. The pull of what we personally find beautiful — the frayed edge of a cloud, the retro design of a video game — is open to all.

Well before the last chapter of  Far from Respectable, it’s clear that

Oppenheimer finds Hickey himself beautiful. The Texan who led a messy, break-the-mold life marked by drug addiction and kamikaze surfer moves, who personified boomer bohemia and survived to tell the tale, who never left his Austin roots behind although he climbed to the pinnacle of the ivory tower, is beautiful. And Hickey’s writing is beautiful because it keeps leading the reader deeper with its nimble allusions and astute connections. To write this review, I had to go from Oppenheimer’s  Far from Respectable back to Hickey’s  Air Guitar, and from there to Flaubert’s celebrated short story “A Simple Heart,” and from there to the Book of Job in the Old Testament. Instead of writing about Hickey’s notions of beauty, I found myself, with an assist from Nehamas, performing them and, as Hickey predicted, sharing them.

One among many takeaways from Oppenheimer is that Hickey’s ideas — which could explain the aesthetic rapture of a lowrider El Camino as easily as a Cézanne landscape — provide tools that we need in order to protect art from forces that would seek to oppress our encounter with beauty. Those forces, Oppenheimer observes, can come from those who call “on art to defend supposedly traditional values” or those who enforce “an ever-narrower vision of ‘woke’ culture.” Democracy lies in the middle, where Hickey locates art as the shifting ground where we experience beauty and share the news. In encouraging us to defend our loves — and by doing it himself  — Hickey, along with Oppenheimer, defend our fragile, and increasingly illiberal, democracy. Hickey couldn’t be more relevant than that.

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Far from Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art
by Daniel Oppenheimer
152 pages, $24.95
University of Texas Press

Photo of Dave Hickey at his Austin gallery, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, in November 1969 courtesy of the Austin American-Statesman.