Tuesday, April 16, 2013
When my friend Renann from Renann Isaacs Gallery asked me to go to the University of Guelph’s yearly Shenkman Lecture to hear Dave Hickey, I said, “Who’s Dave Hickey?” I’m embarrassed to say that he was not familiar to me. He should have been, as he is a significant and noisy art and culture critic, writer for almost every art magazine, recipient of the MacArthur Award (better known as the genius award), and a university professor.
Well, noisy is an understatement. Every seat was taken in War Memorial Hall. The place was full of students and professors, including the president of the university and even David Mirvish. We were up in the balcony and had a good sociological view. The front rows were definitely where the power resided. When Hickey started speaking I thought that he sounded like Charles Bukowski. He certainly looked like him. He very quickly started spewing the ideas for which he has become famous. I was so amazed by what he was saying that I had to take out my pen and notebook to write it all down just so that I would be sure that I wasn’t imagining things.
He began by saying that he became an art professor because of health care benefits and that being a university professor means that you don’t have to work very hard (slight tittering in the audience). Artists who work in the secular world like to work with egos, whereas literate conversation is more universal and those in university like to work in hierarchies (people looking sideways at each other). Theory is taught by people who think theory is hard, but really it’s just words like a greeting card (many people smiling). His talk was littered with lots of sexist talk (he likes going to “tittie bars”), which made some people laugh while others shook their heads. This is where he really excelled as a Bukowski clone.
To be fair he did say some things that made me nod my head. Art departments should be a concentration of all cultural activities. Sculptors should learn from music students about Wagner, artists should appreciate the beauty of dance. Musicians should be inspired by the visual world. OK, yes, I can buy that. Sounds like heaven to me. But he also wanted art departments to be run like athletic departments (he loves basketball). If you don’t score, you’re off the team. No molly-coddling students. And students, don’t get cozy with your professors. Great art is only created in urban centres, not universities where cows roam around (Remember Guelph’s agricultural roots!). Everyone tittered AND looked sideways here.
To be fair I thought that I should read one of his books, so I ordered The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty. His erudition about art shines through, but for much of it I had no idea what he was talking about. Art theory is nothing like a greeting card. I will read it again though, because if this guy is one of the top critics writing, I am sure that there is something he can teach me.
You can get a taste of Hickey from the clip below, and you can also catch his entire Shankman lecture online.