On Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar

Adrian Searle, art critic for the Guardian, at Frieze Masters 2012.

As editors of m-est, we are dedicated to discuss what art writing can potentially be. I’m personally convinced that the art writer’s job is not to make value judgments, but to point to the art that deserves attention. Boris Groys, an influential scholar for my thinking, even asserts that art criticism is not necessarily written to be read. This statement is not a celebration for the demise of art criticism, nor is it a simple complaint about commodification of art. Groys rather emphasizes the potential of art writing today: liberated from major expectations to determine what art is or what the value of an artwork can be, the art writer simply writes on what he or she finds interesting. This “interested observer,” as distinct from scholars and journalists who are believed to be “disinterested observers,” works at the ground level in the art system—not dissimilar to an artist—forgoing a power position that is traditionally attributed to the art critic.

Yesterday, Merve and I read an article in The Guardian that announced that Dave Hickey, one of the most provocative art critics who uses a very personal voice in his writing, “is walking away from a world he says is calcified, self-referential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing.” Quoted in the article, Hickey says: “What can I tell you? It’s nasty and it’s stupid. I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit.” Discussing the news about Hickey’s potential retirement from writing, we decided to revisit an article Merve previously wrote on Hickey’s famous essay Air Guitar. This essay remains a highly influential text as the author argues that art criticism is highly speculative: Hickey’s texts are “not about how [art, books and music] should work, or must work, just about the way they seem to have worked in my experience, and the ways that I have seen them work for others.” In Air Guitar, Hickey asks a pertinent question to our production in m-est as well: is art writing consumer or supply side practice?
—Özge Ersoy

Adrian Searle, art critic for the Guardian, at Frieze Masters 2012.

On Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar

In Air Guitar, Dave Hickey takes an almost modernist stab at the inherent qualities of art criticism. He begins his discussion by disagreeing with the notion that people hate critics because of the critics’ claimed power; people hate critics because they don’t like weakness, as in writing criticism, the critic is a) dependent on the work of art, b) provides an infinitely lesser version of the work of art, c) language can, by no means, describe art, which, for Hickey, is experience-based.

The essay’s title is derived from a comparison of art criticism to an “air guitar”, a quotidian image that Hickey purposefully surfaces to re-iterate art’s relationship and inherent bond with the mundane, which is the basis for the argument that the essay hinges on. Art is the quotidian and criticism is distanced from the experience of the quotidian through its attempt to re-frame art employing language. If the quotidian cannot be aptly described using language, how can art be explained by writing?

“In the light of what I perceive to be the almost total absence of ‘unaesthetic’ experience in ordinary life, the necessity of art criticism addressing our ordinary experience of art, from whence these expectations flow, seems all the more urgent,” is Hickey’s subversion of his opening remarks about the “weakness” of art criticism. Art criticism’s weakness, of being lesser than the thing that it takes as a subject matter, is hereby recharged with the duty of addressing the quotidian nature of art, thus entrenching art in the viewers’ own daily experience. Art criticism cannot explain art, but rather, can situate art in the quotidian, which it might or might not be divorced from for the viewers.

It is the utmost respect for the daily that furthers Hickey’s argument for his decision to write about art as he can never take away or contribute to artwork. He recognizes his inability to recreate the daily and hence instead of trying to substitute a lesser form of reality, he moves as far from reality as possible and in a way, respects the daily’s right to exist without his interference. His task, rather, is to reinforce the relationship between the quotidian and art.

“The sheer magnitude of social experience and organizational energy generated in the wake of a single painting by Velazquez so far outweighs and overrides the effort and intention that went into its creation as to make nature pale and angels weep,” is Hickey’s empowering the reader (also the viewer, a definition that including himself). The reception of Velazquez’s painting that can be extrapolated to the Work of Art, is vastly re-interpreted, re-perceived and as such, becomes a record of the quotidian, beyond its specific time and place of creation. The critic’s role thus becomes an index of the “energy” produced by the act of writing that is personal and is also a constituent of the work’s existence through and beyond time.

The reader’s perception of the critic, through Hickey’s self-scrutiny, is altered from the beginning to the end of the essay. This is almost the exact opposite of what happened to the portrait of Dorian Gray—a kindred work, as Oscar Wilde also articulated his struggle with the relationship between life and art, referred to twice in Hickey’s essay. The ugly painting of what the reader thinks of the critic becomes a Hickey-defined painting that might not be beautiful but is of “his own,” at the very least.
—Merve Ünsal

PS: I could not help but notice the frequent use of the transitionary word “thus” in Air Guitar. The causal relationship between Hickey’s sentences points to an A to B structure in this essay that is perhaps best explored in another essay on this essay.

PS2: The above text is based on an article I wrote three years ago. Yesterday, I re-wrote most of it. And I suspect, as I write more about art, I will have to re-visit it.