On Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar and Art Criticism

After being engaged with Contemporary Istanbul in one way or another for five days, a context in which a lot of art work is available for viewing and buying, I thought it would be important to return to Dave Hickey, once again, to think about what we look at and why. Here, writer İlhan Ozan, through his extensive discussion of Hickey’s essay “Air Guitar” in the framework of art criticism and art evaluation, employs other texts on art to both historicize and extend on how this medium works for Hickey himself.—Merve Ünsal

Dave Hickey

Dave Hickey’s announcement of his withdrawal from art criticism (The Guardiandirected me to the same point as Özge and Merve—to rethinking what art writing can potentially be. Then I turned to Dave Hickey’s essay, “Air Guitar” with the question in my mind of how art criticism may have worked for the critic himself.

In the beginning of Hickey’s discussion, he states that people despise critics not because of their power but because of their weakness. Merve summarizes the reasons here: “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.” (Merve’s article) I agree with all of these reasons but I think criticism’s main concern should not be to overcome the distance between language and experience; an artwork gains its meaning through interpretation. Otherwise, there is no hidden meaning inside the object and the system of “art” is more than aesthetic experience. Accordingly, I would like to remark on a few points in Hickey’s essay deriving from the aforementioned principles.

First of all, the dependence of art criticism on the work of art does not necessarily make it less significant. Certainly, art criticism needs the artwork to exist and it is constructed on it. However, it must be remembered that we are far beyond the notion of work of art being self-sufficient. Today it is accepted that, at least since Duchamp, anything can be a work of art and the line between everyday objects and art objects has become blurred. The matter is, therefore, to locate them in a certain system, which is called “art” in general. In other words, anything can be art but not everything. This occurs within the framework of a set of relations and art criticism is one of the agents in the emergence and dispersion of these relations. But it is not as if art critics are the people who have the right and authority to point out what art is or what it ought to be. On the contrary, Hickey argues that art criticism is “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.”[i] No one can claim such a sovereign role for art critic(ism) today.

We should also note that today’s artists are not the cultural heroes of the 18th and 19th centuries nor is the concept of the work of art the same. The field of art—as well as any other field in which a system is historically constituted—exists, transforms itself and collapses within time.  The unity of the discourses on aesthetics, which is more than mere language, would be the interplay of the rules that define the transformations of these different objects, their non-identity through time, the break produced in them. What must be sought at this point is “the coexistence of these dispersed and heterogeneous statements; the system that governs their division, the degree to which they depend upon one another, the way according to which they interlock or exclude one another, the transformation that they undergo, and the play of their location, arrangement, and replacement.”[ii] There is no artifact which is artwork by nature. The work of art is necessarily caught up in the play of exteriority. The relations in which an object is baptized as an artwork appear all among the constituents of the field.

What does art criticism play in this set of relations then? When Dave Hickey compares the work of art to the writing, he says writing is secondary regarding the work of art because the work of art is based on experience, therefore he concludes, as Merve writes, that “Art is the quotidian and criticism is distanced from the experience of the quotidian through its attempt to re-frame art employing language.” I don’t think anyone would oppose this idea that art is based on experience unless s/he is a partisan of conceptual art or a fan of Wittgenstein for whom the ontological status of the work of art is only a family resemblance that all the attempts to define art must end in either a solipsism or tautology and that the concept of art is undecidable. The aesthetic experience has its place somewhere in-between the theoretical and the practical, the material and the ideological, the physical and the spiritual. Its realm is feeling, and feeling is by necessity subjective. We can bring up Kant’s dichotomy on aesthetic judgment at this point:

“Thesis: The judgement of taste is not based upon concepts; for, if it were, it would be open to dispute (decision by means of proofs).

Antithesis: The judgement of taste is based upon concepts; for otherwise, despite diversity of judgements, there could be no room even for contention in the matter (a claim to the necessary agreement of others with this judgement).”[iii]

It is still a question why and how we write on art. Our ideas on the work of art and our aesthetic judgment deriving from it may very well be subjective. Hickey agrees with this. He goes on to say that “In the act of writing about art, then, you press language to the point of fracture and try to do what writing cannot do: account for the experience.”[iv] When it is accepted that art is based on experience and it cannot be explained merely by language, the question rises: “If the quotidian cannot be aptly described using language, how can art be explained by writing?”

I agree with Duchamp’s statement that Eroticism is close to life, closer to life than philosophy or anything like it”[v] but it is a bit more complicated with art because the system of art does not only consist of aesthetic experience although aesthetic experience is an essential part of it. Anything can be perceived aesthetically. Aesthetic reception of an object does not immediately make it an artwork. Language in relation to experience may be inadequate at some points. Language, and accordingly writing, is both finite and infinite. It is finite in the sense that it has a given structure and words cannot convey the reality all the time. One encounters the inadequacy of language when s/he attempts to describe a color, for instance and is trapped in the impossibility of expressing not the color or experienced object itself but the impression it evokes within the frame of language. Yet, at the same time, there is the connotations and infinite combination of words. No language is static. It is always in motion historically like a living organism. Is it not what makes literature possible after all? Otherwise, we would have to assume the end of literature, or poetry one day if language was absolute.

Gabriel von Max, “Monkeys as Judges of Art,” 1889.

Therefore, I believe an art critic’s task is not, and cannot be, to utter the work of art as a thing-in-itself but to interpret what s/he extracts from it. From this point of view, such a relationship between language and the quotidian does not become a limit but a peculiar characteristic of system art. The critic extends the work of art through unfolding its possible meanings by employing language. That is eventually what works for others in creating the common, so there is a sense in the junction of quotidian and language. As I said, the work of art is based on aesthetic experience but there is still more than that in art. Our relationship to the work of art goes beyond the contemplation before the work of art, which is rooted in the 18th century aesthetic episteme. Consequently, art writing is not only directed to the work of art as a mere artifact but also as a phenomenon. As Foucault says:

“The notion of writing, as currently employed, is concerned with neither the act of writing nor the indication—be it symptom or sign—of a meaning that someone might have wanted to express. We try, with great effort, to imagine the general condition of each text, the condition of both the space in which it is dispersed and the time in which it unfolds.”[vi]

This is also the way that we approach art history today. I would like to make my last point over the historicity of  the work of art and that of writing. Hickey believes in the transcendence of artwork while he states “the writing gets older with each passing moment while the artifact gets newer. There are works of art on the wall of my apartment, for instance, that I have written about in the past. They remain as fresh and devious as the first day I set my eyes upon them, invariably evoking the sense memory of that first bright encounter—while the words I wrote on that occasion, informed by that brightness, have yellowed into antiquity and seem to me now as weathered and grotesque as Dorian’s portrait tucked away in the attic. Thus, in the same sense that there is only historical writing, there is no historical art beyond those imaginary works that critics describe in writing. For even though a visible artifact must necessarily predate the language that describes it, the artifact itself, as we stand before it, is always newer and more extensive than any word ever written about it.”[vii] I think Hickey entirely utters his personal view on the subject. The work of art is open to infinite interpretation. I believe the text is not much in a different condition than that whether it be art writing. Art writing is influential in forming the reception of the work of art. Who can say that our reception of Velazquez could be the same after Foucault’s analysis of Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas? Foucault evaluates the painting regardless of the subject matter, the artist’s biography, technical ability, influences, and social context on the contrary of an art historian. He rather focuses on its conscious artifice, emphasizing the complex network of visual relationships among painter, subject-model, and viewer.

Kristin Hayter, Foucault/Las Meninas, http://thediagram.com/9_6/hayter.html

What if one approaches the object called an artwork without art writing? Would it not be possible for him/her to have the feeling of aesthetic pleasure? Definitively it would be. Such a reception, however, would not make it a work of art. At the end, one of the characteristics of “art” is to have multiple meanings for everyone. However, this does not give the work of art a universal character. Thus, the approach of an art critic, art historian or any other interpreter to the work of art should not be only in terms of aesthetic judgment. Artworks are interpreted always according to a different perspective.  It is always possible to bring up new evaluations on the works of art. Hickey’s statement is polemical: “If the work survived, the writing would simply bob after it, like a dinghy in the wake of a yacht. If the work sank from sight? Well, too bad. The writing could disappear after it…”[viii] No need to repeat that art writing inherently derives from the work of art but I think the best question could be directed to Hickey’s this statement is that how does a work of art appear and exist? The interdependence of quality of the work of art and history should not be conceived according to the cliche that claims history is the court that determines quality. I said in the beginning that there is no artifact which is artwork by nature. Every artwork is caught in a set of relations in which it appears. Thus, I don’t think it would be wrong to say that an artwork also survives through what is written on it, at least partially.

Finally, Dave Hickey says that he “set out to become a writer in a weak genre—a critic in an age of art.”[ix] I rather prefer to call it not an age of art but an age after “the end of art.” As Hegel says that  “what is now aroused in us by works of art is not just immediate enjoyment, but our judgment also… art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.”[x] Art invites us to intellectual consideration without any constrains today and the system of art does not solely consists of aesthetic experience though the work of art is based on experience. Criticism interprets and reinterprets the works of art endlessly. Therefore, rather than seeing an impassable distance between the artwork and art criticism, or, in concrete “infrastructural” terms, the experience and the language, I believe they are both complementary to each other and parts of the same system and that there is no ontological hierarchy between them.
—İlhan Ozan


[i] Hickey, Dave, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, Art Issues Press, USA, 1997

[ii] Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. by A. M. Sheridan Smith, Tavistock Publications, London, 1972

[iii] Kant, Immanuel, Critique of the Power of Judgment, edited by Paul Guyer, trans. by Paul Guyer, Eric Matthews,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK; New York, 2001

[iv] Hickey, Dave, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, Art Issues Press, USA, 1997

[v] “Marcel Duchamp Speaks,” Interview by George Heard Hamilton and Richard Hamilton, London, BBC, 1959; published in Audio Arts Magazine 2, no. 4 (1976)

[vi] Foucault, Michel, What is an Author?; Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology (Essential Works of Foucault, 1954 – 1984, Vol. 2), edited by James D. Faubion, trans. by Robert Hurley and others, The New Press, USA, 1997

[vii] Hickey, Dave, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, Art Issues Press, USA, 1997

[viii] Hickey, Dave, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, Art Issues Press, USA, 1997

[ix] Hickey, Dave, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, Art Issues Press, USA, 1997

[x] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. by T. M. Knox, Clarendon Press, UK & USA, 1998