an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Blogger Book Club II: I don’t know if she’s beautiful, but she’s HOT

By Marc Geelhoed

I was struck by the radically American democratic call to arms (I almost wrote cri de coeur) that runs through each of Hickey’s five essays. He writes, “Art is either a democratic political instrument, or it is not,” on page 15, about the response of Senator Jesse Helms to Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and goes on to write later about the value of an essentially intuited notion of “beauty” that should govern our choices about what is valuable in art as well as what the market deems valuable. He starts out by writing about the chilly reception he and his book received the first time they were published (the book, at least; Hickey’d been around for years) in 1993, with lecture halls filled with hissing students and faculty who marched out en masse. Anyone who cares not what the public thinks so long as they’re read is an elitist, at best, and that doesn’t explain Hickey at all.

Hickey’s aim is, as others in the book group have already said, to reinstate the notion of beauty as an artistic criterion on the level of all the others we cherish, and somewhat removing the intellectual appeal of art for something that’s more immediately gratifying. It’s the immediate gratification that leads us to pay attention in the first place, and which lead to its ultimate staying power. “Beauty is precedent,” he writes, with his own italics. “Beautiful works survive sans virtue. Virtuous works sans beauty do not. In a democratic society, we express our discomfort with Beauty’s off-site rationale by dispensing with it. But we keep the beauty.” So, we excise the reason(s) we think something beautiful, but keep the beautiful object.

I’d argue that the rationale was never even really dispensed with, since it was never arrived at or wrestled with in the first place. I think–and how to prove this I have no idea–that most people when confronted with a painting, a novel, a symphony, or The Sopranos, make a gut judgment about whether it excites them and they find it worth revisiting, or they leave it by the wayside. The why, the how, the mysteries of its creation, these aren’t exactly their focus. They want to be entertained, not to be treated as fools, and if the work on display achieves that, hey, great. If it doesn’t, sayonara.

Which leads me to wonder about his castigation of institutions and the “bureaucrats” who staff them, and their neutral, “therapeutic,” education-oriented attitudes. I say this not just because I am one of those bureaucrats who’s all-too-aware of their goals and the compromises that go into achieving them, but that I’m honestly a little puzzled by why the institutions are worth going after with tooth and nail. I mean, someone’s got to put this stuff on display, and that takes a great deal of planning and preparation and deal-making and negotiation, and compromise and a fair amount of artistic knowledge and a willingness to play nice and a willingness to give someone the what-for, and those seem like small prices to pay for the chance to go to the Met Museum and look at altarpieces, or go to Orchestra Hall, ahem, and hear the Chicago Symphony. I’ll grant in an instant that there are excesses and excessive timidity in certain cases, but those aren’t deal breakers.

A lengthy quotation:

“The experience of art within the therapeutic institution, by contrast, is presumed to be an end in itself. Under its auspices, we play a minor role in the master’s narrative–the artist’s tale–and celebrate his autonomous acts even as we are offhandedly victimized by the work’s philosophical power and ruthless authority. […] Whatever we get, we deserve–and what we get most prominently is ignored, disenfranchised, and instructed. Then we are told that it is ‘good’ for us.”

(“Victimized”? Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art sells a t-shirt that says “FEAR NO ART,” but I don’t think Hickey’s assaulting art is what they had in mind.)

Again, this is super democratic and basically a call for self-education, and while I think that autodidacts make fascinating people and would make an outstanding cadre of curators, I’m not yet ready to pronounce them the final arbiters. If nothing else, who’s going to do the fund-raising? And is it really so bad to have to look at a painting on a wall in a museum? Is coming across it as you backpack through Florence so superior?


  1. I think there is some point to Hickey’s institution-bashing, but I think he vastly underestimates the ability of both artwork and viewer to transcend the setting. I find it hard to imagine that even the most mind-numbingly anesthetizing institutional setting could cut the viewer off from Mappelthorpe’s subversive complicity.
    Another thought: wouldn’t the market privilege private ownership of art? Even if one grants that institutions enervate artistic impact (again, my actual experience of institutionally-curated art would seem to overcome this easily), isn’t the alternative limiting the experience of art to a much smaller economic elite? The mechanisms that make it advantageous for the rich to share their artistic acquisitions with the public are also an institution.

  2. Amanda MacBlane says

    Hickey never really proposes any viable “democratic” alternatives to the institutions. Private residences and a cocaine dealer’s coffee table would limit the impact (particularly the public, political impact that Hickey longs for) that any piece of art, no matter how beautiful, would have. As someone who grew up in a home with no art and no money for it, I always got great pleasure–the first step approaching Hickey’s beauty–from art wherever I could see it, which includes institutions.
    Of course, I can see how curatorial decisions based on political consensus can yield mediocrity or micro-managed institutions can spiral into a singular artistic vision that loses its wider cultural relevance (I did work at both the Louvre and IRCAM-Centre Pompidou after all). Nevertheless, equating MOMA founder Alfred H. Barr Jr. to Goebbels and Stalin seems a little extreme. (p. 62).

an ArtsJournal blog