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Blogger Book Club II: Does a Dragon Eat Its Tail?


By Marc Weidenbaum

I’ve struggled with Dave Hickey’s book. It’s good to struggle, and I’m glad for this group, ’cause maybe I could get some help.

It’s a book about “beauty,” and the appreciation of beauty, and the way that beauty isn’t enough the subject of discussion and concern for those who are concerned with discussing art. I find that idea fascinating. Hickey dissects how beauty, the idea of beauty, is often ignored, and when he does so, it’s like watching a highly experienced (if at times self-involved and poetically opaque) sushi chef at work–or perhaps a highly experienced coroner, but I’ve never had that pleasure.

It’s a book largely concerned with a specific photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, with a specific, charged social and political context intrinsic to his work’s consumption (at least, to Hickey’s point, at this stage, when we’re still too close in time to its production to ignore that context). I find that photographer’s work, not to mention his courage, inspiring. Hickey views those photos through a literary critical lens that proves illuminating, especially when his focus is Michel Foucault.

But in reading Invisible Dragon, I came to wonder if Hickey’s emphasis on the latter overshadowed the former to the point of essentially putting beauty back in a rhetorical dustbin. There’s so much about how the marginal is an essential component of beauty, that in the end, I feel like we’re back near stage one, where it’s mostly context, theory, politics, and the market that are the subject–and that combined, they are the source of validation: a socio-political lattice to support a proposition of beauty.

I fully appreciate that strange can be beautiful, but the ongoing suggestion here seems to be that strange is a necessity for beauty, and that doesn’t seem to play out. Forgive me for thinking of this simplistically, but: Would a subject of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos find them and their content strange, or for that matter, more broadly, would an individual for whom that milieu is highly familiar? And if not, would those people then not be capable of finding these photos beautiful? And in a world that is increasingly accepting of the community that Mapplethorpe documented/celebrated/witnessed, is it therefore a matter that his work is less beautiful? Is Hickey saying that only the strange can be beautiful, that that which we think is beautiful but is not strange cannot be beautiful?

I know strange, like funny, means different things to different people. So perhaps all Hickey’s asking us to do is find the strange in whatever we find beautiful, and to find the beauty in things we find strange. But if so, that’s never as clear to me as the more paradoxical thing above that I was wrestling with.

That’s just part of my struggle, but it’s a start.


  1. This may be way far off, but I kept wondering if Hickey’s emphasis on the “strange” wasn’t an attempt to exclude kitsch art (that ought to be in quotes) from the discussion of art that sells. Thomas Kinkade sells more and is more visible to more people than any artist in the book held up as representative of a historical ideal of beauty (transgressive or otherwise). But it’s pretty long odds that he’ll show up in any argument calling for a return to beautiful art. “Why can’t you make beautiful paintings like Thomas Kinkade?” sounds awfully similar to “composers sneer at pattern and pulse,” to me. Seems to me that if you’re going to call for a return to beauty, you’ve got to be ready to take all the beauty.

  2. I wonder if I may have overstated the importance of strangeness in Hickey’s argument, or perhaps I misunderstood that part of his argument. The language he uses is dense and filled with art-crit terms whose meanings are often elusive to me, even after I look them up. I did not have this problem with his book “Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy.”
    On reflection, I think Hickey’s main point, specifically re: Robert Mapplethorpe, is that artists and institutions, in their attempts to defend Mapplethorpe’s photos before lawmakers like Jesse Helms, were being “intellectually dishonest.” They were ignoring the content of his photographs and focusing on some purer, allegedly more sophisticated, justification of their importance as abstract objects of beauty.
    On the other hand, I think Hickey is also complaining about a (newer?) school of art criticism which disparages (or at least ignores) the importance of beauty and focuses instead on the intent of the artist–or the concept/meaning behind the artist’s work. I imagine Hickey believes this example to be the M.O. of the Institution–which he argues is a much more insidious and dangerous M.O. than that of the marketplace.
    So does Hickey want us merely to be aware and open to both angles of appreciation (the formal/abstract as well as the meaningful/content-based), or does he want us to favor one over the other? This is confusing for me, too.

  3. This is something that vaguely bugged me as well, although you and Corey framed it better. I couldn’t tell whether Hickey was advocating a view of Mappelthorpe as a) shocking but beautiful, or b) beautiful though shocking. Or alternately, c) shocking because beautiful, or d) beautiful because shocking? After the first two essays, I had parsed it as advocating d) and scolding institutions for b), but then the rest of the book muddied the water quite a bit.

    Marc G: Apart from the question of whether the market is really interested in beauty (as opposed to, say, marketability), I do think that Hickey implies to it too much credit for discernment—the market has at least as long a track record of nurturing mediocrity as any institution.

  4. Corey, I don’t think you overstated the “strange” in the book. I experienced it the same way. I think you’re being polite (which is always appreciated) with the idea that Hickey’s writing in the book is elusive. I think the book is written in a manner that sounds poetic but is willfully opaque.
    His comment on the previous thread, about the “imperial” nature of “formal innovation” is a good example of this that we’ve experienced in real time. I’ve read that sentence 10 times now. I like it more and more each time, but I suspect that I understand it a little less and less. I agree with the many fans of Invisible Dragon that Hickey writes like a dream; but I’d add that as with dreams, after I wake I can’t really recall what happened.
    It is, I agree, a very different book from Air Guitar, which is highly readable, digestible, explainable, “actionable,” and enjoyable.

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