Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dave Hickey Still Callin' It Like He Sees It

In this month's issue of Art in America, Dave Hickey laments that today's artists have lost their reverence for their deep-historical predecessors. Consequently, in his view, they have given up the best arrow in their quiver of ways to make sense of a perplexing world.

I don't have scientific data, nor do I pretend to be an expert on any artist except Yours Truly, but anecdotally I am often surprised at how little my contemporaries seem to know or care about what artists did before Duchamp--or even prior to this exact moment. I should amend that to say that I find young artists to be that way--more so than when I was coming up. Not surprising to see that in a market obsessed with the superficial veneer of originality and, like the rest of popular culture, stuck in a never-ending embrace of adolescence.

I think there’s also an element in consumer culture that wants to keep stirring the water up so we don’t see what’s underneath the surface. We’re now seeing the devastating consequences of this willful collective myopia in our shattered financial system. If folks had asked a few more questions on topic instead of constantly changing the subject perhaps we would be in better shape now. The mess we’re in cuts across the entire culture and artists have some culpability as well. Undoubtedly, a little more historical awareness would have helped.

Before you yell, "No, not me--I know my history," which is your right, please bear with me a little longer. And this is not about whether you agree with Hickey’s premise, it's about holding oneself accountable. And to put a dot on my take on his argument I would say that artists are, broadly speaking, somewhat less interested in history, but that changes with age. Everyone values experience more as they acquire more of it and look more to the past to help figure out the present. What’s really changed though is the age of the artists being awarded blue-chip status. When someone receives the highest accolades right out of school, there’s a real disincentive to push deeper. While that may be the situation for just a few artists, that group has received disproportionate attention and set the tone for the last decade. Let’s hope that is changing--it worked well in the "don't-ask-don't-tell" era but suddenly not so much.

Back to Dave Hickey. One of my most impression-making experiences as a working artist took place at the biennial International Sculpture conference, where he was keynote speaker. It was the immediate aftermath of the Columbine massacre and Hickey painted a picture of two young minds incapable of projecting the consequences of their deed—they could only see what would happen if they pulled the trigger by actually doing it. Hickey called it a Crisis of the Imagination and asked if, as stewards of the collective Imagination, artists were perhaps somehow falling short.

You could hear a pin drop in that room and a lot of people were shaking their heads. I, on the other hand, was jumping out of my skin and wanting to high-five my neighbors. There was hearty discussion at the cocktail party and dinner that followed, which was, of course the speaker’s intent. The room pretty much agreed that Americans are an unimaginative lot, but my fellows generally did not appreciate being called to task (even in the most vague and collective way) for Harris and Klebold’s heinous action. Even imagining that Hickey was way off base, as one could also do on the question of art-historical awareness, the implicit challenge in his assertion was useful motivation.

It isn’t comfortable to be challenged but we can only do great things if we set ambitious goals. Heaven knows that Hickey has a very expansive definition of the cultural legacy and for him to feel that culture is being dumbed-down is a pretty frightful charge. Whether or not it’s true, I for one am glad to see one of my favorite writers still issuing manifestos, still caring enough to say, "you can do better."

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