Thursday, November 01, 2007

Dave Hickey Makes the Squad

Art bubbles are great.

Art bubbles suck money into the art world.

Who gets hurt in an art bubble? Greedy artists; stupid collectors.

Who else? Nobody with their wits about them gets hurt in an art bubble.

---Dave Hickey, "Schoolyard art: playing fair without the referee," a keynote speech delivered at the Frieze art fair this year (as edited on The Art Newspaper).

Being egocentric, I would have answered the question "Who gets hurt in an art bubble?" with "Young galleries; careless collectors." Maybe that's because I don't work with any greedy artists (we're very careful about prices in our space, for this very reason: to ensure they don't get hurt).

Friends of mine who attended Hickey's lecture at Frieze came back raving about it. I only got snippets from their reports (the snarkier snippets), and immediately my guard went up. How dare this heretic? Condemning the art market at one of its most holy sanctuaries? No, no, no, my friends reported. He was funny!

And reading the lecture online, I see he was that and much more. Hickey weaves around and then dashes straight through the issues of the contemporary art market in a fashion as entertaining as it is insightful. And he spares no one in this critique of how ridiculous the system has become, not even himself:
The art market in the 20th century is first of all a finite market which means there are always more works of art than there are people to buy them.

What does that mean? It means, as Leo says, that somebody has to buy two.

Somebody has to buy four or five.

If the art does not change, nobody’s going to buy two.

To maintain itself in public vogue, art needs perpetual reinvestment, an artist needs one show after another show, one essay after another essay—all these are occasions for stylistic development.

If I happen to have written about your frog paintings last year and if you put up another show of frog paintings, I’m not coming by.

But, if Barbara [Gladstone] calls me and says: “You haven’t seen the salamander paintings, Dave,” then I’m going to rush right over.
Where he gets really interesting, however, is in his diagnosis of why we're stuck here, in this suspended stage of no stylistic development:
In 1968 Bruce Nauman invented the plywood box.

Do you remember the plywood box? I’ve been in every plywood box in the universe.

You could not make the plywood box go away.

I’ve been in plywood boxes with coal on the floor, with cotton on the floor, I’ve been in plywood boxes you climbed into with a ladder, I’ve been in plywood boxes in which there was nothing there except for, written on the wall, the tiny word “boogie”.

All of this created a steady-state market place in which there was nothing to drive style change.

The logic of an institutional market is: “We don’t care.

We’re just filling up this hole in our schedule.” It’s really more important [to institutions] if the person building the plywood box is a Zuni [Native American] warrior than if we’ve ever seen the plywood box before.

And the presumption is: We don’t have style development anymore because history is over.

I date the end of history to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968.

When they shot JFK everybody said “Oh God, it’s so terrible it’s the end of the world.” When they shot Bobby, everybody said: “Oh no, not again.” And the end of history is pretty much marked by: “Oh no, not again.” The problem is that even though history may be over—time keeps on going.

Not having history doesn’t disable ennui.

The art world works on ennui, that’s the only thing that makes it go.

I am bored with giant cibachrome photographs of three Germans standing behind a mailbox.

It doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means I’m fucking bored with it.
Entertaining as it is, Hickey's final conclusion is merely a more sophisticated routine from a seasoned captain of the art market deathwatch cheerleaders:

One day one dealer may say to himself: “I’m going to gather power the way Leo did, I’m just going to show stuff I really believe in.” That’s going to really change things.

And the art world as we currently know it will disappear.

As exciting as this moment is now, imagine how exciting the collapse is going to be.

It’s really something to look forward to.

Boom! Thousands of Icari plummeting into the surf.

Eventually all the windows where you sell your soul are going to be closed.
This ending is disappointing. As it is with all deathwatch cheerleaders, Hickey seems to be longing for the next new thing, not because he can even assume it will be better than what we have now, but merely because it will be new, something to look forward to, and he won't be so fucking bored by it. That's not a good enough reason for me. First and foremost, whether Hickey agrees or not, I know dealers who truly believe they are only showing stuff they truly believe in. So if that's all it took, Hickey would have his change now. What I think Dave is really arguing for here is for someone else to end his ennui. The old Pet Shop Boys lyrics spring to mind: "We were never feeling bored, cause we were never being boring."

Labels: art criticism


Blogger Joerg Colberg said...

I seriously think we gotta stop listening to those people as if they talked about art, because they give a rat's ass about art. It's all about money and only about money. So all of those guy's statements about art are utterly meaningless and pointless. Really: Why bother with this kind of stuff? If people want to treat art like stocks, bonds or gold then so be it.

I know artists and gallerists alike have to make money (don't we all?), but is everybody so desperate that they have to rely on those people? Is the art situation that bad? Just tell me, so before I make a wrong career move some day I can re-think it and maybe sell donuts for minimum wage instead.

And, you know, the amount of - to be frank - utter bullshit in what you quoted there is mind blowing (or maybe it's just my naive mind that gets blown over and over again by people who say things that I wouldn't even say in a drunken stupor).

PS: Oh, and if you think that "speech" still has some value, try replacing art with stocks, and imagine some banker would give that talk. What would you think of that banker?

11/01/2007 09:21:00 AM  
Anonymous joy said...

Now, now, JC: have you read any other things by Dave Hickey? it may be that you are offended by the subject being discussed, that you feel it isn't worthy of discussion? in any case, try a Hickey text from over 10 years ago, The Invisible Dragon -- it's quite wonderful, and astonishingly brief... it might put the humor and style of this more recent speech in context....

11/01/2007 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

I am glad Hickey mentions ennui as a driving force because I always thought at the core level of art experience, all of us determine (subconsciously on some level) if an artwork is boring or not. I know it sounds too simple and base and, as a teacher, I know that ultimately artworks are assessed with higher cognitive justifications. But when we walk into a gallery or museum and we take in visual information, we make these quick, initial (or slowly realized) judgments based on whether we find it "boring" or not. I find it interesting because it seems to be a complicated process involving not just one's prior experience, but also their own prejudices which tend to prevent the enjoyment of new experiences.

Now i do find it interesting that Hickey and many others find the current situation to be boring when the market has created such variety of work to be displayed. It would seem a downturn would make the artworld less diverse thus creating fewer opportunities to find things not boring?

11/01/2007 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger achristian said...

i'm of the opinion that there's no inherent difference between a painting of a frog and a painting of a salamander. The only difference is in how one experiences one or the other.

'We were never feeling bored, cause we were never being boring.'

11/01/2007 10:56:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

So Hickey is saying that art is entertainment and if it doesn't entertain (aka stop him from being bored), it isn't good art.

11/01/2007 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

i think my above :"prejudices which tend to prevent the enjoyment of new experiences."

..should be changed at the end to "present experiences. " What i mean is if I were to walk down the street and enter that local art frame shop, the reason I would find the little-old-lady-impressionist-landscape boring has more to do with my prejudice against that art style. If I were to suspend that I might just enjoy the momentary experience of the painting itself, or in other words, i would prevent "feeling bored by not being boring."

11/01/2007 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If I were to suspend that I might just enjoy the momentary experience of the painting itself, or in other words, i would prevent "feeling bored by not being boring."


I agree that when viewing art initial decisions about interest often determine how much time I'll spend on something. What I've learned after years of passing great things by, however, is not to assume that the same work won't entirely captivate me after I've learned more than I know now.

At the same time, work that once captivated me can pass into the realm of less interesting after I've learned more than I know now, but if I ever liked it, there's generally a frame of mind I can approach it with that leads to enjoyment on some level.

Being boring is undoubtedly the number one reason folks are bored. I can't recall the last time I was, to be honest.

11/01/2007 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

I've read Hickey before. This lecture sounds like a riff. Because it's filled with insider references, which remind me of the popular kid in high school, and because I don't really get what he's saying, I'm finding it all a bit BORING. No meat.

11/01/2007 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

its interesting to note that artists kind of need boredom in a way. Its sort of a way to gauge certain directions and determine if one should continue down a certain path. All this also makes me wonder if the recent plethora of ADD cases have affected the artworld in any way.

11/01/2007 11:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Although the primary symptoms of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity (Frick & Lahey, 1991). A review of the literature on ADHD and creativity, respectively, revealed several identical or similar characteristics."

The full article can be found here:


11/01/2007 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

I think his speech is hilarious and makes a lot of good points, and I would expect nothing less from Hickey. He's one of the few art writers that I don't find boring.

All this talk of frogs and salamanders reminds me of a question that Stewart Brand asked Gregory Bateson years ago, "what color is a chameleon on a mirror." He wasn't referring to the art world, but he could have been.

11/01/2007 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Fascinating. I like Dave Hickey’s writing a lot.

I also have a different take on the situation.

William Gibson suggests that 911 was a nodal point, a marker we will look back on and view events as being before 911, or after 911, and that the difference is significant. My view is that this change was actually fuzzier, starting at the turn of the millennium but punctuated in force by the events of 911, and 911 became the marker.

I’ve suggested this idea before with a dubious, even hostile response from other artists. Things always change, tomorrow will always be different, etc. While in general, this is true it fails to take into account sweeping changes which occur at certain moments in history, and I believe this is one of those times.

The major change taking place is globalization [wiki] and how it is influencing events worldwide. Two aspects of this are pertinent to the discussion. First, 911 symbolically represents the end of the US hegemony in world affairs, this country is no longer invincible. Second, correlated with the first, is that the US economy will no longer stand alone as the central force of world economies, that world economies are readjusting themselves towards parity with the US. For example, within 25 years China’s GDP should equal the GDP of the US.

OK, so what? you say. More economic mumbo jumbo? Not quite, the affects of these changes have been occurring for the last ten years and as a result an incredible amount of new wealth, worldwide, has been created.

This is what is fueling the art market, it is not really a bubble, it is an expansion from the sleepy mom and pop gallery system of the last 100 years, into the brave new world of big time corporate art commerce. Like it or not, in my opinion, it is here to stay.

Like many businesses the art market is cyclical, it follows the fate of the economy and business will contract when the economy contracts.

While individual artists work, or styles, may rise and fall at auction, this does not mean the art market is going to collapse. When the art market contracts in a meaningful way, it will be felt all across the country, at GM, at Apple, at Macys, as a general downturn in the US economy, but it might not affect China.

The major difference is that even if the economy and the art market contract, the art market will not implode, or contract back to the size it was, say in the early 1990’s.

Second, I disagree with the idea that history is kaput. The problem is trying to use the old view of history, in particular as Hickey would apply it to art, as a succession of styles. The structures of history as they are applied to art, need to change.

Methods which worked satisfactorily with a hundred artists, are crushed by the problem of trying to sort out and categorize the thousands of artists working today.

It may be that ‘style’ as a method of classification is defunct, or at least less significant, and that the actual thread of content may be more effective. Certainly, literature has managed to continue facing the same sort of problems that Hickey suggests art is facing.

It’s a brave new world, one that’s very exciting, hardly boring.

11/01/2007 01:57:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

fabulous comment, George...lots to chew on there. Thanks!

11/01/2007 02:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

George's comments about the cyclical nature of the economic and art markets are dead on. I do take issue with this idea though,

"It may be that ‘style’ as a method of classification is defunct, or at least less significant, and that the actual thread of content may be more effective."

The definition of style is as follows:

Style: a distinctive manner of expression

Until artists decide to make each new work they make entirely/radically different from the previous one they made, "style" will continue to be a valid part of any analysis of an artist's oeuvre.

11/01/2007 02:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The previous anon comment was from Eric.

11/01/2007 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger George said...


I'd go along with your idea on style. I think what I was trying to get at was that style will be seen in a broader context than just a mode of execution.

Ultimately the problem for an artist is to declare a unique identity that by whatever means is identifiable and associated with them.

11/01/2007 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Until artists decide to make each new work they make entirely/radically different from the previous one they made, "style" will continue to be a valid part of any analysis of an artist's oeuvre.

Whether strategically or not, some artists are doing work that could be described this way now (at least formally, if not thematically). How many artists would have to follow suit to conclude "style" is done?

11/01/2007 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Style is a tool for expression

11/01/2007 03:06:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

But in the context of stylistic development (implying to my mind progressive but still recognizable as authored by a certain artist vs. any other), it seems to me that that practice is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it once was, no? In other words, some artists are already making each new work radically stylistically different (at least formally) from all their previous works.

11/01/2007 03:12:00 PM  
Blogger George said... seems to me that that practice is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it once was, no?

Yes, I think this is true. Also, it was in fashion for awhile to be a jack of all trades and work in more than one media. My personal take is that style carries information which modifies whatever it is used on, as such it affects meaning.

The real issue is identity. If you look to the past, there aren’t very many famous artists which are not identifiable, at least with a little effort. I don’t think this has anything to do with being the ‘guy that does stripes’ etc, rather it seems depend on how well an artist is able to get down to the core of their being in the work. As individuals we are unique, it is something that cannot be copied or emulated very well without looking false, and it is what makes artists ‘identifiable’. I’m working on a blog post on De Kooning which touches on this idea. It should be done by the weekend.

11/01/2007 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger Concrete Phone said...

Stylistically flexible as opposed to multi-tasking sounds good to me, though as George mentions @ the core there has to be something very unique driving it all. And progressive art would be one that is redefining the borders of what is considered art, which is a little different from anything is possible within the bounds of what has [already] been, albeit, tweaked a bit.
Anyway all you bloggers out there who are having your show this weekend, have a mad night if attending. And thanks to those who mailed me info, pretty international of you:)

11/01/2007 09:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The definition of style again:

"a distinctive manner of expression"

Granted this is pretty vague but that is why I like the concept of style. Yes, looked at in a limited sense style can be reduced to a formal aspect of the work, stripes, splats of paint, etc., and it can also be linked to themes, nudes, dead animals, appropriated images from pornographic magazines. If an artist makes a point of avoiding all formal and thematic connections between each individual work they make I believe that once their entire oeuvre is looked at in retrospect there will exist distinct connections between individual works or groupings of them, distinct trends of one sort or another.

I don't feel comfortable calling style a manifestation of the "core" of the artist's "being" but there is a reason why the byproducts of a creative life, when taken as a whole, become super-generators of distinct meanings that somehow relate to one another, either obviously, directly, tangentially, vaguely. Style relates to our genetic make-up and all of the ways we have been shaped by the exterior world.

Style can be thematic or formal. I have yet to come across an artist who has absolutely no commonalities in a formal or thematic sense. Even appropriation artists and artists who try to make their work as anonymous as possible (think Daniel Buren) have a style. When I think of style I think of micro and macro levels of the work, the overarching structure of years of work and the minutiae, the details in individual works. In other words, you could look at a year or two of production by an artist and say that there are no distinct patterns to perceive; therefore the artist has no style. But I attribute this more to the failures of the interpreters or I blame it on the fact that an artist’s style, what makes their work or individual works distinct can’t be determined until the course of the maker’s creative years have been played out. People with functioning brains can’t escape identity, the history of a life lived and all the contingencies involved in that. The traces of our identities are indelible.

11/01/2007 10:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The previous anon post was by Eric.

I promise this will be the last time I forget to sign a post. Sorry.

11/01/2007 10:39:00 PM  
Blogger ec said...

One of my favorite quotes, which seems apt for the discussion in question.
For the artist, ‘style’ represents the closure of a set of symbolizing or symbol-forming intentions. In the formative stages of a style, the painting elements are at the same time discrete technical solutions and glimmerings of possible meanings.
So (I paraphrase) what is at issue…is not simply the picking up of a recipe…so much as a revision of one’s understanding of the strategy of imaging, and consequently an uprooting and re-evaluation of all one’s modes of feeling, these being transvalued by their connection to new concrete terms.
– Louis Finkelstein, “Painterly”, 1971, Arts magazine
-What interests me is also how the critic or the collector also has a style; for example Hickey favors a slick, auto refinishing surface so in painting he champions this quality will often be found.

11/02/2007 12:37:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I don't think Hickey is cheerleading at all, I wrote about it here.

11/02/2007 08:56:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I really enjoyed and agreed with the bulk of your post on the Hickey speech, but I'm not sure how else to interpret this:

As exciting as this moment is now, imagine how exciting the collapse is going to be.

It’s really something to look forward to.


Collaspe, Boom...if the doesn't mean he's looking forward to a market crash, he's doing a good job of sounding like he is.

11/02/2007 09:25:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Okay, I see your point, Edward.

But changes and the swinging of pendulums are inevitable--at some point art is going to be worth less to fewer people than it is now.

I think that Hickey is offering a way to be a positive part of that inevitable fall and not a victim.

When on that leading side of the curve, it doesn't matter to the discerning dealer that the market dumps, because that discernment, in and of itself, is more valuable than what everyone else is offering.

That's the practical meaning I took from the lecture.

11/02/2007 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Joshua Johnson said...

I've been wondering about style myself for that last few weeks. I paint, so I'll start from a painting perspective, beginning with Stella's famous statement that there are two problems to painting: how to make a painting, and what to paint. Looking at Stella's work (the sixties stuff,) style seems to result from these two aspects. Stella uses a method, based upon the formal properties of the support, and his tools. The style is a result of a particular method. What then, is the distinction between the method and the style? Does method always equal style? Think of Van Gogh, whose brushwork, which resulted from the fevered linework of his drawings, resulted in a style.

11/02/2007 10:54:00 PM  
Blogger Joshua Johnson said...

on issues of the "new" in art, i was speaking with a friend of mine the other day, about why minimalist work wasn't really being done anymore-- why the whether or not the issues the minimalists were adressing were still valid ( i think yes they are), but anyway, he said that it wasn't the issues that had changed, as much as it was that history had changed. We have seen the way the minimalists adressed formalism, totality, environment, etc, in their time-- with austerity, mathmetical precision, and sculptural qualites, but then how does one adress such issues today? How has history changed the way we think about those things including the way that it was done in the past? And is it possible to always do things in a new way? By new way, I mean, a way that utilizes material in a unique manner-- especially since material seems to loaded with so much historical content these days.

11/02/2007 11:05:00 PM  
Blogger Concrete Phone said...

Hey Joshua, I can say with pretty much certainty that minimalist work is getting done today, and if you are paying attention it's starting to get considerable airplay. What has changed is no-one is really interested in calling it minimalist, which, by the way, was [often] anything but slick, carrying on a physical trait as a continuing event in history. And as Hickey puts it, history is quite likely over but time keeps ticking on. And ticking on it does.

Is it possible to do things in new ways?

In my opinion the answer is yes, a big yes. And it starts with thinking in new 'experimental ways'. I think this is what Hickey is suggesting, to stop looking at the german photograph, and thinking yourself brilliant coming up with the Eskimo, stop looking behind, as it has this habit of catching up.

That Irwin guy, his dealer said, what was it>>the problem is, is he's too far ahead of his time, no-one is getting it. I don't know I've heard the show that will rock the year 2007 will be that Irwin Guy, 2007. I guess what his dealer forgot is that generally we are pretty amazing and when we put our attention to it, we can short-change a couple of hundred years no sweat.

11/02/2007 11:57:00 PM  
Blogger Joshua Johnson said...

concrete phone,

i did not mean to suggest that, categorically, no one was working in the minimalist vein. in fact, it is probably one of the healthiest movements, at least as far as mining for diamonds is concerned. minimalism is one of those movements that has become historicized, and as such is fodder for appropriation and quotation (look at banks violet or richard prince, etc.) the philosophical concern of the minimalists, which was probably more of a phenomenological problem, has not been adressed as much in contemporary art (though there are exceptions to this as well, the recent carston nicolai show perhaps)... but again that work is viewed with the heavy lense of historicism. which, i believe is the problem of ennui that hickey is confronting in the current market.

yes, i do think it is possible to do something new, but i'm also not sure if it is possible to escape historicism (or quotation, if you prefer) since it has been a major part of the discussion since at least the mid-seventies. i don't think one can just go and ignore history. at the very least that represents a sort of ignorance. however, we do not have to be in the thrall of history.

11/03/2007 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Concrete Phone said...

Hey Joshua, if it was baked yesterday, it's only a day old, despite the centuries old recipe. Though a day old for some things is just a day too much.

Anyway I know what you are saying, thanks for the return...

I love the idea of a simple glass box, in a museum, or out there in that other nature... and you pay a small sum to get to be in there for a day, one in here one out there, as I was saying, in nature. I love that invisibility and absolute visibility, concreteness and dematerializing... you might say it's been done, but none of us have been there, despite the recipe.

I had a look on your page, interesting stuff. What's the birthday cake doing? What's it a celebration of? Years! Experience? An acknowledgment of the past, or a sign for many possible futures as it free-falls or blows apart into segments. Is it back to nothing? Or a sigh! Or exuberant celebration for how things pass!

11/03/2007 07:48:00 PM  
Anonymous -j. said...

Nihilism is fun and cathartic. It takes a whole different kind of try!

11/04/2007 01:24:00 AM  
Anonymous David r said...

Here's another Hickey talk online that's even better I think.

I've heard Dave live once and he had everyone in tears from laughing - mostly at ourselves I'd say.

11/05/2007 07:02:00 PM  

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