PRINT Summer 1995


I HAVE BEEN CLOSE pals with Dave Hickey, the Walter Pater of the Southwest, for only a few years. He used to scare me. I felt sullenly competitive with him. Then my character improved, I guess, to the point where I could accept his generosity. Dave makes of his gifts a gift to others. Now he is like the friend I was supposed to have in seventh grade and didn’t. His successes please me nearly as much as my own. (They’re less work, for one thing.) I like to think we constitute an aging youth gang of incorrigible esthetes: rugged individualist sniffers of the perfumed hanky, if you will. And if you won’t.

In his time, Dave has authored fiction, run art galleries, written and performed country and rock songs, and engaged in hard living, lately much moderated, that once gave him interesting physical tics. Before I met Dave I heard the late great Scott Burton describe him to someone as “a combination of Peter Schjeldahl and Joe Cocker,” which I already knew to take as a compliment to myself. He works (teaching at the University of Nevada) and lives in Las Vegas with his wife, art historian Libby Lumpkin, whom he married in a chapel on the Strip. To do Vegas with Dave is like having John Ruskin along on a tour of Venice.

As a writer, Dave is a deep stylist, one of the best in the language. He uses style to tell truths otherwise inaccessible. You can’t separate his meaning from the timbre of his prose, whose repertoire includes plain American (which dogs and cats can understand, as Marianne Moore noted), philosophical precision, polemical scorched earth, and defrocked scholarly mandarin. His arguments are places of the heart: bright pastures or dark alleys where you are accompanied by a voice explaining things you suddenly feel you always knew.

Dave is partial to his own experience, of course. Without that qualification, there can be no criticism worth reading. But he goes beyond it to anticipate, and to welcome, the experiences of people who may or may not agree with him. (Both Dave and I swear by our friend Christopher Knight’s oracle, “In a democracy, anybody gets to be an elitist.”) Dave’s The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, the biggest little book of our time, changes the intellectual focus of art-talk in the near future while, more important, changing its tone. He is art writing’s democratic music teacher, whose harmonies make the walls of the city shake.

Peter Schjeldahl


COLLEAGUES OF MINE will tell you that people despise critics because they fear our power. But I know better. People despise critics because people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing. It never stands alone. It never saves the things we love (as we would wish them saved) or ruins the things we hate. The Edinburgh Review could not destroy John Keats, nor Diderot Boucher, nor Ruskin Whistler; and I like that about criticism. It’s a loser’s game, and everybody knows it. Even ordinary citizens, when they discover you’re a critic, respond as they would to a mortuary cosmetician—vaguely repelled by what you do, yet infinitely curious as to how you came to be doing it. And so, when asked, I always confess that I am an art critic today because, as a very young person, I set out to become a writer—and did so with a profoundly defective idea of what writing does and what it entails.

Specifically, I embarked upon a career in writing blithely undismayed by the fact that, as a writer, I was primarily interested in that which writing obliterates: in the living atmosphere of all that is shown, seen, touched, felt, smelled, heard, spoken, or sung. I knew this was a peculiar obsession, of course, but I thought writers were supposed to be peculiar. Moreover, I thought it was just a “problem,” that it could be solved, and that, once solved, the enigmatic whoosh of ordinary experience would become my "great subject”—that I could then proceed to celebrate the ravishing complexity and sheer intellectual pleasure of simply being alive in the present moment forever after. I thought.

So I began by writing poems, quickly shifted to fiction, abandoned that for pharmaceutically assisted pastiche, and abandoned that for gonzo reportage—always trying to get out of the book, you see, trying to get closer to the moment, and always floating farther from it, slamming myself up against the fact that writing, even the best writing, invariably suppresses and displaces the greater and more intimate part of any experience that it seeks to express. Ultimately, I would be forced to admit that all the volumes of Proust were nothing, quantitatively, compared to the 20-minute experience of eating breakfast on a spring morning at a Denny’s in Mobile—and that the more authoritatively and extensively I sought to encode such an experience, the more profoundly it was obliterated from the immediacy of memory and transported into the imaginary realm of remembrance, invested with identity, shorn of utility, and polished up as an object of delectation.

I would begin, every time, trying to approximate some fragment of that enigmatic whoosh and end up, every time, inevitably, writing an edited, imaginary version of myself. Which is simply to say that my “great subject” was, in fact, not a subject for writing at all. It was a cure for writing. The quotidian experience I was seeking to evoke in writing, as it turned out, was nothing other than a solvent for the identity I was imposing upon it by writing. That gauzy filigree of decentered awareness I was seeking to know in writing, it turned out, was the body’s last defense against such codified self-knowledge. Like sex, which marks its final intensification, and art, which supplies its visceral hard copy, that experience was the quintessence of everything that is not writing.

So the choice (as it presented itself to me in the intellectual jargon of the late ’60s) was either to stop writing or to divest my writing somehow of its autonomy and timeless authority. The option of not writing, of course, never seriously presented itself. It was my living and a good kind of life. Also, by this time I understood that the burden of living as a citizen in a massive civil society included the responsibility of wrangling for one’s pleasures, lest they dissolve into the smooth surface of rational administration. And writing could do that: it could wrangle, if somehow, as a writer, one could shed the ludicrous, God-like mantle of auteur while retaining one’s sotto voce as a private citizen.

By this route, then, I fell upon the option of writing with as much strength as I could muster in a weak genre—a contingent discourse, if you will—by narrating my experience of objects that were likely to survive being written about, and that, by surviving, might redeem or repudiate what I had written by replenishing all those challenges to knowledge and self-knowledge that are shorn away in the historical act of composition. I would write about works of art, then, about pieces of architecture and recorded music—objects that would continue to maintain themselves in the quotidian present subsequent to my transporting them out of it.

In this way I might stop destroying that which I wished to celebrate and celebrating myself in ways I had no wish to—for even though my writing about art might momentarily intervene between some object and its beholders, the words would wash away, and the writing, if it was written successfully into its historical instant, could never actually replace the work or banish it into the realm of knowledge. If the work survived, I thought, 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 into the bubbles.

Art criticism, then, presented itself as a compromise between my “great subject” and the impossibility of writing about it; and, even though times have changed, even though I set out to be a writer in a weak genre—a critic in an age of art—and have survived to labor as a critic in a bleak age of criticism, I still suspect that the primary virtue and usefulness of the practice resides precisely in its limitations—in the fact that the critic’s fragile linguistic tryst with the visible object is always momentary, ephemeral, and local to its context. The experience blooms up in the valley of its saying, to borrow W. H. Auden’s phrase, but it does not survive that moment.

I see the object. I translate that seeing into vision. I encode that vision into language, and append whatever speculations and special pleadings I deem appropriate. At this point, whatever I have written departs. It enters the historical past—perpetually absent from the present, and only represented there in type—while the visible artifact remains in the present moment—positively there, visually available for the length of its existence regardless of its antiquity—perpetually re-created by the novelty of its experiential context. As a consequence, what I write and what I have written about diverge from the moment of their confluence and never meet again.

The writing gets older with each passing moment while the artifact gets newer. 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—newer and more extensive, even, than the visual codes incorporated into it, because whether we like it or not, we always confront works of art as part of that selfless, otherless, unwritable instant of quotidian experience.

In the process of writing about works of art, then, we make the same sort of Draconian decisions that we do when writing about nonart experience. We write about what can be written about. We decipher what lends itself to cipher and discard the rest as surplus. Unlike the lost surplus of nonart experience, however, the surplus we ignore in works of art survives, remains available to be reinterpreted as cipher by a subsequent viewer under different circumstances. But a problem remains, which is that the aspects of visible artifacts that are most effectively translated into writing usually have little or nothing to do with the occasion for writing about them, which, in my case, invariably resides in the pleasurable, confusing, or horrific nature of the experience itself—an experience in which there is neither surplus nor cipher. “In the landscape of spring,” the koan reminds us, “the branches are neither long nor short.”

In the act of writing about art, then, one must either press one’s language to the point of fracture and try to do what writing cannot do, which is account for the experience, or elide the essential mystery, which is the reason for writing anything at all. The easy alternative, of course, is just to circumnavigate the occasion—to “professionalize” art criticism into a branch of academic art history, into a kind of civil service dedicated to covering works of art with words. In this way the writer’s pathological need to control and reconstitute the fluid universe of not-writing is fortuitously occluded—since in a truly “professional” discourse, no more intimate engagement with the “needy” object is required than that of a doctor with a patient, and no more stress need be placed upon the language than that required by the clinical assignment of names to symptoms.

In this discourse, the hypocrisy of the “disengaged critic” writing about art is closely analogous to that of the “disengaged psychoanalyst” writing about sex: any acknowledgment of the ordinary pleasures attendant upon the event itself is rigorously suppressed (as professional impropriety) and, along with it, any recognition of the multitudinous challenges to self-knowledge that are attendant upon those pleasures. Professionals, of course, will tell you in conversation (not in writing) that these subversive pleasures are simply “understood.” But that just begs the question, the line between “pleasure understood” and “pleasure denied” having become increasingly fine as the therapeutic option of telling us things “for our own good” falls ever more readily to hand.

The justification for this pretense to disengagement, of course, derives from our Victorian habit of marginalizing the experience of art, of treating it as if it were somehow “special”—and, lately, as if it were somehow curable. And this is a preposterous assumption to make in a culture that is irrevocably saturated with pictures and music, in which every elevator serves as a combination picture gallery and concert hall. In fact the question of whether we can enjoy the world we see without the experience of images or the world we hear without the experience of music seems to me pretty much a no-brainer—so much so that I cannot imagine a reason for categorizing any part of our involuntary, ordinary experience as “unesthetic,” or for imagining that this quotidian esthetic experience occludes any “real” or “natural” relationship between ourselves and the world that surrounds us. All we do by ignoring the live effects of art is suppress the fact that these experiences, in one way or another, inform our every waking hour.

In my own case, I can still remember gazing at the lovely, lifting curve of a page upon which Oscar Wilde’s argument that “life imitates art” was inscribed and knowing that this was the first “big truth” I had come across in writing. And I can remember, as well, standing on the corner of 52nd Street and Third Avenue on a spring afternoon, six feet from a large citizen gouging the pavement with a jackhammer, and thinking about the Ramones, amazed at the preconscious acuity with which I had translated the pneumatic slap of the hammer into eighth notes and wondering what part, if any, of the pleasures and dangers of the ordinary world might rightly be considered “natural.”

Finally, it seems to me that, living as we do in the midst of so much ordered light and noise, we must unavoidably internalize certain expectations about their optimal patternings—and that these expectations must be perpetually satisfied, frustrated, and subtly altered every day, all day long, in the midst of things, regardless of what those patterns of light and noise might otherwise signify. Thus, in the light of what I perceive to be the almost total absence of “unesthetic” experience in ordinary life, the necessity of art criticism addressing our ordinary experience of art, from whence these expectations flow, seems all the more urgent.

The joys and perils of our internalized formal expectations are not going to go away, no matter how we excoriate them at their source; and, as a consequence, to paraphrase Adam Phillips, the language of pleasure and the language of justice are inextricably intertwined. The question of who decides what we can or cannot enjoy, and how we may enjoy it, joins art criticism ineluctably to the realm of politics, where the battle between our professed standards, our cultural expectations, and our ordinary desires must inevitably be fought.

As always, this essay owes a great deal to the writing of my friends and colleagues Peter Schjeldahl, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, and Barbara Stafford. I must also acknowledge the large contribution of Adam Phillips’ essay “Nicknames” in The London Review of Books, 9 March 1995, and credit Krishnamurti with the koan about the landscape of spring.