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Beauty and the Blob

A new biography of the art critic Dave Hickey argues that his fierce defense of aesthetic autonomy is more important, and more difficult, than ever before

Blake Smith
June 14, 2021
Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Dave Hickey, the great democrat of American art criticism, writes beautifully about beauty. He finds it in every corner of our culture—in Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of fisting, in Norman Rockwell’s paintings of wholesome Thanksgivings, in the rhinestone-studded spectacles of Las Vegas’ Siegfried & Roy. Through sleazy, sentimental, and show business exteriors, Hickey leads, with his breathtaking prose, astonished readers deep into the vivifying ecstasies of the American sublime. A populist foe of snobbery, Hickey is also an erudite and deft exponent of postmodern theory, which he uses to make sense of aesthetic pleasure as something both exquisite and ordinary, part of our everyday lives as citizens of a republic of passionate consumers. He insists that such pleasure is social and, though it must be defended from the stifling imperatives of both conservative and progressive moralism, inescapably political.

In a new biography, Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and his Art, Daniel Oppenheimer makes the case that Hickey’s expansive, egalitarian alertness to beauty in American culture, and defense of art’s autonomy against the demands of ethics and politics, are urgently relevant today. He also suggests, in all the subtlety his love for his subject can bear, that Hickey and what he represents—the capacious vitality of our common delight in beauty—are inadequate to the challenge of our time.

Not only will beauty not save us, Oppenheimer warns, but it will be a struggle to save beauty from “the blob of curators, academics, review boards, arts organizations, governmental agencies, museum boards, and funding institutions that [have] claimed for themselves almost total control” of the meaning and value of art. The blob, as Oppenheimer describes it, is the network of powers that includes not only the enforcers of an ever-narrower vision of “woke” political correctness on the arts, but also those who contend with that vision either by calling on art to defend supposedly traditional values, or themselves defend art by speaking only of its formal, technical qualities. The blob is all the institutions and discourses that divert our attention away from beauty—the essence of art. Far From Respectable is both an intellectual love letter to Hickey and to beauty, and a call to arms against the blob.

Oppenheimer (who also happens to be a Tablet contributor and the younger brother of Tablet’s own Mark Oppenheimer) is a skilled biographer. He is unusually sensitive to the winding paths by which our private pleasures shape, resist, mar, and undo our public political and moral commitments. His previous book, Exit Right, explored the conversions to conservatism of half a dozen former American leftists, such as Whittaker Chambers and Norman Podhoretz. He offered readers—some of whom no doubt still harbored the prejudice that “conservative” and “thinker” are antonyms—powerful insights into the intellectual motivations that drove Marxists and New Deal liberals toward the right. More provocatively, he offered visions of how such political stances are entangled with the delights and torments of our unpublic intimacies. Chambers’ secret life of homosexual encounters while spying for the Soviet Union, and Podhoretz’s humiliation at the critical reception of his ultraconfessional Making It, in which he revealed to the world his desperate hunger for celebrity, appear in Oppenheimer’s account as critical moments in the transformation of their moral and political consciousnesses. Unavowable erotic pleasures—and fantasies of success that one ought to have known were unavowable—were vital, mysterious, parts of that engine of enjoyment within us that, in pursuing its own will, breaks us open to new connections to other people and new conceptions of ourselves—with all the consequent dangers.

Far From Respectable is a book about the political risks of, and political threats to, the pleasure of beauty—and Oppenheimer tenderly reveals his own pleasure in reading (and over the course of time, befriending) Hickey. As he recounts his subject’s life and contemporary relevance, Oppenheimer stages his own enjoyment of Hickey with such lucid warmth that he seems to substantiate Hickey’s insistence that our enjoyment of art entangles us in other human loves. The last pages of Far From Respectable, for example, present Oppenheimer and his wife together in bed, reading with rapture from the same page of Hickey. Oppenheimer thus pulls off what Hickey elsewhere calls “the most elegant rhetorical maneuver available to writers … to do in the doing what he describes in the writing,” to share in aesthetic pleasure simply by talking about sharing it. Far From Respectable succeeds in proving, through its reader’s own pleasure, the truth of Hickey’s vision of art as an experience that opens the self toward others. As he says of Hickey’s work, Oppenheimer could say of his own: It is “less an argument … than a series of literary efforts to conjure up … visions, only briefly realizable if at all, of life as we would like it to be and of art as it occasionally can be.”

Life and art, of course, are often not as we would like them. The lives and art of others are particular sources of dissatisfaction for those who hope to bring the world, in all its untidy, lively plurality, into alignment with their moral and political agendas. Hickey’s genius, as Oppenheimer shows, lies in his capacity for reveling in the world’s untidiness and for refusing the sanitizing mandate of the blob.

Oppenheimer begins Far From Respectable with the moment that brought Hickey into the national spotlight—as a defender of Robert Mapplethorpe against censorship, who simultaneously spoke against the majority of Mapplethorpe’s other defenders. In 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s exhibition of the recently deceased Mapplethorpe’s photography, which included a number of depictions of homoerotic, sadomasochistic acts, set off a national political debate that raged throughout the following decade. The exhibit had received federal funding through the National Endowment for the Arts, which was already in hot water—or rather another warm fluid—for having funded Andres Serrano’s infamous image of a urine-soaked crucifix, Piss Christ. Conservatives called for the NEA to be punished, or even defunded, for supporting immoral and offensive art. The following year, the campaign against Mapplethorpe went further, as the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was indicted on charges of obscenity after organizing its own exhibition of his work. Now it seemed that not only federal largesse but free expression itself was at stake, and leading figures in the arts rushed to defend Mapplethorpe’s work and the larger values that appeared imperiled. But, Hickey warned, they had it all wrong.

As a former gallerist, country songwriter, and art critic notorious for his freewheeling hedonism, and as a friend of Mapplethorpe, Hickey might have been expected to join representatives of the art world in their cause. Instead, he turned on his colleagues, excoriating them for opposing conservatives with nothing more than “bromides about free expression and puritanical lectures about the function of arts in society.” Their politically correct defenses of Mapplethorpe were hardly less tediously moralizing than the sermons of their enemies. In their desperation to maintain access to federal funding, they tried to present art, of whatever kind or content, as a sort of neutral public good. Fixing their argument to the abstract, universal principle of free speech, they avoided reference to the raw, sexual, deliberately shocking content of the actual photographs in question—and to their disturbing beauty.

In such a discourse obscuring the erotic specificities through which artists both offend and delight, art is not so much shielded as gelded. In contrast, Hickey insisted, conservatives in their zeal to defund and forbid, “at least saw what was there, understood what Robert [Mapplethorpe] was proposing, and took it, correctly, as a direct challenge.” Art’s defenders had to descend into the arena to fight for what was really at stake—not the general principle of free speech and still less the right to taxpayer dollars, but the power of beauty to challenge, and shatter, our moral and political commitments. We must, he argued, fight to keep our democracy open and self-confident enough that its members can challenge each other through art, transforming their private passions—sexual, religious, etc.—into seductive, offensive, argument-inspiring works of art that battle for our attention and allegiance.

As Oppenheimer notes, the debates over the NEA’s funding of controversial art were “the first in a series of broader cultural and political battles that would come to be known, in retrospect, as the ‘culture wars’ of the 1990s.” In that moment, with the end of the existential menace posed by the Soviet Union, American political actors were suddenly free to shift their focus from outward dangers to internal enemies supposedly threatening our “values,” one of the watchwords of the ’90s. In one sense, that moment is utterly distant from our own. Conservatives of the day would have struggled to imagine the powerless irrelevance to which political developments of the past generation have consigned them. Far from imposing their values on the art world or the federal bureaucracy, they are increasingly seen by the mainstream of American opinion as the bearers of backward, dangerous non-values

In another sense, however, the cultural war machinery of the Christian right is still with us, now wielded to expose and eliminate from public life whatever seems to oppose such new hegemonic values as anti-racism. Hickey, Oppenheimer argues, is relevant because he gives us grounds from which to oppose these war machines, whatever side controls them. These grounds, importantly, are political—and recognize art as having a crucial political role in American democracy, precisely insofar as it is not subsumed to any partisan faction’s particular political mission.

Against those who urged, from the right or left, that art has a duty to uphold moral and political values, whether of religion and patriotism or of social justice; or that art is a matter strictly for experts’ enlightened judgements of formal qualities; or that art is a kind of therapy by which trauma is processed and identities affirmed, Hickey argued that art is whatever means through which we experience beauty. But the experience of beauty, he posited, is not simply subjective; beauty de-individualizes us, handing us over to an impersonal intensity that we can communicate with others. Although these powerful experiences and the circuits of shared taste that emerge from them exceed and defy our moral and political strictures—the aesthetic is not reducible to the ethical or the political—they are also essential to the possibility of democracy.

In our regime, citizens must know what it is to have a private life, composed of chosen pleasures perhaps at odds with dominant values, as well as a public life in which these pleasures can be stylized and made to appear to others. Beauty is for Hickey both what animates the intimate domain that we must keep safe from politics and the public rhetoric of seduction by which we convince others to share the pleasures by which we unmake and remake ourselves.

Oppenheimer makes a moving case for Hickey’s democratic politics of art. But he begins Far From Respectable with a warning about the limitations of Hickey’s perspective in our increasingly illiberal era. For several years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Hickey described himself as being at work on a manuscript for a “grand synthesis” of his thoughts on American art, culture and politics, Pagan America, a book that he abandoned in 2015 after losing his faith in its foundational claims.

Pagan America was to offer a vision of the United States as a “polytheistic” society whose citizens passionately devote themselves to “objects, people and performances … buying and selling images of them.” Collectors, hobbyists, dilettantes, and cranks of every kind create what are in effect denominations of taste, whose members gather to venerate such varied idols as classic cars, Italo-disco, or football prodigies. Anyone who has ever heard two fans debate the relative merits of their favorite players, bands, etc., or gotten an earful from a frustrated amateur who knows exactly how the play should have been run, or of what better, less famous album the one you were just enjoying is a pale derivation, knows that they have a religious flavor, with the same lively, erudite, argumentative quality as the wrangles of theology students. In either case, we tolerate the obvious annoyances of such conversations, in which interlocutors aggrandize themselves and aggress each other through their mastery of niceties that escape the attention of novices, because we know, whatever their ostensible topic, that they concern the most important things. Across such talk, our traditions teach us how to experience, and share experiences of, beauty, incorporating us into a community of fellow worshippers and—in the most intense moments of aesthetic pleasure—dislocating us from our familiar self and social set, opening us to a potentially transformative encounter with something transcendent.

Hickey brilliantly reveals the similarities of the aesthetic and religious aspects of our lives, and to their manifold expressions to be fascinating, delightful, and profoundly dignified. He admires the piety—the respect for an immeasurably precious something beyond ourselves—that animates even the most apparently humble or vulgar passions. In one of his most compelling essays, a reading of Gustave Flaubert’s short story “A Simple Heart,” Hickey argues that, at our best, we live in relation to art and religion—the things of the spirit—with the love that the story’s protagonist, the illiterate servant Félicité, bears for a lovely but “obnoxious parrot named Loulou,” her pet and only companion. When Loulou dies after a failed escape attempt, Félicité has it stuffed, and keeps it in her bedroom “as an embodiment of her loss and desire.” She continues to hold her disconsolate love for her beautiful dead bird and after years of fidelity, as she is on her deathbed breathing her last, her devotion to beauty receives its reward. The heavens open and she beholds “a gigantic parrot hovering over her head,” as if Loulou were the dove of the Holy Spirit.

For Hickey, Félicité’s relationship with her parrot is a model for living out our aesthetic and religious commitments—and for democratic citizenship. Hickey describes democracy as a society composed of “communities of desire that organize themselves around a multiplicity of gorgeous parrots.” Fan bases and subcultures are sects in a “cosmopolitan, commercial” religious system that accommodates many forms of worship. The richness of our, as it were, denominational life in our particular aesthetico-spiritual communities, in which we invest our time, attention, and money in objects and practices instantiating our desires, is the foundation of our civic health. In a 2009 essay that Oppenheimer reads as a preview of what was to have been Pagan America’s broader argument, Hickey described Americans as lacking the “commonalities of race, culture, language, region, and religion that traditionally define ‘peoples.’” Without any “objective” basis for national identity, we find the grounds of our political life in a shared respect for the informal norms by which we allow each other to pursue our private pleasures and extend them into widening circles of shared enjoyment. Our democracy is an aviary of beloved parrots, in which we externalize, sublimate, and socialize our private desires.

Hickey abandoned his book in 2015, a year that saw “cancel culture” pass from fandoms, via social media, into the mainstream of our civic life. What Oppenheimer calls the “blob,” the set of cultural institutions that Hickey denounced, appears ever more indifferent to beauty and ever more willing to submit art to demands for censorship, which often issue from just the sort of communities of shared enjoyment that Hickey imagined as the “pagan” basis of our democratic politics. It is regrettably no longer the case—if it ever was—that the democratic potential of our ordinary life of private and social enjoyments is primarily menaced from the outside by moralizing institutions and the persecutions of the state. Rather, the affordances of private life seem to be increasingly eroded from within, thinned out into intolerant, pleasureless resentments. It will be for a new generation of critics and creators to imagine, if it can still be imagined, how to restore a capacity for intense but tolerant pursuits of pleasure, and make America pagan again.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.