Dave Hickey’s new book, Pirates and Farmers, is an entertaining collection of magazine essays—including two written for Las Vegas Weekly—that contains all the heart, grit and honesty you’d expect from the former Las Vegan and (recently retired) art critic.
Steeped in intellectualism and personal stories, it’s only one of many projects at hand for Hickey, who’s also working on a second volume of Air Guitar, to be titled Connoisseur of Waves (named for a surfing essay).
Hickey, 75, spoke with the Weekly recently about Pirates and Farmers, published this month through Ridinghouse, as well as getting paid for “being disagreeable” and not having any more deadlines.
How did Pirates and Farmers come about? I had a bunch of essays that were sort of grouchier than usual, and that addressed fugitive subjects like whorehouse photography and African painting about movie posters and things that were mostly about the reception, about how we receive art, in other words, about taste.
And, we should note, these were all previously published. A lot of these essays I had published in Art in America as columns, and they had dumbed them down a whole lot, so I wanted to restore them to their original crankiness.
You say “grouchy,” but the book seems to have a bit of fireside warmth. Well, It’s a warm book written out of crankiness. They’re just fugitive essays, and they don’t undergo talking about artists, talking about this, talking about that. But I liked them. I liked the weirdness of them, Playboy Playmates, Ghanaian movie posters and Hunter Thompson and whorehouse photographs. I think it was a pretty good project. It’s not as relaxed as I usually am, but it’s hard to be relaxed with the art world the way it is today.
Talk about your upcoming book on women artists. It’s called Twenty-five Women. I discovered there’s no book out there that actually writes about the art of 25 women, so I thought it would fill a niche. Most of the writing about feminist art is mostly about the artist. They focus on the feminist aspect, or they focus on the psychology, or they focus on the biology. I just wanted to write about the things they made.
Who’s in the collection? Joan Mitchell, Bridget Riley, Alexis Smith, 25 of them, mostly what you would call difficult artists or abstract artists or something other than ideological artists.
People freaked out when you said you were retiring, but you seem to be doing a lot of writing. I’m working on books, but I have no assignments to write about art or anything else. This is the first time in 40 years I don’t have a deadline hanging over me, so I’m writing a mystery novel because I’m a writer and I have to have something to write. It’s about poker and drugs and Vegas and serious stuff like that.
Why no assignments? Because there are really no [magazine publishing] venues anymore. The art world is totally about market and social, and there is really no place to be smart about art in the publishing world. My friends, they have magazine jobs and they’re smart, but there’s only about three or four of those jobs.
You include a lot of autobiography in your work. Why is that? I use my life as I need it for my ideas. I never really regard it as very confessional. I kind of focus on what’s useful in my life and try to give the subjects a body. I use it when it’s the occasion for something. I think that the way I figured out how to write is to make stories out of intellectual subjects, to press intellectual issues through a narrative point.
Why do your critics take your views and opinions so personally? If I didn’t say what I felt or thought, I wouldn’t have anything to say, so I kind of made a career out of dissent. I get paid for being disagreeable, but charming, of course. And I always try to be charming in my disagreement. Academics are not quite receptive to that. They take all this stuff so seriously, and they’re not in a position to change. It’s one thing for me to say I hate universities and it’s quite another thing for a guy with a tenured position and a house and three kids to listen to that. They’re not in a position to change. Every time they think they’re going to change, they have a baby.
Why do you enjoy writing? I enjoy the process. Writing is, in a sense, like playing music. It doesn’t matter if there’s anybody listening to the music, it just makes you feel better. It doesn’t require fame. It doesn’t require money. It just requires doing it.
How does it feel to not have deadlines? I totally freak out. I’ve always written for deadlines, but I’m getting under control here, and I don’t much like the art world as it is, so I certainly don’t miss it. It’s fun. I’m having a good time. Giving detective poker lessons and things like that. I’m not really doing anything here. This is sort of an enormous adobe cliché, and I do my best, but I’m not really a New Mexican, you know what I mean?