Over the past few months, thanks in part to the gift of a generous benefactor willing to pass down used/read back issues of recently published art magazines that she might otherwise throw out, I have been enjoying Dave Hickey's random essays in Art in America. So, it was with great surprise, Wednesday, that I learned he was speaking at the Smithsonian American Art Museum later that evening.
Sometimes news like this escapes me, and I can't help but get pissed about my own laziness, ignorance, apathy, or some combination of the three.
With my wife's permission, I attended, proceeding to SAAM immediately following my 4+ hour class at GW, book bag in tow, the contents of which were approximately 30 lbs of books, mostly on the subjects of Flash and ActionScript3. Since I teach Wednesday afternoons, dinner usually consists of whatever I threw in the crock pot that morning, so Gretchen was taken care of. And, as luck would have it, the coffee and cake a scarfed down at 4:00, just after my marathon 3.5 hour lecture on animation, held me until I got home at 9:00.
Hickey was introduced as a man with a singularly American voice. I disagree. Though his subjects are generally American, as with other critics of American culture (I'm thinking of the Australian, Robert Hughes) Hickey's strength comes from a perspective that is keenly not from America. After all, he is from the Republic of Texas, which allows him the ability to circumnavigate the apologetic bull shit and ass-kissing in his writing. Basically a Molly Ivins for the art world.
The subject of the talk was The Evils of Creationism: Art History According to Darwin. I don't recall either Creationism or Darwin being specifically mentioned.
While he began by linking today's art market to the art market developed in the Renaissance, the point of his argument – which basically ranted against having a federal Department of the Arts – was how an evil called "stupid money" upsets the whole apple cart.
"If blood money gets blood on your hands, and dirty money makes everything it touches dirty, what does stupid money do to the intellect of those who receive it?"
Hickey noted how, in the past 40 years, a lot of money has been thrown into the art with good intentions, but it has been distributed by committees who give the money to the wrong artists. They don't give it to the genius who might show up drunk - if at all. They give it to the person that is likable, sober, and makes okay work. MFA programs are no better because, as he put it, "I have never seen a bad artist go through an MFA program and come out the other side a good artist." What happens is that bad artist might come out the other side a better-educated bad artist.
The issue with stupid money is akin to an article, forward to me from a friend, regarding child sports titled, "Stop the Little League Arms Race." The economist Charles Wheelan basically argues that if everyone placed their kids in accelerated athletics programs the net result would be a waste of time, money and quality family time - not to mention a lot of surgeries to correct limbs prematurely mangled by stress fractures - and that the really talented kids would still rise above the fray because money cannot buy talent.
The same can be said for art.