Hickey, Dave.  (1997).  Dealing.  Air guitar (102-13).  LA: Art Issues. Press.

This essay reminds me of when I go home for a Thanksgiving with the family.  Lots of grumpy old people sitting around bemoaning the good old days (Hickey’s outline of trends is simple: 70s were about fun, 80s about wealth and 90s about fighting oppression) and explaining to me why I am too concerned with intellectual stuff at the loss of common sense.  This essay makes the same moves: an attempt to make himself feel better about having dropped out of graduate school.

He goes too far, however.  First he makes not an anti-academia argument but instead an anti-intellectual one.  Secondly, his theory is incomplete, probably as a result of his incomplete graduate education.  Notice that he quits in anticipation of a fight with professors (a committee that HE chose, by the way) that are (supposedly) too stubborn to recognize the value of his work.  His academic argument hangs on a preoccupation with intent, however, new approaches, some he even bafflingly names have supplanted that very preoccupation with intent.  These days academia is now often criticized for a lack of choice making subjects.  This is the epitome of a straw-person argument.  Here is some textual slippage showing the object of his actual criticism: anti-intellectualism.  He turns to a discussion of his postman and why Mr. Sparks does not care for certain artists.  Hickey tells Mr. Sparks that he is correct, “that ‘oomph’ is temporarily” (108) out of fashion.  But, Hickey reassures him, it will return.  “So much for education.”  So much for education?  As though educated folk would be able to fix taste and preference forever to a stable identity, and since taste and preference are instead more like a pendulum then education must not be valuable, so argues Hickey anyways.  Whatever.

Now I will deal with my real beef of this essay: its lack of rigor.  Hickey spends the rest of the essay arguing that art is not a commodity, ergo he should not be blamed for taking advantage of the uneducated.  I will not defend the pejorative questions prompting Hickey’s essay, however, Hickey’s defense is weak, at best.

Hickey will respond that I have an overly academic notion of ‘commodity’ and hence am merely splitting hairs.  At least my notion is sound.  Hickey’s commodity is an item with “intrinsic value or stable application” such as corn (natch!) and long-distance service (oh no he didn’t!).  Long distance service has intrinsic value and a stable application?  The essay was written in or before 1997, so maybe it was an easy mistake to make, and I suspect time has made this argument so specious that I will dedicate no more space to it.  But, here’s the thing, Hickey seems to know he made a bad argument so he provides this next clause to justify his examples par excellence of a commodity: “…since the operative difference between bushels of corn and minutes of long-distance service is the price.”  Price is the operative difference?  How about one can be eaten and one cannot?  They both have intrinsic (use) value but long-distance service is a stable application?

Also notice the slippage between long-distance service and minutes of long-distance service.  A commodity for Hickey therefore has the ability to be divided and those dividends are then sellable.  Art lacks those?  Of course not.  Hickey was dealing in art and in a commodity.  Then what for his essay?  This lack of rigor is demonstration of why his academic criticism fails, he cannot even speak the language coherently enough to refute it, which is one of the purposes of the essay.  It also belies a romantic notion of what constitutes value.  My family are rural folk and so it is understandable that things which are not edible are not very valuable to them.  Hickey’s essay smacks of this redneck (although rednecks find the term imbued with virtue) sentimentality.

There is, however, a valuable contribution Hickey makes.  He explains the split between a piece’s social value and social virtue.  This seems like common sense that a piece of art may be offensive, without virtue, and yet still be valuable.  But Hickey’s contribution is showing how the two often move in opposite directions of each other:

[E]ven though it may appear to you that nearly everyone hates Jeff Koon’s work, the critical point is that people take the time and effort to hate it, publicly and at length, and this investment of attention effectively endows Koon’s work with more importance than the work of those artists whose work we like, but not enough to get excited about. (111)

There are plenty of examples that prove the same movement: Mapplethorpe, my grandmother’s dry turkey (oh my, you have got to taste this!), Duchamp’s “fountain” and even nuclear weapons – the more they are touted as the end-all-be-all weapon (i.e. nonproliferation policies) the more they gain value as a status symbol and the greater the belief of their use value.  It is this paradox which makes art a commodity, because it is a bundle of labor and valuations.  A bundle that is constantly shifting in its price and value across society and across time.

Photograph of Marcel Duchamp's

Image via Wikipedia

Despite the above insight, there is an-other reason why his essay fails, because even if he is correct it does not absolve him.  The charge is that he took advantage of people by selling art.  His argument is that art is a gamble (dealing cards) and anyone coming into his gallery (sitting at his table) does so knowing that they will probably lose.  How exactly does this absolve the taking advantage of less educated charge?  It doesn’t (insert my hesitation with ‘consent’).  People sitting at a table can be taken advantage of.  In fact, the art dealer, if Hickey is correct, deals with entirely subjective goods whose value is solely determined by the dealer and other, supposed, experts whereas a 21 always beats the house’s 18.

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