[Art and money] exist in parallel universes of value at comparable levels of cultural generalization: Art does nothing to money but translate it. Money does nothing to art but facilitate its dissemination and buy the occasional bowl of Wheaties for an artist or art dealer. Thus, when you trade a piece of green paper with a picture on it, signed by a bureaucrat, for a piece of white paper with a picture on it, signed by an artist, you haven't bought anything, since neither piece of paper is worth anything. You have translated your investment and your faith from one universe of value to another.
If you can't tell one universe from the other, that's your problem, but not an unusual one, since art and money are very much alike, in both embodiment and conception. To put it simply: Art and money are cultural fictions with no intrinsic value. They acquire exchange value through the fiduciary investment of complex constituencies--through over demonstrations of trust (or acts of faith, if you will) of the sort we all perform when we accept paper currency (or even more trustingly, a check) for goods or services. This is the act of faith that I performed when I traded the Kenny Price for the John Baldessari--but with a difference, since even though I sold the Baldessari for more than I paid for the Kenny Price, I still want both of them back, because I prefer the universe of art to the universe of money.
So this is my idea: The historical confluence of accident, insight, commerce, and iconography in postwar America created the nineteen sixties as America's transcendent Mediterranean moment--gave birth to the big, beautiful art market as an embodied discourse of democratic values that partook, in equal parts, of the Eucharist and the stock exchange. Thus, the United States emerged from the sixties as the only nation in the history of the world with a freely-elected, fully-embodied iconography of promise--and we might have one yet, I suspect, if the sages of puritan New England had chosen that moment to do what they desperately wished to do: secede from a Union they saw sinking into the mire of idolatry and democracy--vices they might just tolerate in politics, but never in culture. Never.
So what we got was a secular Reformation--a return of the Word at the expense of the flesh and a new jihad against idolaters, now guilty of "commodification." The old quarrel between "grace" and "works" was reconstituted as a new quarrel between "theory" and "practice." Once again, we drove the money-changers from the Temple of Art, which was not a temple, nor ever had been, not in America, where it had always been a secular discourse in the form of a market. Even so, academic civil servants of the Word, horrified by the image and scandalized by looking, mounted an attack on them both on behalf of their own practice--"a critique of representation," which, at its heart, is a critique of representative government--bald advocacy for a new civil service of cultural police.
Two quotes from two different essays in Air Guitar, both relating to themes Hickey treats often, the anxieties over art and money, treated analytically in the first selection, and as part of a narrative in the second. The difference? One is witty and pragmatic, the other a slightly hysterical rant built on straw men. Like all classic straw men, one can recognize elements of what he's writing about--we've all at one time or another read or heard someone complaining about commodification, we've all had that sinking feeling on picking up a new Artforum and seeing a feature essay by Douglas Crimp--but Hickey doesn't actually supply specifics. To do so would only slow down his riffing on extended metaphors and force him to acknowledge that to the extent there's any basis to his account at all, it's a highly tendentious one. Who are these sages of New England who wanted to secede? Where, exactly, did anyone argue for anything of the kind, even metaphorically? And note that it's not all metaphor--Hickey builds in an equivalence between developments in art and politics. So somehow these secessionist New Englanders of the mind are responsible for the twin evils of conceptual art and Ronald Reagan, or something. Sure, that's just how it happened. On the other hand, perhaps I should be thankful; in yet another essay, he implies that the same crowd of killjoys he's criticizing here are the equivalent of Weimar Republic white supremacists. It's a hallmark of Hickey's essays here that his addiction to straw man arguments means that he neither really hits his targets, blowing by them as he does, nor grapples sympathetically with them. Instead we get flashy writing and self-satisfied reminisces.
The latter of which supplies not the least tiresome aspect of the second quote: Hickey's ceaseless sixties nostalgia, his repetitive insistence that the period from roughly 1965 to 1975 was the best time ever and everything since then has been one long slow slide into crap. I sympathize, of course--we all know that no greater cultural moment existed than when we were younger, slimmer, and had more hair--but I believe I've heard that tale a time or two before, and it does get old. The good Hickey does show up regularly through the book--the first passage above comes as part of a far more compelling account of how change happens in the art world that the fantasies he spins in the second account--but often carrying too much baggage.
Anyway, I was going to end this post with an equation to express Dave Hickey, but it got a little away from me, and so a recipe seems more appropriate: Take Robert Venturi and carefully remove the architecture, being sure to leave Las Vegas and Main Street intact. Reduce the irony by two-thirds, add in a spoonful of Hunter S. Thompson's prose style and stir well. Whip in Dick Cavett's name-dropping and heat through. Serves an art world.