July 14, 2011

Dave Hickey's National Geographic for Esthetes

The short answer is yes, Dave Hickey's writing was even more off-the-wall in the Seventies, and you really might just as well scroll straight down to the song.

Otherwise, I just brought home a stack of old Art In Americas, including the Sep/Oct 1971 issue with Hickey's long, lyrical essay, "Earthscapes, landworks and Oz." [As in Wizard of, not Australia, though I did check before I bought it.]

Hickey makes some interesting points about visiting earthworks, including hearing his art-shunning, contractor father-in-law go on about

his most Roman topic (the favorite of all adult males west of Fort Worth): the ravages of nature upon the works of man. He would like driving out to the site in his white jeep, wearing his narrow-brimmed Stetson, his khaki slacks and jacket and his Gokey boots The more difficult the trip, the more completely it would reinforce his serene pessimism. would be his idea of going to see some art; mine, too in proper company.
And how "In big country you do not see in the ordinary way. There is no 'middle distance,' only 'near' and 'far,' the dust at your feet and the haze on the horizon."

Of earthworks in the nothing-space in between, Hickey declared

I do know that privative pieces--those which involve cutting away, digging out or marking--have much more authority and intimacy with the country itself than the additive pieces like Smithson's Spiral Jetty or Heizer's Black Dye and Powder Dispersal, which are dwarfed in a way that even smaller privative pieces are not. Smithson's Jetty, particularly, has a beaux-arts look about it, more related to other sculpture than to the lake.
At least, that's the concept. Because it's not that Hickey had actually been to any of these works himself; in 1971, it seems like it was enough to drive in and out of Austin a lot. Hickey namechecks some art world folk who actually "have been out to see Double Negative, and have returned with (literally and figuratively) breathless accounts. If this keeps up, he pretend-complains, "we shall soon need a kind of National Geographic for Esthetes.

It's actually Hickey's incisive identification of the media-mediated Land Art experience that I found most interesting:

The question is: Why have the national art magazines both overrepresented and misrepresented the earthworks movement and its related disciplines, choosing to portray them as a kind of agrarian Children's Crusade against the art market and the museum system, when this is obviously not the case? First: the work is marketable--anything is marketable, as St. Paul so aptly demonstrated. Second: the museum have proved a god source of commissions for these artists. And third: even if the work weren't marketable and the museums were rejecting it, an esthetic trench in Utah is going to have about as much effect on the object market and museum endowments as admission figures at the Grand Canyon.

The answer might be: It is not the Earth artists who are challenging the market and the museums, but the magazines themselves. Earth art and its unpackageable peers cannot hurt the market, but extensive magazine coverage can, since not as much object art will get exposure. The magazines have found in this unpackageable art a vehicle through which they can declare their independence from the art dealers who invented the critical press, nurtured it, and have tended to treat it like a wholly owned subsidiary. Now there is an art form ideally suited to presentation via magazine. Work consisting of photographs and documentation is not presented by journalism, but as journalism--a higher form, needless to say.

The people on the magazines must believe (and I think rightly) that these indefinite art forms might do for the magazines what Pop Art did for the dealers--lend a certain institutional luster, and with it a modicum of arbitrary power.

...

An artist who makes documents needs an editor, not a dealer.

I had some lucid commentary of my own about Hickey's glib comparison of Earth Art & Pop--and his silence on Conceptual Art, which goes unmentioned, or at least uncapitalized, even though I think Hickey's making specific, unspoken reference to Walter de Maria's project in the May 1972 issues of Avalanche and AiA rival Arts Magazine, which zeroed in on the difference between art experience, concept, and media, oh wait, never mind. 1972? I forgot I'm still talking about 1971 here. Actually, I think my brain was just involuntarily ctrl-alt-del rebooted.

Because I just found out that the Terry Allen lyrics Hickey ends his essay with are from an actual song, and listening to it just now has wiped all unsaved art information from my head. And that's just fine with me.

So stop whatever you're doing and listen to Terry singing his masterpiece, "A Truckload of Art." Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Nope, not yet: On Walter de Maria, earthworks and Conceptual Art

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: July 14, 2011.

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