January 2012

Leah Triplett


Invisible Dragon: Reading the Culture Wars

The crux of Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon is rage. Fury that beauty, for centuries art’s cause and effect, was, at the end of the twentieth century maligned, neutralized and thus ineffective in its innately democratic purpose. “If you broached the issue of beauty in the American art world of 1988, you could not incite a conversation about rhetoric -- or efficacy -- or pleasure -- or even Bellini,” writes Hickey. The veteran critic and rocker was angry with art world elites -- curators, dealers and critics -- for thirty-odd years of indoctrinating art making and viewing, and The Invisible Dragon spews a tirade of colloquialism-soaked, acerbic prose in protest of their schemes. First published in 1993 and again in 2009 in revised and expanded edition, The Invisible Dragon infuriated an art world already fighting a ferocious battle of wits, the Culture Wars, with its position that this fight shouldn’t be so much over free speech, but a resuscitation of beauty and its efficacy as a rhetorical tool for subversion.

Ostensibly a feud over federal funds allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Culture Wars were less about art than free speech and how that affects American identity. The post-Cold War sociopolitical landscape, with the eruption of AIDS, race riots and ethnic cleansings in Europe, quaked American cultural character. Politicians and polemics attended this nation-identity crisis accordingly. In Congress and in newsprint, liberal and conservative factions vehemently attempted to define the nation’s cultural values and lifestyles via rhetoric. Conservatives, led by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, understood the works of contemporary artist such as Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) to be obscene and a corrosive affront to American-ness. The art world, instead of steadying its defense in beauty and its power of revolution, reacted by covering itself under the banner of free speech, and thus, free expression. In so doing, according to Hickey, the art world could maintain business as usual, peddling seemingly esoteric but ultimately predictable art forms under the guise of free expression and societal betterment.

Quite simply, Hickey was disgusted that in late twentieth-century America, it was harder to become an artist than a punk rock star. This challenge’s root is the art world’s steadfast professionalization beginning in the 1950s onward, and by its corresponding institutionalization of specific forms and materials as strictly contemporary art. By the late 1980s, without a collection of advanced degrees, practically no one could explain what contemporary art was, why it existed, or why anyone without said advanced degrees should care. It was necessary to go to certain ordained art schools, becoming at least conversational in such things as Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, to be an artist. This infuriated Hickey. Worse was that these institutions weren’t fostering the ability to seduce through harmonious blends of color, form and texture, and in so doing, were slowly and treacherously shifting art’s purpose and power of egalitarian radicalism. This power hinges on a sheer joy of beholding beauty -- the nebulous, deeply personal and transfixing electrification that comes by way of desire and identification of the exotic. Artists in late twentieth century America were cultured to crowd institutionalized exhibition spaces with uniformly bland art, by and for a learned audience of elites knowing what to recognize. Obliquely locating the genesis of this professionalization and institutionalization in mid-century legislations such as the NEA, Hickey proclaims the late twentieth-century art world to be something of a police state, censuring artworks and artists that didn’t adhere to its rules.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Hickey’s old friend and the photographer killed by AIDS by the time Congress paid him any attention through ruthlessly debating his X Portfolio, exemplifies the rogue artist working in beauty outside the art world sanctum, and in so doing, starting a revolution. Mapplethorpe, relentlessly of the margin and creator of works that revel in this exclusion from the majority, effectively provoked the powerful into action. The X Portfolio, scorned as a pornographic menace as much as it was renowned as an icon of free expression, is nothing if not dedicated to rejoicing a dissident pleasure. Thus, in its provocation of Senator Helms and his ilk, according to Hickey, the X Portfolio epitomizes the power of beauty as a democratic weapon. With the X Portfolio, writes Hickey, Mapplethorpe had “somehow overcome the aura of moral isolation, gentrification, and mystification that surrounds the practice of contemporary art in this nation and directly threatened those in actual power with his celebrations of marginality. It was an extremely cool moment, I thought, and all the more so because it was the celebration and not the marginality that made these images dangerous.”

But instead of championing beauty’s victory in provoking right-wing hegemony, the art world shunned it for the sake of staidly embracing of the first amendment, and thus perpetuating a sanctioning of American creativity. “Nothing Like the Son,” devoted to freeing Mapplethorpe’s works from the confused cant of free speech under which it was cloaked, and “After the Great Tsunami,” a ferocious look at why such obfuscation occurs, figure as The Invisible Dragon’s most charmingly bombastic essays. In the former, the X Portfolio is eloquently compared to Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601) as to describe how the need to see for our own eyes is a betrayal of ourselves, as it opens an access through which beauty can seduce and thus reassess and possibly convert our disbelief. In the latter, Hickey describes how nineteenth-century tumults, such as the erosion of faith in God and history, coupled with the increasingly mutability of gender and nationality, piqued the need of those in power to harness and steer beauty so such seduction and conversions were reigned and bridled, supposedly for public’s betterment. Hickey writes that “a gorgeous island of gaudy, speculative images was borne forth like blossoms on the great tsunami of doubt and spiritual confusion that swept through the late nineteenth century, cresting into the twentieth and exploding across Europe in a conflagration of wars and revolutions, scattering beauty among the bodies. By the 1920s, however, answers were once more available, assurances against doubt and confusion were at hand, and there were men in power to assure our compliance with these assurances.” By the twentieth century, it was understood that exclusion from majority would never be so homogenously guaranteed as in the past, but minorities, even those with a modicum of authority, could be held in check if only their arts were ripped from their characters and repurposed as educational relics in so-called unbiased institutions.

So Hickey believes, in his caustic, comparative blame of theory-soaked criticism, curatorial practice and abstruse art making on Joseph Goebbels, Stalin’s cultural commissioners and Alfred Barr (the first director of MoMA and influential modern art theorist). These men realized that pictures and images had an importance that lay in their ability to edify through beauty. They understood that the world had changed, and no longer could one tribe have one unifying beauty. Appreciating that beauties could be controlled through a calculation of critique by way of curatorial and critical device, these men established (in their respective contexts) a complex hierarchy between artist, viewer and interpreter, the latter of which exists purely to mediate and make public the artist’s private power over the viewer. Hickey asserts this hierarchy gave way to what he terms the “therapeutic institution” or the public exhibition space (read: publicly-funded non-profit), exists purely to chaperone one’s date with art, for our own protection, and that these institutions have thus been dumbed-down to only show art that conforms to the “cult of plain honesty,” also known as the guise of free expression that allows artists to routinely show art affirming obscure philosophies bearing no relevance to anyone outside themselves.

It’s unfair to compare Barr to Goebbels, however (despite a recent ARTNews report linking some of Barr’s MoMA acquisitions to Nazi art seizures). Here, and especially in “Prom Night in the Flatland,” a raucous probing of gender in art and modern art history, Hickey’s incisive ranting teeters between inspiringly inflammatory and downright insolent. Hickey is nothing if not a consummate stylist, and though “Prom Night in the Flatland” is his signature sharp, vernacular glibness at its best, the essay threatens insult at all of its many turns. To seemingly equate the transcendent joy derived from gazing upon the sumptuous negative spaces that sixteenth century painters indulged in to the female anatomy and sexual pleasure is, on its face, offensive. Hickey seems to think that painterly openness is beautiful because it has the possibility to be entered and filled through whatever psychical method he’d like. This is reductive and insensitive to say the least, and perhaps no more so than at the end of the twentieth-century, when sex’s pleasures had new lethal weight. Furthermore, Hickey’s frequent appropriation of Christian, specifically Catholic, tropes are distracting and too flip given the Church’s treatment of AIDS and its victims.

Nevertheless, with its dogged avowal of beauty’s power within democratic societies, The Invisible Dragon remains relevant. The 2009 second edition includes a delightful close reading of the Declaration of Independence as it relates to art making and viewing, and perhaps we’ve never needed one more. Late last year, David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly (1986-1987) was removed from National Portrait Gallery leg of “HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” (the work is currently on view at the show’s Brooklyn Museum stop). Ten years into the twenty-first century, such a demonstration of prejudice and reluctance towards empathy is horrifying. Yet, A Fire in My Belly’s removal from a museum of the very government that ignored and demonized the artist throughout his life still signifies his successful use of beauty to threaten power from the outside in. Wojnarowicz, who also penned intoxicatingly lyrical writings, was largely self-taught, never needing lessons to articulate his person in artistry. AIDS killed Wojnarowicz almost twenty years ago, but his fiery beautiful video still found its way into minds of the American millions by way of YouTube and the like. The seductiveness of his work noticed by those in authority, Wojnarowicz’s work chances ideological change in a most democratic manner.