Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / A clear strain in American letters celebrates the capacity of insouciant and unabashedly disreputable people to say things that matter by cutting through the flatulent smog that tends to enshroud orthodoxies. The Lost Generation had Ernest Hemingway, and Baby Boomers had Hunter S. Thompson and Dave Hickey, who passed away in November at 82. These guys particularly Thompson but undeniably Hemingway and Hickey as well showcased their disdain for convention and their embrace of the drunken and the stoned, the naughty and the down-and-out. But all three were dead serious about life and death, and that emerged in their work.
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In Hemingways center cut, that concern was manifested in tersely authoritative aloofness, quite foreign to the other two. For Thompson, it resided in a kind of deconstructive discursiveness, with his patented use of exotic circumlocutions imparting a sardonically clinical yet jangled sense to irretrievably absurd situations. It was treacherous, stupid and demented in every way, he said though alter-ego Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but there was no avoiding the stench of twisted humor that hovered around the idea of a gonzo journalist in the grip of a potentially terminal drug episode being invited to cover the National District Attorneys Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
Hickeys somewhat serendipitous path started in earnest when he decided that the iconoclastic Hemingway-focused doctorate in literature and linguistics he was pursuing at the University of Texas in 1967 would be poorly received by the traditionalists there. His recollection of his career epiphany in his 1997 essay collection Air Guitar was palpably Thompson-esque and wryly acidic enough to quote at length:
I had just fucked up, and this realization came as a bit of a downer, to be sure, although it certainly explained the sense of nauseous dread I had been feeling at the prospect of laying my labors before my interdisciplinary committee. Because I knew what would happen. The two post-structuralists, confronted with the empiricism of my practice, would almost certainly fling themselves upon the barricades. The literary humanist, faced with the prospect of calculus would go catatonic; and the two linguistics wonks, who spent the summers taping Hopis and thought Gertrude Stein was something you drank beer out of, would bitch and moan about my unscientific literary parameters and probably resign from the committee. I figured I was looking at twelve months of spite, recrimination, misprision, and power politics.
He quit grad school and, on a lark, opened a gallery in Austin that he called, suitably enough, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, after Hemingways iconic story of quiet existential despair. Like the old man drinking brandy and the insomniac waiter, Hickey was of those who liked to stay late at the caf who do not want to go to bed who need a light at night, though his effervescence seemed to offset forlornness. And like Thompson the two were casual friends, even if Hickey ultimately cooled on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and saw that Thompson had lost the plot Hickey was elaborately meandering in literary style. But in his lyric essays he had paradoxically precise aims: substantively, to provide the social, political, and intellectual context needed to fully understand art; and, rhetorically, to shift the conversation to his bountiful comfort zone and seize the podium. To Thompson, the very notions of rigorous objectivity and tightly channeled discourse were inanely fraudulent. So it seemed to Hickey as well, though its perhaps easier for an art critic to get away with shredding those notions than it is for a purported journalist to do so. His mission seemed defensible enough: to clear away obfuscatory postmodern conceits about arts meaning and function and get back to the centrality of beauty metaphorically, it is and always will be blue skies and open highways and the sheer excitement of the slice of time in which it is apprehended.
In his unapologetically sentimental essay Shining Hours/Forgiving Rhymes, he recalls a childhood episode in which he watched his father, a German-Jewish chanteuse, a Latino drummer, an ex-Marine, and two Black beboppers, all stoked on weed, jam in a living room, calling up for all of us the ease and sweet sophistication of the Dukes utopian Harlem, wherein we all dwelt at that moment. Within three years, his father was dead, a suicide, and life was dimmer. So I kept that musical afternoon as a talisman of memory, said Hickey. I handled it carefully, so as not to knock the edges off, keeping it as plain and unembellished as I could, so I could test the world against it, because it was the best, concrete emblem I had of America as a successful society … Indeed, Hickeys take on American beauty, keyed to the distinctly American enshrinement of the pursuit of happiness, was especially incisive and prescient, sharply identifying its intrinsic and potentially tragic fragility. That beauty, he wrote in his brilliant essay on the subject in The Invisible Dragon,is inextricable from its optimal social consequence: our membership in a happy coalition of citizens who agree on what is beautiful, valuable, and just. If he was a hedonist, he was one of grave perceptiveness.
Hickey brushed aside his antagonists, elevating the Vegas Strip into something to take seriously, riffing on the uneasy relationship between art and commerce, and musing irreverently about the one-of-a-kind value of Catherine the Greats dildo versus Louis XIVs bedpan, among many other invariably edifying tangents. He glommed a MacArthur Genius Grant along the way. He was a politically incorrect contrarian before it was an entrenched thing, and he got some credit for it in the carefree nineties, the new fin de sicle, when an optimistic art world could claim tentative victory in the culture wars Hickey was an early champion of Mapplethorpe and was more forgiving. Hemingway and Thompson were unique. Maybe Dave Hickey was, too, and the current marketplace of ideas might not be able to bear him anyway. But the fact that he has no clear successors and probably would not be welcomed doesnt mean we couldnt use another defiantly louche art critic of comparable erudition; quite the contrary.