Sunday, October 14, 2012

Book Review Pt. 2: Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey

This is the second half of my review of Dave Hickey's Air Guitar. See part one here.

Probably the biggest insight your correspondent owes to this work is a plausible definition for art/explanation for why art matters, in "Frivolity and Unction." Answer: it doesn't. Art is a luxurious waste of time through which extremely important issues get worked out. Hickey's analysis is, again, gorgeous, so I'll quote it here at length:

So here's my suggestion: At this moment, with public patronage receding like the spring tide anyway and democracy supposedly proliferating throughout the art world, why don't all of us art-types summon up the moral courage to admit that what we do has no intrinsic value or virtue--that it has its moments and it has its functions, but otherwise, all things considered, in its ordinary state, unredeemed by courage and talent, it is a bad, silly, frivolous thing to do. We could do this, you know...

...We could just say: "Okay! You're right! Art is bad, silly, and frivolous. Movies are bad, silly, and frivolous. Basketball is bad, silly, and frivolous. Next question?"...

...What if works of art were considered to be what they actually are--frivolous objects or entities with no intrinsic value that only acquire value through a complex process of socialization during which some are empowered by an ongoing sequence of private, mercantile, journalistic, and institutional investments that are irrevocably extrinsic to them and to any intention they might embody?...

...Because the art world is no more about art than the sports world is about sport. The sports world conducts an ongoing referendum on the manner in which we should cooperate and compete. The art world conducts an ongoing referendum on how things should look and the way in which we should look at things--or it would, if art were regarded as sports are, as a wasteful, privileged endeavor through which very serious issues are worked out.

Because art doesn't matter. What matters is how things look and how we look at them in a democracy...

Why I think this is valuable: if you're anything like me, you've wasted countless hours and cigarettes agonizing over whether and how art is valuable. This is a serious problem: the value of art is in no way self-evident. What is self evident is how it relates to other stuff. Like class: GED-graduates are not the major demographic for reprints of Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, poor people don't flock to the theater, and loudly-played classical music is used to discourage homeless people from hanging out in public areas. Great art tends to be friendly toward the upper classes, while pro-wrestling and MTV and the Twilight books score with lower classes. (I'm not saying always, and I'm not endorsing this fact; I'm just acknowledging a broad demographic trend.)

Plus, in a world full of injustice and scarcity, why spend time on art? Why not use that energy for activism? Children die every day from starvation, and you're going to spend your time reading the thoughts of Tristam Shandy? I don't know about you, but for me, it seems that spending one's time teasing out the significance of narrative voice in Joyce's Dubliners while my neighbors suffer and die is, to be precise, vulgar. To rephrase this point as an argument: Art is a luxury activity, and it's wrong to luxuriate while others lack necessities, and others do lack necessities. Thus, it's wrong to spend time and energy on art.

So two excellent reasons to turn your back on art are 1) it's classist and 2) it's a waste of precious resources.

What I love about Hickey's analysis is that it wholeheartedly accepts both of these facts, yet still finds value in art: to wit, as an ongoing referendum on how to look at things in our society. If you see that 'How we look at things' is powerful and important, then you'll see how art has an indirect but fundamental influence on our society (and thus on class, justice, ecological awareness, etc.). Hickey is right that art does not promote virtue in the way that grant-seeking museum curators say that it does--exposure to high art does not, by and large, make people better or smarter or more empathetic. Art has no intrinsic value. What art does have is influence on how we live together, influence on the shape and texture of our society. Art, like role models and traumatic experiences, teaches us how to see. And since we're social animals, how we look at things influences pretty much everything else that we do care about (justice etc.). Art is a wasteful luxury through which important issues get worked out.

So by this point, whether you read Air Guitar or not, you've gotten a heavy taste of Hickey's writing and a summary of (what is in my view) the most important point in the whole book: art is not intrinsically valuable, but it is a social activity, and social activities have important effects.

In summary, your correspondent can report that Hickey's anthology is smart, funny, and extremely insightful. and the questions he asks guarantee interesting answers.

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