In the summer of 2010, after nearly twenty years living and working in Las Vegas, Dave Hickey and his wife, art historian and curator Libby Lumpkin, left for Albuquerque. Lumpkin had recently resigned as executive director of the Las Vegas Art Museum after severe budget cuts and accepted a position at the University of New Mexico. Hickey was tenured at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and could have stayed on for a while longer, commuting back and forth from Nevada to New Mexico, but he was 71, increasingly dependent on his wife, and not so interested in teaching anymore.
At the peak of Hickey’s Vegas romance, the city had done a great deal of symbolic and rhetorical work for him. It was an ostentatiously visual, vulgar culture, which provided his students at UNLV both a surfeit of stimulus and a blessed deficit of critical baggage. It was a nonjudgmental, pleasure-accepting haven from the Puritanism of the east. And it was a rich font of metaphors, quips and anecdotes to deploy in the service of the series of lacerating critiques of the American art world that made his name in the Nineties. “America,” he wrote in Air Guitar, his second great book, “is a very poor lens through which to view Las Vegas, while Las Vegas is a wonderful lens through which to view America. What is hidden elsewhere exists here in quotidian visibility”:
So when you fly out of Las Vegas to, say, Milwaukee, the absences imposed by repression are like holes in your vision. … Moreover, since I must regularly venture out of Vegas onto the bleak savannas of high culture, and there, like an aging gigolo, generate bodily responses to increasingly abject objects of desire, there is nothing quite as bracing as the prospect of flying home, of swooping down into that ardent explosion of lights in the heart of the pitch-black desert—of coming home to the only indigenous visual culture on the North American continent, a town bereft of dead white walls, gray wool carpets, ficus plants, and Barcelona chairs—where there is everything to see and not a single pretentious object demanding to be scrutinized.
Leaving Las Vegas wasn’t a happy decision for Hickey or Lumpkin, but it was less wrenching than it might have been a few years earlier. After renting a place near campus in Albuquerque for two years, he and Lumpkin sold a few of their more valuable paintings and used the money to buy a three-bedroom split-level in Santa Fe. The plan was to supplement their lives in Santa Fe, which they expected to be boring, with frequent travel. Hickey’s cachet in the art world had diminished from its peak in the mid-2000s, when his two great collections of essays on art and American culture, Air Guitar and its predecessor The Invisible Dragon, had won him a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, but the invitations to speak, write and teach still came. There was every reason to believe that he and Lumpkin could use Santa Fe as a base from which to proceed in their cosmopolitan lives. Then in 2014, while in Miami for Art Basel, Hickey collapsed from a ruptured aortic aneurysm, and the plan faltered. By the time I met Dave in person in 2019, Santa Fe had become something of a prison for him, somewhere you went, he’d once written, “for some fake good food, terrible art, rich people, and adobe huts with rounded corners that look like Flintstone SUVs.”
The description, from a late essay of his called “My Silk Road,” was affectionate, but its warmth was premised on the city playing a very minor role in Hickey’s life. Santa Fe was meant to be a brief squiggle of kitsch along his Silk Road through the desert plains of Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, a route he’d occasionally travel both for professional reasons, to see far-flung art and artists, and to enact a kind of purification ritual, a refreshing of the psychological equilibrium between the vast, uncaring alienness of the West and the achievements and frivolities of human civilization.
“You drive through a palpable atmosphere,” he wrote, “since the desert reflects light back upward to illuminate the particulate atmosphere of dust, and so the atmosphere is lighted from above and below and comes to life as positive, dimensional emptiness. The same thing happens when you’re surfing, but driving isn’t surfing. I have always done this ride for communion with the original Silk Road, to touch the filigree of pathways taken by those voracious adventurers through vast stretches of wretched nothingness punctuated by oases and dazzling attractions.”
The essay is an ode both to home and to the freedom to leave it. Now Dave was exiled from home and tethered—tragically, comically—to a city he’d always thought of as a punchline. He couldn’t fly without risking another aortic rupture. Within Santa Fe he had nowhere worth going nor the physical capacity to go there. A lifetime of unhealthy living, capped off by the aneurysm, had left him unable to walk unassisted for more than a minute or two. Driving was out of the question. He had only left the general area a few times in the previous five years, and had had to be chauffeured by friends or old graduate students. Mostly he sat at home, in a house still largely unpacked from their move years before, watching MSNBC and Law & Order, smoking, drinking Starbucks, occasionally writing, and calling friends.
I had become one of those friends, though one whose face he’d only seen once, when he accidentally pressed the video instead of audio call button on his smartphone. A year or so earlier, Dave and I had been introduced via email by a mutual friend, and we’d taken to each other, or at least taken to what we could give each other, which is often the same thing. Dave was lonely and feeling unappreciated. I was offering to write a book about how amazing he was. I’d loved some version of him for nearly twenty years, ever since my older brother told me I really needed to read this book Air Guitar, by this guy Dave Hickey, that it would blow my mind. I’d bought the book and it had. It had also, and this was why I was in Santa Fe two decades later, given me a kind of gift, one I’m still reckoning with as I write these words.
He treated you like you were supposed to get out there and do something,” Hickey once wrote of his old theater professor Walther Volbach, who’d landed at Texas Christian University after fleeing the Nazis. “He told me I was a callow redneck with all the spirituality of a toilet-seat—that I could possibly cure the former but would probably have to live with the latter—but that was great! Nobody had ever told me I was anything before, so I took it to heart.”
Dave on the page is a gentler presence than Herr Volbach, but he’d done for me, as a young would-be writer, something like what Volbach did for him. He’d deflated me, and liberated me. Nobody cared whether I dedicated myself to writing. It was a selfish, superfluous thing to do, and one that deserved no presumption of virtue. If done right, however, it could be wonderful and world-shaking. Dave also revealed to me who the real enemies of such an endeavor were. They were the “Aryan muscle-boys” who would bend art to serve their stern, humorless deities.
“So all the muscle-boy artists and writers,” he wrote, channeling Volbach,
they will become professors and the darlings of professors, and they will teach the young to revere their pure, muscle-boy art, because it is good for them, and they will teach women and Jews and queers to make this muscle-boy art, too. And it will be very pure, because they are muscle-boys and they don’t have to please anyone. So there will be no cabaret, no pictures, no fantasy or flashing lights, no filth or sexy talk, no cruelty, no melodies, no laughter, no Max Reinhardt, no Ur-Faust, no A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And nobody will love it.
In Dave’s cosmology, the Aryan muscle-boys weren’t just actual Aryan muscle-boys; they were all the puritans and schoolmarms, of whatever faith, color, ideology and affiliation, who think art isn’t just subordinate to ethics but practically a branch of it. The descendants of the Aryan muscle-boys who made Walther Volbach leave the dynamism and glories of Weimar Germany for the Wonder Bread wasteland of Fort Worth weren’t just uptight political conservatives. They were politically correct professors and curators, well-meaning activists and art teachers, right-thinking bureaucrats and philanthropists. They were my father Tim Oppenheimer, whose own ancestors left Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, bringing with them to Pittsburgh a very Hochdeutsch ethos of industry, virtue and austerity. That ethos had transmitted itself down to my dad, been filtered through his left-wing politics and ultimately enmeshed itself in my nervous system, where I experienced it as a quarreling clan of psychologically crippling ideas about the obligations of the good life, the uncouthness of striving, the frivolity of pleasure and the superiority of Northern European aesthetics.
That is too grandiose. Like Dave my father was raised by wolves, though in my dad’s case they were narcissistic upper-class German Jews rather than artsy, narcissistic, middle-class Texans. He has struggled, my dad, to figure out what to do with what he was given and far too often not given. He and my mother, who has her own kinked history of communist-inflected Jewish-Puritan ethics, were (maybe) good-enough parents. I’m imposing a simple schema on a complex history. What I remember clearly is that my father modeled a style of virtuous self-abnegation that too easily slid into self-sabotage, and that his left-wing politics were both genuine and a convenient veil for certain pathologies. To strive for oneself, too nakedly, was to buy into capitalistic values. To reach out to others to advance one’s own interests was to use them as means rather than to treat them as ends in themselves. To seek pleasure was okay in moderation but could too easily descend into indulgence. Our home was an incarnation of these values: hardwoods and off-whites, shabby-chic furniture and throw blankets in natural fibers, tastefully framed art in monochrome or low-contrast colors. (A friend once called it “Jewish minimalism.”) This was my inheritance, against which I struggled very inarticulately and mostly unconsciously. Until I read Dave. He didn’t sever me from my inheritance. For good and ill I remain my father’s son, guided and tortured by the call of the good. But he offered a profoundly different perspective on it, reclassifying what had always seemed virtue as vice, investing with dignity what we had treated as ancillary, and casting into vivid relief the color, frailty, forgiveness and permission that too often had been missing from our family system.
Much of what he taught me had to do with the sympathy and intelligence he applied to varieties of experience that were alien to me, and that I might otherwise have dismissed as too low to take seriously: the flatland of Las Vegas low rollers, the Austin and Nashville of outlaw country singers, the Catholic baroque of Los Angeles lowrider detailers. Just as powerful, though, were the ways in which he turned a skeptical sociological eye on some of the worlds I knew quite well: academia, the Northeast corridor, the moral-aesthetic universe of the educated cultural elite.
“I suspect that my unhappy colleagues,” he wrote of his fellow professors at UNLV,
are appalled by the fact that Vegas presents them with a flat-line social hierarchy—that, having ascended from “food” to “cocktail” in Las Vegas, there is hardly anywhere else to go (except, perhaps, up to “magician”), and being a professore in this environment doesn’t feel nearly as special as it might in Cambridge or Bloomington, simply because the rich (the traditional clients of the professore class) are not special in Las Vegas, because money here is just money. You can make a lot of it here, but there are no socially sanctioned forms of status to ennoble one’s having made it—nor any predetermined socio-cultural agendas that one might pursue as a consequence of having been so ennobled. Membership in the University Club will not get you comped at Caesars, unless you play baccarat.
What caught me in Dave’s writing—and holds me still—lies in the dance between these two poles. On the one hand, a haute-populist critique that allowed me to detach from some of the more superficial norms and expectations of my people without giving up on the passion for high ideas and art; on the other hand, a deep generosity of spirit, a recognition that, though we are all fallen, mangy creatures, we have inside of us the promise of something beautiful.
By the time I met Dave at a hotel restaurant in the center of Santa Fe, for Saturday morning brunch, I knew not just his version of himself, from his writing and our many calls, but other people’s versions too. I’d talked to his second wife Libby, his first wife Mary Jane, his old girlfriends Marshall and Susan, his sister Sara, his editor Gary, his severe critic Amelia, the artist Ed Ruscha, the singer Terry Allen and a few dozen other friends and colleagues.
I knew that he was born in Fort Worth, into an unhappy home, and that his family moved a lot when he was growing up, though always with Fort Worth as the anchor to which they returned. I knew that his father had shot and killed himself when Dave was sixteen, and that to this day Dave thinks he was only eleven or twelve when it happened. I knew that it was evident to everyone around him, from a very young age, that Dave had a brilliant mind, but that he didn’t find the form and voice through which to wholly manifest that brilliance until he was about fifty. In the interim he lived a picaresque life. He did most of a Ph.D. in linguistics; opened the first truly contemporary art gallery in Austin, Texas; helped launch the SoHo art scene in New York; wrote a seminal piece on land art in Art in America; helped name and critically define the outlaw country music scene in the Seventies; did a lot of drugs for a long time; slept with a lot of women; and spent most of the Eighties doing speed, living off his girlfriend and failing to write pop songs.
Then, toward the end of the Eighties, something happened, or a few somethings happened. He finally quit using (mostly). His girlfriend Susan, after years of putting up with his shenanigans, ended things. He and Libby found each other. He was hired as a visiting professor at UNLV, and then promoted to the tenure track. He found some good editors. And he burst forth artistically. All the experiences, influences, hang-ups, sensitivities, theories and perceptions that had tussled with each other for decades in his writing, with uneven results, came into alignment, and for the next ten or so years he was en fuego.
His key foil, in this dialectic, was the art world of the Eighties and Nineties, with its claustrophobically theoretical art faculties, politically correct curators and phalanxes of wan and well-meaning bureaucrats, all of whom seemed to Hickey to be conspiring to squeeze all the joy, titillation and risk out of the making and discussing of art. The key relationship, for Hickey, was with Gary Kornblau, an LA-based writer, editor, teacher and impresario. In 1989 Kornblau founded Art issues., a West Coast magazine of art criticism in conversation with but also in conscious distinction from New York-based journals like Artforum and October. Kornblau gave Hickey a call at the suggestion of the LA Times art critic Christopher Knight, and the two men ended up talking for hours. Then they talked for hours the next day, and the next, and so on for the next ten years. Their relationship, almost entirely carried out by phone, became the beating heart of the magazine and of the critical and artistic community that coalesced around it.
The first product of this communion, published in the November 1990 issue of the magazine, was “Lost Boys: Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage,” a profile of the flamboyant illusionistic duo and a meditation on what happens in Vegas, why it is so routinely misunderstood by critics and what it has to tell us about the role of art and commerce in democracy. In retrospect it wasn’t the best essay Hickey would write over the next decade: some of the writerly tics he’d acquired in the Sixties and Seventies, when he was emulating Tom Wolfe and other New Journalists, hadn’t quite been vanquished yet. But the essay got the basic balance of intellectual and stylistic humors right, and it lays out many of the critical and philosophical bullet points on which Hickey would expand over the intervening years: Too many of our cultural arbiters are Aryan muscle-boys. We have too often overlooked and underestimated the demotic visual languages of places like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Nashville because their relationship to money and commerce is constructively tense rather than alienated and hostile. Popular culture plays a role in knitting together and perpetually reincarnating American democracy that is incredibly complex and defies not just the old high-low binaries but also more contemporary efforts to ascribe subversive intent to subcultural activity that is fundamentally pleasure-seeking and social.
Present in the essay, too, were long passages in Hickey’s mature style, which finally knew what to do with his folksiness, his highfalutin aestheticism and intellectualism and his intensely personal relationship to art and artists. In the past he’d dealt with these tendencies by exoticizing them, ironizing them, sometimes even separating them out from the main authorial voice and personifying them. By the Siegfried and Roy piece, he’d finally taken possession of them, weaving them into a sinuous, mid-temperature prose that grounded itself in humor but was capable of strategically lifting off into gorgeous flights of lyricism. “We sat beside a long window-wall that looked out on the interior of their Mission-Moroccan compound,” he wrote of meeting Siegfried and Roy:
There, in dappled sunlight, snow-white tigers drifted like smoke across the perfect green lawn, cruising among white plaster effigies of themselves beneath swooping coconut palms, which were themselves echoed, here and there, by swooping, white aluminum versions of themselves, whited-out palms, like tropical ghosts. The backdrop for this scene was a long, white, tiger grotto full of bright, blue water with two fountains bubbling and a substantial waterfall that was controlled by a rheostat, located on the wall. (“Watch!” Roy says, as he turns the dial, “I stop the flood!”)
The “boys”—as everybody in Las Vegas calls them, although they are now in their early fifties—exude the same elusive blend of fact and fiction. Siegfried, the blonde one, is the more diffident, the steady one. In postwar Hollywood, his air of ironic, damaged innocence would have gotten him cast as a sympathetic U-boat commander. Roy, on the other hand, with his Eurasian cheekbones and fop-rock hairdo, is more exotic—the glamour puss of the team—a perpetual font of effervescent Germano-Vegas hyperbole. They are “showbiz” to their toes, in other words, but I couldn’t help liking them, nor avoid feeling about them (as Fred Allen did about Hollywood) that beneath all that phony tinsel, there is real tinsel.
In 1993, Art issues. Press published The Invisible Dragon, which was a collection of four of Hickey’s longer essays on art, beauty, Robert Mapplethorpe, Michel Foucault, Caravaggio and the corrosive effects on art of the modern institutional art bureaucracies. Four years later, the press published Air Guitar, which collected and revised 22 of his essays from the previous decade, including a revised version of the Siegfried and Roy essay as well as pieces on jazz musician Chet Baker, beauty, psychedelics, Las Vegas, Perry Mason, basketball, rock ’n’ roll, Norman Rockwell, the art market, his childhood, Liberace, Robert Mitchum, Michelangelo, Hank Williams, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the National Endowment for the Arts, film noir and Donald Duck, among other subjects.
Both books landed like bunker busters in the art world, rearranging the terms of discourse and establishing Hickey as a figure whose influence percolated beyond its borders in a way not seen since the heyday of Clement Greenberg.
The story that’s now told about that influence tends to focus, understandably, on the truly astonishing potency and variety of attacks Hickey lobbed at the art-critical and curatorial establishment. He attacked as a populist, a champion of the common viewer’s instincts. He also attacked as a highbrow, dancing circles of French theory around the middlebrow moralizers. He was cooler than the people he was criticizing, and also more sensitive. He’d partied with Andy and Willie and also grazed for decades in the glorious meadows of Western culture. He deployed macho diction to effeminize his critical enemies, and then accused them of subtle misogyny and homophobia in their critical practices, forever casting and “recasting … the work of art in the role of the remote and dysfunctional male parent in the tradition of the biblical patriarch.”
Hickey’s criticism never hardened, however, into its own Aryan performance—probably because it was less dependent, ultimately, on any air-tight theory of art than on the beauty of the performance itself. His two-page primer on Foucault did more work, more scintillatingly, than many whole books on the subject. At the end of a passage dissecting the contemporary art world’s “miasma of hallucinatory denial” about the historical precedents for their standards of value were the words “yeah, right”—an exclamation that was characteristically brutal, unanswerable and funny. Once he’d written of the “ice-white walls” of the contemporary museum and gallery, it was hard to see them as anything else ever again. By the end of Invisible Dragon and Air Guitar he had let the air out of the art establishment at so many different points, from so many directions, that to this day they haven’t been able to effectively neutralize his critique (though time and quiet disdain have marginalized it).
He had also—and this is what tends to be missing from the common narrative—quietly and movingly sketched out something like an alternative vision of what art could do in the world: how it could bring into existence small coteries of people who put themselves on the line for objects they find persuasive and pleasure-inducing. In a seminal essay in Air Guitar on Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” Hickey wrote about how art could generate “a confluence of simple hearts, a community united not in what they are—not in any cult of class, race, region or ideology—but in the collective mystery of what they are not and now find embodied before them.”
Flaubert’s story, set in the early nineteenth century in a small French town, becomes for Hickey a parable of both individual and social creation. It revolves around Félicité, an illiterate Catholic house servant who lives and dies in a “sotto voce litany of labor and loss” but whose suffering is transformed into something greater than itself through her worship of a taxidermied parrot, and then through her gift of that parrot to a local church display. In her final moments before death, as a church procession is under way outside, she “thought she saw, as the heavens opened, a gigantic parrot hovering over her head.”
“Eighty years after Flaubert finished writing ‘A Simple Heart’ in provincial France,” Dave wrote, “I finished reading it in provincial Texas, sitting in the wooden swing on the shady porch of my grandparents’ house in south Fort Worth, and, having finished it, Flaubert’s story, which had transported me out of the present, delivered me back into it with sharpened awareness.” And that awareness, in turn, pushed him out of himself. Rather than start taking notes for his own story, or linger in his thoughts, he reached out: “I started calling my friends. I wanted them to read the story immediately, so we could talk about it.”
When Dave was in his glory, I’ve been told, his brilliance poured out of him in a glittering stream of allusions, humor, sophistication and vulgarity. He was not only a critic but an enthusiast, one who wanted, needed, his friends to see what he was seeing, hear what he was hearing, read what he was reading. He was also a fleshy old aesthete on the other side of decades of learning and experiencing, full up with stories about partying at the Factory, reading Foucault at the Dairy Queen, and shooting the shit with Lou Reed in Akron. When he was on, hanging with him was an aesthetic experience in its own right.
Dave at eighty is still very charming, but less generative of fresh payloads of charm than he once was. By the time I arrived in Santa Fe, with my wife and two sons, I knew this about him. Even so, it was surprising to see in person what rough shape he was in. When we’d planned for the visit over the phone I’d raised the possibility of going to some galleries or museums in town with him. I wanted the set piece of looking at art with Dave Hickey, of course, but I also just wanted to look at art with Dave, because he has seen things in the visual world that no one else has seen, and he has converted those perceptions into some of the most brilliantly and beautifully arresting prose of the last few decades. I wanted a taste of that.
Dave had agreed we’d play it by ear. As we walked from the street outside through the hotel lobby and into the restaurant, however, it was clear that no stroll into the city was possible. He had to stop two or three times before we made it to the table, leaning against railings or chairs to rest. By the time we sat down he was exhausted. He’s a broken-down old lion of a man, bigger than I’d anticipated from only having seen pictures of him, and his distended heart wasn’t sending out oxygen efficiently enough to keep his mass going for long. I was worried he’d need my help to make it back to the street, and that the embarrassment of that interaction, for both of us, would put a strain on the whole visit.
As it turned out he managed, barely, and over the three days I was in Santa Fe we got on. My last few hours alone with Dave and Libby, on Saturday afternoon, felt almost familial—just hanging out at their house, mostly in the kitchen, while they smoked cigarettes, I drank Diet Coke and we talked over the hum of MSNBC in the background. We compared notes on TV shows we liked in common, and commiserated about Trump. Libby apologized for the state of their house, which was overrun by still-crated art and boxed-up books. Dave huffed and puffed over to his desk to show me some photos from what he’s currently writing about, Michael Heizer’s epic land-art installation City.
Listening now to the audio of that afternoon, what’s striking is the disparity between how simple and homey it felt and how bonkers the raw data of about half of our conversation was. I talked about my family and work. Dave talked about friends of his who had died, another who is sick with early-onset Alzheimer’s. We listened for a while to the news about the Mueller report. I showed Dave an article on my phone about a former student of his, Gajin Fujita, whose art had just been featured on a new library card from the LA Public Library. The ticker at the bottom of the TV mentioned the previous night’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach, and Dave said that he had been worried for an old friend of his who’d been on vacation there. His friend was fine, and our talk drifted to the subject of mass shootings in general.
“I lived through the daddy-figure shooting phase,” he said. “The Kennedys and Martin Luther King. George Wallace and Andy Warhol. This is worse. They’re just shooting regular people. I don’t understand. I really don’t understand, know what I mean? It transcends my ability to get it.”
Dave told me that he was in Las Vegas in 2017 when a man firing from a 32nd floor window of the Mandalay Bay Hotel killed 58 people at a country music concert below. It was the single worst mass shooting in American history. Dave was in town to give some lectures at UNLV, in the hopes of rekindling his affiliation with them, and was staying in an adjacent hotel.
“I heard it and then I saw it,” he said. “I went downstairs, and in the lobby there were these two teenage guys covered in blood. Their clothes were soaked. That bright red, just pitched-out blood. They weren’t hurt. They had been helping people, and all they wanted was a towel to wipe the blood off, and the fucking Central European guy running the hotel wouldn’t give it to them, and so I went and got them some towels.
“After it stopped or seemed to have stopped, we walk over to the site of the shooting, and it was weird—if you were writing a novel you would want this detail—the field of the concert looked like glowing coals. Glow, glow, glow. It was everybody’s cell phone. Isn’t that sad? Everybody’s trying to call home and say, I’m being shot at. And everybody at home is calling to say, Were you dead? And they were dead.”
There is grief in Dave’s voice as he says this. Also a touch of pride in the artistry of his language in conveying it. The descriptive efficiency and efficacy of the “just pitched-out blood.” The glow, glow, glow. The subjunctive tenseplay (“Were you dead?” they asked).
It is a very Hickeyan moment. If there is a legible backstory of Dave, it encompasses an almost unbearable weight of grief and pain: his father’s suicide, his mother’s emotional neglect, his siblings’ struggles with alcoholism, his divorce, professional failure, drug addiction, money troubles, physical ailments, social anxiety, chronic insecurity, depression. But the juice, with Dave, is not in that squeeze. “I don’t think depth exists—I think it’s a German fantasy,” Dave once said to me, and I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what he meant. I think the German Mistake, for Dave, is to assume that what’s beneath, behind or beyond us is necessarily any truer or richer than what’s on the surface, already visible to anyone willing to really look.
In August 2001, I drove across the country with my oldest friend Jason. We started in our hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, where Jason had spent the summer with his parents, and then headed west to Berkeley, where he was in his second year of a doctoral program in history. I would drop him off there, then fly back east.
To give some thematic structure to the drive, Jason bought a copy of Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A.: 500 Diners, Farmland Buffets, Lobster Shacks, Pie Palaces, and Other All-American Eateries. The plan was to make the trip fairly quickly, lingering only in those places where we knew someone and otherwise just stopping for sleep and regionally representative meals. We made an exception for New Orleans, which seemed to merit a few hours of dedicated touristing, and a smaller exception for SITE Santa Fe, which was hosting a biennial exhibition curated by my new writer crush, Dave Hickey.
I don’t remember much of the show, Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism. Dave’s writing was the draw, and I had neither the background nor the sensitivity to perceive what was interesting about how he was arranging art and artists in conversation with each other. Leafing now through the catalog, which Dave gave me when I visited, the only distinct visual memory it evokes is of Jim Isermann’s installation on the façade of the building, and of his two hedges of plastic sunflowers that guided visitors into the museum. The gift shop was selling surplus sunflowers and I bought two of them.
I remember also, in a general way, that it was the sort of exhibition you would expect Dave Hickey to curate—smooth and bright and light—and that in that way it was of a piece with the whole drive, which was characterized by a distinct feeling that at that precise moment in time in America, at the tail end of the long Nineties, history and politics lay lightly upon the land.
I remember driving through Norfolk, Virginia, on our way to visit family friends who’d moved there years ago from Springfield, and how the gravitational force of Norfolk’s massive naval base seemed to generate a field of quiet over the rest of the city. A few days later we ate lunch at a diner in Birmingham, Alabama and were struck by how easygoing everyone seemed, and by how even in Birmingham, where history can drape so thickly, lightness has its moments. In Texas we decided to push on through the night, without stopping to sleep, and so we ended up encountering Ciudad Juárez, El Paso’s dark twin, as a ghostly procession of lights that seemed to stretch on forever. On our last day of driving we passed by the factory farms of California’s Central Valley, and with them the greatest miasma of cow shit I’ve ever known. It was a good drive.
There’s a way of thinking about that time, now, that denies the lightness, that condemns us for our dozing, half-amnesiac fantasies. Everything that was shortly to come, we’re told, was already pushing up toward the crust, germinating, waiting to be born. The towers, the storms, the wars. They were the inexorable consequences of our sins, the just verdicts of history. And it’s hard these days to deny the force of this story. We are being punished, and probably we deserve it. Yet I find myself resisting ever more urgently the conclusions that too easily follow from that—about what kind of art we should create and value, and about how we should be with ourselves and each other.
As I sit with Dave and Libby in their kitchen, cable news on in the background, I have no answers. Air Guitar, as lovely as it is, will not defeat Trump, end racism, bring peace to the Middle East or solve climate change. If Dave had the answers to these problems, he wouldn’t be sitting in his kitchen, like the rest of us, taking solace in Rachel Maddow’s soliloquies.
What has become clearer to me, though, is that Dave is right about what kind of art is not the answer. It will not be, and this almost goes without saying, anything that is made by Aryan muscle-boys of the right, with their bar-band covers of Heimat and Herrenvolk. And it will not be work born of the mirrored galleries of the Aryan muscle-boy left, with their infinitely reflecting visions of carefully pruned souls endlessly watching and canceling and saving each other. Whatever justice is made of (and no doubt anger and judgment and maybe even surveillance are elements in the mix), art is not an extension, distraction, evasion or even, in a simple way, a complement to it. It is a rival source of value in the world. Art will not save us, but it might—unstably, unpredictably, miraculously—save us, you and me, for a little while.
Dave’s visions often begin with visual art, but they have extended out democratically to include music, television, movies, theater, sports, professional wrestling, architecture and whatever other realms of human endeavor in and through which people struggle to create and sustain meaning and joy in a place like America. Air Guitar, in particular, is less an argument against bureaucratic mediation than a series of literary efforts to conjure up a menagerie of beautiful Edens—visions, only briefly realizable if at all, of life as we would like it to be and of art as it occasionally can be. It is Siegfried and Roy in Vegas, Caravaggio in Rome and Robert Mapplethorpe’s X photographs “scattered across a Pace coffee table at a cocaine dealer’s penthouse on Hudson Street.” It is catching the perfect wave off the coast of Southern California and playing at being a high roller—which is to say being a high roller, if only for a moment—at the Bellagio in Vegas. It is Herr Volbach at Texas Christian, trailing memories of Weimar Berlin, journeying through time and space and the medium of Dave to exhort me (and so many others): “Hey! You up there! Yes you! Aryan muscle-boy! Can’t you count? Don’t you have any bones? You look like a piece of meat up there. Be electric! Act like a human creature!”
Toward the end of Air Guitar, Dave has an essay on basketball that is a sentimental favorite of mine. It’s not a perfect work. It is marred, in particular, by the tonal stutter that can creep into Dave’s work when he is trying too hard to demonstrate ease with black vernacular. But “The Heresy of Zone Defense” is a drop-dead brilliant structural and sociological analysis of basketball and of the way the game, invented by James Naismith in 1891 in my hometown of Springfield, has gloriously eluded its creator’s aspirations. Naismith’s hope was that the game could help domesticate the young working-class toughs who hung out at the local YMCA during the winter months. As it turned out, Naismith had the chain of causation backward. It was in fact the kids who would take possession of the space within Naismith’s simple rules and use it to create an engine of American beauty and improvisation that to this day civilizes and revitalizes the rest of us.
My attachment to the piece is overdetermined. It’s a virtuoso performance by Hickey, beautiful and seductive in the way it dances back and forth between basketball and democracy until, after a while, the two are indistinguishable. It mythologizes Springfield, which is manna for an exile like me. And I was a Philadelphia 76ers fan when I was a kid, and so a possessor, in some small way, of the apotheotic moment with which Hickey begins the essay. Though really, as he would insist, it is a moment that belongs to all of us.
“It’s in the third quarter,” Dave writes. “The fifth game of the 1980 NBA Finals. Lakers versus Seventy-Sixers”:
Maurice Cheeks is bringing the ball up the court for the Sixers. He snaps the rock off to Julius Erving, and Julius is driving to the basket from the right side of the lane against Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Julius takes the ball in one hand and elevates, leaves the floor. Kareem goes up to block his path, arms above his head. Julius ducks, passes under Kareem’s outside arm and then under the backboard. He looks like he’s flying out of bounds. But no! Somehow, Erving turns his body in the air, reaches back under the backboard from behind, and lays the ball up into the basket from the left side!
When Erving makes this shot, I rise into the air and hang there for an instant, held aloft by sympathetic magic. When I return to earth, everybody in the room is screaming, “I gotta see the replay!” They replay it. And there it is again. Jesus, what an amazing play! Just the celestial athleticism of it is stunning, but the tenacity and purposefulness of it, the fluid stream of instantaneous micro-decisions that go into Erving’s completing it…Well it just breaks your heart.