Democracy as nostalgia

by Rob Horning

19 April 2006


Art critic Dave Hickey is an extremely eloquent writer, and in Air Guitar (which has the worst book cover ever, an argument about democratic taste in itself I suppose) he almost has me believing his genial anti-elitist love-for-the common-people perspective—the sort of thing David Brooks turns into partisan shtick. Hickey anticipates the logic that I stumbled into in my post about Foreigner a few days ago and articulates it far more mellifluously. What he argues for Norman Rockwell, I wanted to claim for Foreigner: “Rockwell’s painting ... has no special venue. It lives in the quotidian world with us amidst a million other things, so it must define itself as we experience it, embody itself and be remembered in order to survive. So it must rhyme, must live in pattern, which is the mother of remembering.” Rhyme is a metaphor for Hickey, and a felicitous one, but it masks a bit what he’s really talking about, which is nostalgia. Rockwell’s paintings, Foreigner’s music lives on not because institutions like art schools or rock critics tout them and indoctrinate students in their complexities, but because people associate them with simpler times and straightforward hopes when they recall them. This is how they rhyme, with naive aspirations and plainer attitudes, reminding us of when we took the world for granted at face value, and didn’t worry about how it pleased us, just luxuriated in the fact that it did.

Hickey would have us forget that there are institutions behind Rockwell just as there are behind the minimalist painters who set out to make camp with the avant garde. Hickey believes the forces that support Rockwell want things (to make money, satisfy the broadest audience) that are inherently democratic and the forces that prop up, say, Barnett Newman are out to manufacture cultural capital and erect bogus strata among the populace. But those people consuming Rockwell aren’t exempted from the games of status and display, and their affection for Rockwell is not somehow natural and authentic while the other interests are intellectualized and phony. The reason why the stuffed-shirt academics that Hickey scorns reject middlebrow taste is because that taste plays the same status game as Barnett Newman but for much broader stakes, rationalizing a limited set of values and tastes on a much larger scale and leaving audiences with no choice but to find the idiosyncratic nuance in universalized blandness. It is to their credit that all members of any standardized audience is capable of this, but that doesn’t necessarily redeem the objects themselves. These ubiquitous objects function like fast-food restaurants, masking the diverse choices that truly exist by forcing them off the main roads.

Throughout many of Air Guitar‘s tour de force essays, Hickey marshals his considerable powers of rhetoric trying to convince us (and himself?) that pop culture is always an expression of democracy rather than the often puerile effluvia of the apparatus required to stultefy the masses (seen Jim Belushi’s sitcom, for example? Or any of the lurid crime dramas that inadvertently glamorize violent abnormality as the last vestige of spontaneity in culture, the necessary prerequisite for something to be able to hold our interests?). To Hickey academic scrutiny is always elitist, always a pretense for self-aggrandizement (rather than a potential attempt to create something new via analysis) while instinctual surrender and acceptance of what culture-industry products are popular is always a sign of vitality and freedom, of community—accepting a film like Armageddon is a proxy for accepting the regular Joes who share our everyday lives on their own terms, at face value. No negative dialetics here. Hickey is the sort of critic who thinks optimism is bravery and believes that nattering nabobs of negativism are responsible for undermining a popular enthusiasm that is eager to well up and embrace everyone in their god-given individuality.

He admits that his view of community, of social justice, of “successful human society”, is sentimental, but couched as it often is in childhood memories, it is more than that; it is nostalgic, only present with any clarity in memory, always retrospective. Nostalgia obliterates the tensions between different interest groups that make democracy not some joyous community of happy people sharing but a battle to the death for limited resources among people with a theoretical, constitutionally guaranteed equal right to them. Functioning democracy, Hickey’s joyous co-op marketplace of ideas, is always in the past, and he has his all-purpose straw man in the “institutional” academic who hates freedom (like the terrorists) to explain why that glorious democracy no longer exists today.

But Democracy is an endless struggle to build coalitions, but in Hickey’s memories, in his idealizations of popular culture, these coalitions occur spontaneously, out of our shared joy for neat stuff. It’s too his credit that it almost seems true. Would that it were so.


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