Catch Dave Hickey’s Collection of Criticism a ‘Perfect Wave’ and You’ll Enjoy the Ride

In Hickey's formulation, what is raw is hot. What is cooked is cool. Art and democracy are better served by cool cats, not hotheads.

Perfect Wave: Essays on Art and Democracy
Dave Hickey
University of Chicago Press
Nov 2017

“Among the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Ronald Reagan,” Dave Hickey writes, “[Robert Mitchum] was like a switchblade on a plate of cupcakes.” In Perfect Wave: More Essays on Art and Democracy, Hickey describes Mitchum as “a loser with a winner’s heart”, living by a code that allowed him to float, for example, above the notoriety of a 1948 marijuana bust. For Hickey that code includes “know yourself, privilege veracity over virtue, and behave with absolute plausibility.” In the late ’50s, the teenaged Hickey embraced a variation of this code, imagining that if he were to date “only women who thought Robert Mitchum was cool, I would be okay.” Conclusion? “As long as I did, I was, and still am.”

That’s not all Hickey gleans from Mitchum. The only guy cool enough to get namechecked by The Velvet Underground and The Clash also provides Hickey with a theory of movie acting. In a talk-show conversation on the difference between stage and movie acting, Mitchum explains the importance of setting, props, and pacing. “‘You steal the reality of the props and control the pace of the pictures … If you have the tempo and people believe you in the setting, they’ll believe whatever you say, however you say it, if they hear it.'” Hickey’s summation is Mitchum-esque in its brevity and reflexive impropriety: “Touch the world. Set the pace. F*ck the text.”

Hickey regards these maxims as a “pretty good theory”, which can be remixed to capture his own theory on writing criticism: “F*ck dogma. Set the pace. Touch the world.” Hickey is former executive editor of Art in America, and the author of four books, including Air Guitar: Essay on Art and Democracy (1997). He remains one of the finest American cultural critics, for he opens his own pleasures to appreciative scrutiny and collective relish. Like Mitchum’s casual regard for the script—”‘you have to say these lines, but that’s purely secondary'”—Hickey understands the contingencies of our perspectives and he skewers dogma with merciless joy. He’s also decidedly omnivorous, and here casts his keen and compassionate eye upon subjects ranging from the formalism of Norman Rockwell to the transgressive quality of pink footwear in contemporary Tehran.

Hickey’s prose rumbles with the phrasing of a jazz virtuoso, but takes its political cues from rock ‘n’ roll. In “Wonderful Shoes”, Hickey regards rock ‘n’ roll musicians as “free because they are damned.”

“Unlike the world of art and literature, nobody gets their feelings hurt and nobody talks about their mother … Nobody asks you where you went to school, because you probably didn’t. Everybody knows, as Kris Kristofferson observed, it takes more brains to get out of Kentucky than it does to get out of Connecticut, and that’s a comfort.” (p. 33)

Hickey adores the “comic delicacy” of rock ‘n’ roll: the band is the centrifuge, beating drums and wires against the music’s centripetal forces, trying desperately “to play this very simple song … just this once, in tune and on the beat” (Air Guitar, p. 101).

Hickey, too, finds little resonance with the Manhattan-centric dogma of post-bop jazz as “the politics of struggle and the aesthetics of self-expression.” Instead, he prefers “the drive, tone, and muscularity of the group endeavor” by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet (and others), which secured little more than derision from critics determined “to intellectualize raw expression”. In Hickey’s formulation, what is raw is hot. What is cooked is cool. Art and democracy are better served by cool cats, not hotheads.

For Hickey, cool and freedom reign. He opts for the sunshine of the desert over the canyons of Manhattan and casts his lot with commodity-flush Edens over rule-bound utopias.

“Our Edens reside in a world that we can touch, that sings in our ears and shines before our eyes—the only world that we can inhabit while living in our bodies with all our senses intact … we make ourselves from the outside in, that we strive, as best we can, to be worthy of our wonderful shoes.” (p. 39)

Like art, wonderful shoes are a “necessary accoutrement of urban life, a democratic social field of sublimated anxiety, adventure, violence, fast dancing, sharp talk, and contentious civility” (p. 41). In 1972, Hickey’s in New York, digging Lou Reed’s Lou Reed and The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, only to be blown away by a radio encounter with The Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love”.

“And, believe me, the Carpenters were the farthest thing from my kind of thing. But when something that is not your thing blows you away, that’s one of the best things that can happen. It means you are something more and something other than you thought you were.” (p. 24)

Believe me, the Carpenters are not my kind of thing either. But when Hickey explains how he apologized to the record-store clerk for buying The Carpenters’ A Song For You, I recognize my younger and more tedious self, and strive anew to be more pluribus than unum. So here I am, listening to “Goodbye to Love”, while I parse Hickey’s meditation on the grandeur of this perfectly pop confection.

“Pop songs depend on tiny variations so heavily, in fact, that the difference between the very best and the just mediocre is usually a microsecond or two, three notes, an apt phrase, a single syncopation, or a melismatic voicing by the singer. In a stylistic environment that is this tightly calibrated, Richard Carpenter’s melody is like a Jackson Pollock in a roomful of Mondrians.” (pp. 24-25)

In the musical analysis that follows, Hickey issues dares to two types of readers. First, he dares readers who disdain the Carpenters because they love Pollock to imagine “Goodbye to Love” to be as formally brilliant as One: Number 31, 1950, and to be just as worthy of their admiration. These same readers may be tempted to bludgeon Hickey with the (joy-) police baton of Pierre Bourdieu, to j’accuse Hickey’s engagement with realities and fictions to be “bound up with the systems of dispositions (habitus) characteristic of the different classes and class fractions” (Distinction, p. 6). After all, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.”

Hickey’s got range, though, and he’s wise to Marx’s edict on labor as the primary source of value. (Serendipity helps, too.) In turn, he dares a second type of reader, one perhaps unable to distinguish between a Pollock and a Mondrian, to find the time for aesthetic pleasure:

“I just knew that Karen Carpenter was singing this sad song that made me happy … I also knew that if I really paid attention to the song, I could figure out why this was so. That’s the great thing about cultural artifacts. They are man-made things about which we can, if we wish, acquire some knowledge.” (p. 24)

And the ends are righteous. It’s not art for art’s sake. It’s art for democracy’s sake.

Given enough time, then (and is there ever enough time?), Hickey’s Eden is full of contentiously civil, anxious, sharp-talking dancers, finding delight in Rockwell’s debt to Jacques-Louis David, Terry Castle’s liberation of words from “proprietary vocabularies”, and John Ruskin’s notion that “‘the teaching of art … is the teaching of all things.'” On tables crowded with pint glasses and demitasses lie dog-eared copies of Zarah Ghahramani’s My Life As a Traitor, Hampton Hawes and Don Asher’s Raise Up Off Me, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, Castle’s The Professor, Michelangelo Antonioni and Carlo di Carlo’s The Architecture of Vision, and William Claxton’s Jazz. Copies of Perfect Wave are there, too, and retain their minor imperfections. I like to imagine Hickey’s angst yielding to laughter when a friend pointed out Hickey’s reference to the tragic expressionism of “Jackson Pollack” (p. 135).

In 1997, while living in the East Village, I did my share of fast dancing and sharp talking, and adopted my own variation of a Mitchum-inflected code. I figured if I dated only women who read Dave Hickey, I would be okay. That fall, at St. Mark’s Bookshop, my girlfriend at the time bought Hickey’s Air Guitar. Four years later, I married her.