Doyen of American critics turns his back on the 'nasty, stupid' world of modern art
Edward Helmore and Paul Gallagher
Dave Hickey condemns world he says has become calcified by too much money, celebrity and self-reverence
Dave Hickey says he is quitting the art world. Photograph: Nasher Museum Of Art
One of America's foremost art critics has launched a fierce attack on
the contemporary art world, saying anyone who has "read a Batman comic"
would qualify for a career in the industry.
Dave Hickey, a curator, professor and author known for a passionate defence of beauty in his collection of essays The Invisible Dragon
and his wide-ranging cultural criticism, is walking away from a world
he says is calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors
who have no respect for what they are doing.
"They're in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It's just not serious," he told the Observer.
"Art editors and critics – people like me – have become a courtier
class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich
people. It's not worth my time."
Hickey says the art world has
acquired the mentality of a tourist. "If I go to London, everyone wants
to talk about Damien Hirst. I'm just not interested in him. Never have
been. But I'm interested in Gary Hume and written about him quite a few
If it's a matter of buying long and selling short, then
the artists he would sell now include Jenny Holzer, Richard Prince and
Maurizio Cattelan. "It's time to start shorting some of this shit,"
Hickey's outburst comes as a number of contemporary art
curators at world famous museums and galleries have complained that
works by artists such as Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn are the result of "too much fame, too much success and too little critical sifting" and are "greatly overrated".
on condition of anonymity to Will Gompertz, the BBC's arts editor, one
curator described Emin's work as "empty", adding that because of the
huge sums of money involved "one always has to defend it".
Gompertz, who recently wrote What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art, sympathised with Hickey's frustration.
and celebrity has cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting
ideas and debate from coming to the fore," he said yesterday, adding
that the current system of collectors, galleries, museums and art
dealers colluding to maintain the value and status of artists quashed
open debate on art.
"I hope this is the start of something that
breaks the system. At the moment it feels like the Paris salon of the
19th century, where bureaucrats and conservatives combined to stifle the
field of work. It was the Impressionists who forced a new system, led
by the artists themselves. It created modern art and a whole new way of
looking at things.
"Lord knows we need that now more than
anything. We need artists to work outside the establishment and start
looking at the world in a different way – to start challenging
preconceptions instead of reinforcing them."
Gompertz said Hickey
was not a man who ever regretted a decision but that he did not agree
with the American that the whole contemporary art world was moribund.
"There are important artists like Ai Weiwei and Peter Doig, who produces
beautiful and haunting paintings in similar ways to Edward Hopper," he
As a former dealer, Hickey is not above considering art in
terms of relative valuation. But his objections stem from his belief
that the art world has become too large, too unfriendly and lacks
discretion. "Is that elitist? Yes. Winners win, losers lose. Shoot the
wounded, save yourself. Those are the rules," Hickey said.
comments come ahead of the autumn art auctions. With Europe in recession
and a slowdown in the Chinese and Latin American economies, vendors are
hoping American collectors, buoyed by a 2% growth in the US economy,
andnew collectors, such as those coming to the market from oil-rich
Azerbaijan, will boost sales.
At 71, Hickey has long been regarded
as the enfant terrible of art criticism, respected for his intellectual
range as well as his lucidity and style. He once said: "The art world
is divided into those people who look at Raphael as if it's graffiti,
and those who look at graffiti as if it's Raphael, and I prefer the
Hickey, who also rates British artist Bridget Riley, says
he did not realise when he came to the art world in the 1960s that
making art was a "bourgeois" activity.
"I used to sell hippy art
to collectors and these artists now live like the collectors I used to
sell to. They have a house, a place in the country and a BMW."
says he came into art because of sex, drugs and artists like Robert
Smithson, Richard Serra and Roy Lichtenstein who were "ferocious" about
their work. "I don't think you get that anymore. When I asked students
at Yale what they planned to do, they all say move to Brooklyn – not
make the greatest art ever."
He also believes art consultants have
reduced the need for collectors to form opinions. "It used to be that
if you stood in front of a painting you didn't understand, you'd have
some obligation to guess. Now you don't," he says. "If you stood in
front of a Bridget Riley you have to look at it and it would start to do
interesting things. Now you wouldn't look at it. You ask a consultant."
says his change of heart came when he was asked to sign a 10-page
contract before he could sit on a panel discussion at the Guggenheim
Museum in New York.
Laura Cumming, the Observer's art
critic, said it would be a real loss if Hickey stopped writing
commentary. "The palace Hickey's describing, with its lackeys and
viziers, its dealers and advisers, is more of an American phenomenon.
It's true that we too have wilfully bad art made for hedge fund
managers, but the British art scene is not yet so thick with subservient
museum directors and preening philanthropists that nothing is freely
done and we can't see the best contemporary art in our public museums
because it doesn't suit the dealers.And that will be true, I hope, until
we run out of integrity and public money."
may only be partial. He plans to complete a book, Pagan America — "a
long commentary of the pagan roots of America and snarky diatribe on
Christianity" — and a second book of essays titled "Pirates and
It is the job of a cultural commentator to make waves
but Hickey is adamant he wants out of the business. "What can I tell
you? It's nasty and it's stupid. I'm an intellectual and I don't care if
I'm not invited to the party. I quit."