MUSEUM MUSINGS: Dave Hickey, renegade art critic and cultural writer, believes art museums have been downright pernicious for artists in the last 20 years.
But it's not what you think. Artists love to complain about museums neglecting the local scene and wallowing in conservatism. But Hickey's criticisms go in a typically contrary direction. He contends art museums today are abandoning their historical mandate and becoming slaves to fashion.
Museums, he told an audience at the Center for Creative Photography Monday night, "should be a repository of that which is not here, not now, not fashionable and not visible. Museums in this culture have abandoned this responsibility in pursuit of fashion and attendance. They've become a vast interlocking network of boutiques in search of what's happening now."
Hickey's talk, "Remaking Art History," was an interesting counterpart to the Center's current show, Art Museum. The exhibition shows work by six contemporary photographers who take aim at the conventions of the art museum, skewering everything from museums' reliance on unpaid female workers, or docents, to the ways they aggrandize art by putting it, literally, on a pedestal.
Hickey's been around this scene a long time. Nowadays he's a professor of art criticism at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but he's had an unconventional career. He grew up in Fort Worth, where he delighted in Velasquezes in the Kimble Art Museum, and later was an art dealer with his own gallery in Austin. He was the arts editor for the Fort Worth Star Telegram for a year, and he played rhythm guitar in the Marshall Chapman Band in the 1970s. By his own estimate he's written and published some 20,000 words a year since 1967, in books, in popular and scholarly magazines, and in art journals and exhibition catalogs.
What he's seen convinces him that museums, in conjunction with the grants juggernaut, are clamping down on creativity. The growing power of museums, he argues, undermines commercial galleries and puts the seal of approval on a single style of art.
"For better or for worse, style changes in western art have been driven by mercantile considerations," he argues. "Since 1972, the style hasn't changed. What we see almost exclusively is the language of post-minimalist painting."
The art museum is a relatively recent invention in human culture, Hickey pointed out. Before the late 18th century, the precursors of museums were great treasure chests, places to store trophies brought back from conquests. Or they were personal collections assembled by the wealthy and powerful, collected first and foremost to call attention to the collector's wealth and power.
"Not until the 18th century did paintings begin to be respected in a historical context," he said. "In the 19th century, we got the idea of restoring things to their original state, to show how much we've evolved. The idea was to show the past in all its specificity and defects. The Louvre was Napoleon's great invention. He stole everything he could and put it in chronological order, ending with guess who?"
The ending, of course, was David's heroic portrait of Napoleon on horseback set against a dramatic sky: the apotheosis of human history. But if the ascent of the museum had everything to do with nationalism and the growing power of the state, Hickey believes its original focus on history is still valuable. He cites the recent rise and fall of the superstar painter David Salle as an example of the failure of contemporary museums.
"David Salle was an incredibly famous painter who sold incredibly famous works of art in the 1980s," Hickey said. "When David began his practice, it was obvious that his art was grounded in the practices of the past. We were impressed by the synthetic gesture that David had made toward art that was made before. He was grounded in the practice of (artists) Rosenquist, of Polke and Picabia. These were resonant sources."
Such museums as the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art should have pulled works by these painters out of storage, Hickey said. They should have mounted exhibitions that demonstrated the links among these artists and that gloried in Salle's historical contexts.
"But noooo, as Steve Martin would say, what the museums wanted to show was David Salles. They wanted nothing to detract from the idea that this was most the original work ever to spring from an artist."
The exaggerated exaltation of Salle set him up for a disastrous fall. When the museums failed to situate the young painter in an artistic chronology, they paved the way for the later fury that swallowed him up. Salle was denounced as derivative and shallow.
The museums' failure, Hickey said, "contributed to the destruction of a promising career. When the Rosenquists were finally shown, David had degenerated into a pastiche of Ronsenquist. He has been degraded to a level an artist had not been degraded in 30 years."
Instead of participating in the hype of the commercial scene, the clamor of the marketplace, the museums should follow their own mission, Hickey said.
"The museum is the one place you can go to see what is not hip, not cool."
Art Museum continues through March 26, at the UA Center for Creative Photography. Other events include: "The Museum Photograph: Renegotiating Art and the Institution," a 5:30 p.m. lecture on March 21; and a free "Family Day" from 1 to 4 p.m., Sunday, March 12. Call 621-7968 for details.
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