Originally released in 1993, Dave Hickey’s “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” posed a radical idea to the art world: lose a bit of the self-congratulatory political posturing, pretty please, and get back to the business of sensuous beauty. Hickey did this, in part, by using his razor-sharp prose to extol the virtues of images that are not for the faint of heart. (See the notorious Mapplethorpe photograph of a man and a fist — and use your imagination.) The art world responded as it typically does when it’s told to drop the attitude. It reveled in being offended —while simultaneously making the slim tome (the original’s only 64 pages) the de facto cocktail talk of gallery openings and dinner parties.
Despite protest from puritan critics, the book quickly — and ironically — became an out-of-print, black market beauty in its own right. Almost 15 years later, Hickey has re-released “The Invisible Dragon” (The University of Chicago Press) in a revised and expanded format, including a new essay titled “American Beauty.” Below, Hickey sounds off on his love of boredom, the Octo-Mom, and being the thorn in the art world’s side once again.
Out-of-print, “The Invisible Dragon” was selling for upwards of $500. By reissuing it, are you denying its existence as an obscure object of desire?
To be honest, the book is not worth $500, and the people who like it don’t have $500, and it was all beginning to feel a bit prissy. I did not become a writer not to publish, and I liked the last essay, “American Beauty.” So, I decided to get over myself. Last time, I was blamed for messing up the “non-commercial art” scam. This time, no doubt, I will be blamed for the market excess that I deplore.
In your essay “Nothing Like the Son,” you describe Mapplethorpe as cultivating a type of tawdry beauty. Is our culture ripe again for the refined beauties to go away and for the Mapplethorpe-esque gutter flowers to emerge again?
Tawdry beauty is not beautiful. It is always an undeniable and subversive candidate for the job. Two old favorites, “Flaming Creatures” and “Scorpio Rising” are, indeed, back on the scene. My friend Jeff Burton, the photographer (not the stock car driver), does pretty good tawdry beauty.
Do you like Andy Warhol’s theory of beautiful monotony?
I am, I admit, a devotee of boring. I like Barry Lyndon, Anthony Trollope, Barnett Newman and The Weather Channel. I do not like bores, however, so there goes Chelsea. This distinction between boring and bores comes courtesy of Auden. It is a good one.
You’re writing a book called “Pagan America.” Does this mean you’re suggesting an idea of pagan beauty?
I posit that the United States is a pagan republic — insofar as we endow objects and people with power by social consensus, from Prada and Obama to the work of Richard Tuttle. We pagans sacrifice to gain the power of their incarnate representation. The history of beauty is the history of our residual and never vanquished paganism.
So do we care about ideas of “inner beauty” anymore?
I don’t have an inner life beyond a few wispy fantasies about Catherine Deneuve.
According to Adorno’s theories of beauty, natural beauty was eclipsed by “art beauty.”
Artificial beauty signifies a social agenda. It seeks to change the world — to take it by surprise. Trees don’t disappear if we don’t find them beautiful. Art does, or did, until very recently.
In many ways, the cruelty of beauty has eclipsed all humanity. Plastic surgery, for example.
Plastic surgery is really about the triumph of interiority. It is driven by the engine of bourgeois social change: Match the external facts with internal aspiration. I look like a frog but inside I’m a prince, so maybe a tuck and just a little lift. It’s easier to get it together and sell the whole frog-prince thing. It worked for Henry Kissinger.
Who is more beautiful: Damien Hirst or the Octo-mom?
I can think of eight human creatures who are predisposed to love Octo-Mom. Hirst, I don’t know.
Are you OK with being “the beauty guy” again, for a little while? Seems like there are worse things to be.
Why not? For a while, I was simultaneously the ‘Mapplethorpe guy” and the “Norman Rockwell guy.” I asked myself. “Who would still be a famous artist if the art world disappeared?” I came up with Robert and Rockwell. Whatever is a little off kilter, I’m your guy.
From the This Moment online posting by Aimee Walleston on March 23, 2009.