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October 13, 2002

Art, Beauty & Fashion


Thanks for sending me a copy of Dave Hickey’s 1992 book, “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty.” I wasn’t aware of Hickey before this, but his discussions on the problematic nature of beauty in contemporary art, as well as beauty's slippery relations with politics are quite brilliant.

Dave Hickey

There’s hardly a single paragraph in the entire 64-page book that doesn’t convey a rather pithy insight, but given the attention I’ve been paying to the economic infrastructure of art production, I thought I'd share the following with you:

I think we must acknowledge Picasson’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—a painting that we must regard either as a magnificent “formal breakthrough” (whatever that is) or, more realistically, as a manifestation of Picasso’s dazzling insight into the shifting values of his target market. I mean this seriously. Consider this scenario: Pablo comes to Paris, for all intents and purposes, a bumpkin, complete with a provincial and profoundly nineteenth-century concept of the cultural elite and its proclivities—still imagining that the rich and silly prefer to celebrate their privilege and indolence by “asetheticizing” their immediate environment into this fine-tuned, fibrillating, pastel atmosphere. He proceeds to paint his Blue and Rose period pictures under this misapprehension (pastel clowns, indeed!)—then Leo and Gertrude introduce him to a faster crowd. He meets some rich and careless Americans and, gradually, being no dummy, perceives, among the cultural elite with whom he is hanging out and perilously hanging on, a phase-shift in their parameters of self-definition. These folks are no longer building gazebos and situating symboliste Madonnas in fern-choked grottos. They are running with the bulls—something Pablo can understand—and measuring their power and security by their ability to tolerate high-velocity temporal change, high levels of symbolic distortion, and maximum psychic discontinuity. They are Americans, in other words, post-Jamesian Americans, in search of no symbolic repose, unbeguiled by haystacks, glowing peasants, or Ladies of Shallot. So Pablo Picasso—neither the first nor the last artist whom rapacious careerism will endow with acute cultural sensitivity—goes for the gold…[and] encapsulates an age…

Picasso's Demoiselles: Fast Girls for a Fast Crowd?

I will admit, I always wondered about Picasso's abruptness in "pulling down the curtain" on his Blue and Rose periods and making such an abrupt jump-shift into Cubism. (The rest of his career shows no such complete abandonment of former artistic concerns as he moves from one era to another.) The 'received' story of modern art has a whole series of intellectual gaps like this, and, in my opinion, needs to be complete demystified. What we all grew up reading about post-1850s art is largely a fairytale, and hooray for guys like Hickey for trying to chop his way through the underbrush of this Enchanted Forest.

You can buy a copy of “The Invisible Dragon” here. For a review of another of Hickey’s books, “Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy" go here. For a March 2000 conversation with Dave Hickey and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe on the state of contemporary painting, you can go here.



posted by Friedrich at October 13, 2002


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