Views on art and academia unsettling yet thought-provoking
It’s not like we didn’t have it coming. This year’s Shenkman Lecture with Dave Hickey was titled It Takes A Village To Make Bad Art and had been promoted all year as a certain spectacle under the preface of the stir Hickey created by announcing that he was retiring from the art world back in October.
It became apparent after some time that this lecture wasn’t for me, really. Not in that it didn’t seem entertaining to my cluster of undergrads in the back rows of War Memorial Hall, but Hickey wasn’t speaking to us. Maybe he was talking to himself. I heard someone afterwards liken Hickey to your crazy, slightly racist and misogynistic uncle who says things that make you slouch a little in your seat, but he’s getting older and there’s no point in talking to him about it because you only see him once at Christmas anyways.
While we’re on the topic of audience, many felt that Hickey was speaking from his American background without taking into account the differences between Canada and the U.S. And why should he? Maybe Canadians are outside of his target audience, too. Amusingly, Hickey made reference to universities that are located in the middle of nowhere, populated by farmers, and stated, “If you see a cow, don’t sign up!” If he had realized the irony of making this statement to us just a block away from a building called the Dairy Barn, I think he might have played it up even more. As he said in question period, “If I seem insulting, it’s because I meant to be.”
Hickey’s main problems lie with the hierarchy and bureaucracy of academia. He says that MFA programs exist to train their candidates for teaching jobs in the university, where they will rarely continue their art practice and can’t think or act for themselves under the oppressive university establishment.
Of university faculties, Hickey exclaims, “I deal with these people, they’re idiots! Uh... present company excepted” (to widespread chuckles).
In contrast, very few decide to try to “make it to the pros” and become a successful full-time artist. The reason that anyone makes art, according to Hickey, is to receive the small dose of attention that comes with showing work to someone. But while working as a professor, Hickey says “the university gives you just enough attention so you don’t work.”
This may be true, although it is true for anyone who gets any job to support themselves when art itself won’t do. I have been advised on multiple occasions to treat art like it is my full-time job, and only get a part-time job to make ends meet, never enough to buy a flat-screen TV and get comfortable. I also don’t know where Hickey plans on acquiring professors to teach if they’re all off playing in the pros, unless he is proposing that we do away with the university art education entirely. But it’s not like art schools are a new invention.
Hickey has ideas of what professors should be doing that I can get on board with. At some point he lists two rules: One, no group critiques. Hickey asserts that these settings only privilege the losers, not the winners. A person doing well gets a thumbs up but those that struggle are talked about at length, meanwhile everyone else is trying to demonstrate how much they can suck up to the professor. Rule Two is “if you’re not sick, don’t call the doctor.” If you’re confident in what you are doing, you don’t need someone to come by and pat you on the head, or conversely talk you down from your convictions. Teachers, like doctors, should aim to do no harm.
Hickey sees himself not as a teacher but as a coach: “I can’t tell them how to make art. I tell them to make more art. I tell them to get up early and stay up late. I tell them not to quit. I tell them if somebody else is already making their work. My job is to be current with the discourse and not be an asshole. That’s all I wanted in a professor,” he said in a 2007 interview with The Believer.
Like any musician, Hickey played his hits. The lecture was charismatic – and abrasive. In the wake of its storm I have come across a number of concerned responses in regards to Hickey’s ideas and language surrounding them. But being challenged at the points of our strongest convictions can only serve to either reconstruct them or reinforce them. It’s worth it to be made uncomfortable occasionally if only to be reminded of why and how we operate and act the way that we do.
Plus I’ve never before heard so many people eager to discuss an art lecture so long after it’s finished.
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