The respected essayist and art critic Dave Hickey is leaving Las Vegas. He’s moving to Albuquerque, where his wife, the art curator Libby Lumpkin, has taken a teaching job at the University of New Mexico. Hickey will teach there too, according to news reports. Hickey’s exit from Las Vegas, a city he often professed to love and considered “home,” occasioned the following observations by Scott Dickensheets and Geoff Schumacher.
By Scott Dickensheets
Dave Hickey’s departure from Las Vegas is like a tremor in the force: a distant tug on your awareness, maybe accompanied by the screams of a dying planet, but here, where you are now, its effect can be hard to pinpoint. I mean, it was cool to share a town with the author of Air Guitar: Essays on Arts & Democracy — which is permanently locked into my Top 10, no matter how many terrific books I ever read — but in the ruts and grooves most of us move in, what’ll really be different with him off to New Mexico?
I didn’t refer to the force by accident; there was a certain Obi-Wan-on-Tatooine quality to Hickey’s decade here. If he wasn’t exactly living in quiet self-exile in a desert cave and shooing away the Jawas, it was nonetheless clear that his mystical powers belonged to a larger universe — his real business was out there, among the stars. Over the years, I’d hear sotto voce complaints that Hickey never wrote about us, never turned his high beams toward the attention-hungry local scene — which was true, he didn’t, and also ridiculous, because why would he?
This was the hard pill for some Las Vegans to swallow: The art that interests Hickey is bigger, more ambitious, more international than most of what happens here, which tends to stay here, which is part of its problem. The local arts scene, as is surely the case in most cities, is a self-reinforcing network of career minor-leaguers, sincere hard workers who support each other and the scene, but who probably won’t transcend it to reach the high strata Hickey circulates in. He disdained most of the work you’d see in the arts district — I’m sure he’d say that one Ed Ruscha is worth any number of Downtown amateurs. So it was never realistic to think that Dave Hickey was going to trot dutifully to the Reed Whipple Center or Arts Factory each week to write up the scene for 23 cents a word in CityLife or the Weekly, or even one of the dailies. For a contributor to Vanity Fair, Artforum, Harper’s and Art in America, that amounts to pro bono work, and it’s not really the cosmopolitan audience he wants to reach, anyway.
And so Hickey’s impact here was more diffuse. While in UNLV’s art department, he nurtured some excellent artists, a couple of whom haven’t moved away (yet). I hope his just-ended stint in the English department results in a few more thoughtful writers in our midst. He curated a couple of great exhibits, enlivened some panel discussions, offered a lot of grabby quotes to journalists, groused about university politics and generally held court. A lot of his thing involved simply being Dave Hickey, glamorous art-world maverick, in tacky old Las Vegas. Indeed, I’m sure the people who’ll miss him most acutely — the people most loudly lamenting his departure as a deep bruise on our cultural life — are the Roger Thomases and other sophisticates who actually talked to him regularly (and as equals), rather than the rest of us, who had to wait until he published. Our engagement with Hickey won’t change.
(And by “rest of us,” of course, I mean the rest of the maybe 5 percent of Las Vegans who knew or cared who Dave Hickey is, or seriously appreciate art. The other 95 don’t give a damn.)
But that’s all cool, really. No one should bother with other people’s expectations if they don’t need to; I sure as hell wouldn’t if I didn’t have to.
Still, I like to entertain the occasional what if. What if Hickey had decided to write locally? Not art reviews, but pieces about Vegas in the vein of Air Guitar — mixes of wide-ranging critique, reportage, memoir, wit, informed speculation, cultural advocacy and inspired dot-connecting. Maybe two or three a year for local publication. Would a couple dozen such pieces over a decade have helped nudge forward the cosmopolitan spirit Hickey so badly wanted to find here? Pulled together a crowd of like minds who wanted to talk about smart things and kick up some unfashionable fun? Who knows? I’m probably as naive as the gallery owners who complained that he never touted their shows. But the man himself once noted that in a democracy you have to wrangle for your pleasures, so I kinda wish he’d have tried. Tatooine can be so drab sometimes.
By Geoff Schumacher
My complaint is not so much that Dave Hickey didn’t write for the local papers while he was here, though I agree that could have been interesting.
(I once pitched him on the idea of reviewing a Chet Baker bio that had been sent to me at the Las Vegas Mercury. He told me to go ahead and send him the book, he’d take a look at it and let me know if he was interested in writing something. I sent him the book but didn’t hear from him for a long time. I finally contacted him again. He hardly remembered the proposal, ultimately recalling that he thought it was a lightweight bio and [my words] unworthy of his comment. He probably was right about the book but still.)
No, my complaint is that since the publication of Air Guitar in 1997, Hickey hasn’t publish much at all of even a vaguely general interest. By all accounts, including my personal experience, he had and still has a lot to say; he’s said it with great witty eloquence before television cameras and radio microphones. But for whatever reasons, he hasn’t managed to get much of it into print. Some observers thought the 2001 MacArthur genius grant would give him the time and comfort to get something big done but apparently not. Besides the fact that a much-anticipated sequel to Air Guitar has been delayed for several years now, some of his work for the big magazines has been, shall we say, paltry.
The first piece that comes to mind was published in Harper’s in November 2006. In “It’s Morning in America,” Hickey followed gubernatorial candidate Dina Titus around rural Nevada to, I guess, check the political pulse of the hinterlands. While Hickey conjured a couple of nice lines for the piece, I was left wanting something more substantial than glib descriptions of Pahrump and its libertarian bent. Why, after all, did he take on this assignment while rejecting or neglecting the opportunity to tackle more interesting or important matters for such a wide, sophisticated audience? Surely Hickey could write about just about any subject for any of the big magazines, yet he either doesn’t do anything at all or he picks things decidedly off the subject.
And here’s a related question: If not writing about Las Vegas for local pubs, why not write meaningfully about Las Vegas for the big guys? That could have had a significant impact on public perceptions of Las Vegas, pro and con.
Ah, but who am I to tell somebody like Dave Hickey what to do, how to lead his life? He gets to decide that, of course, not me. If he doesn’t want to write about these things, that’s his business. But the end result of all his iconoclastic puttering is that his value and influence while he was in Las Vegas was muted. Ultimately, instead of having a lasting impact, he’s a blip, a footnote, of importance to just a handful of artists and students.
Unless, of course, Hickey still has something up his sleeve. Maybe he plans to type up something really compelling about Las Vegas and needs to leave town in order to have the proper perspective to do it the way he wants. That’d be cool. But it’s wishful thinking at best.