Pity the critic, if you will, if you can, who must spend his days thinking long and hard on other people's real work. Unlike the artist's celebrated life of garrets and galas, there is nothing glamorous or romantic about his sublunary vocation: Hollywood has yet to produce a film in which a brilliant young reviewer struggles against crippling odds to write the perfect, perfectly considered, perfectly effective review. When the movies make a critic, it's an Addison De Witt, or a Waldo Lydecker – self-promoting, self-important, evil, effete. “Even ordinary citizens,” writes Dave Hickey, who makes his living writing about art, and teaching other people how to write about art, “when they discover you're a critic, respond as they would to a mortuary cosmetician – vaguely repelled by what you do yet infinitely curious as to how you came to be doing it.”

“Air guitar” – “flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music” – is Hickey's understandably embarrassed metaphor for the trade he ambivalently plies, and it's an idea he likes enough to have made it the title of Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, a wide-ranging collection of pieces largely reprinted from the magazine Art Issues. Criticism, contends Hickey, is “the weakest thing you can do in writing . . . It produces no knowledge, states no facts, and never stands alone . . . It's a loser's game, and everybody knows it.” A loser's game that Hickey nevertheless continues to play. This volume, which covers “the deep background of everything I have ever written,” is offered as a kind of explanation as to why Hickey continues to play that game.

Steeped in reminiscence and treating a range of phenomena from Perry Mason (“Just the fictional probability of being presumed innocent in those fat, nervous, distrustful times was a big deal”) to custom cars (“my first glimmerings of higher theory arose out of that culture”) to basketball (“civilized complexity incarnate”) to Liberace, lady wrestlers and the levitating white tigers of Siegfried and Roy, these essays together form an incidental portrait of the art critic as cool guy with a life. Though the prose now and again thickens into clinical artspeak (“Cezanne destroys the 300-year-old syntactical tense structure of painterly practice, suppressing the inference of the past, or remoteness from the factual present, that is intrinsic to the illusionistic image, insisting on the priority of the present object over the past image”), the tone overall is conversationally breezy and enthusiastic, not above a “Yikes!” or “Eek!” or a “stone fantastic.”

The book opens with twin epigrams, from Keith Richards (“Let me be clear about this: I don't have a drug problem, I have a police problem”) and Tristram Shandy: “I have undertaken, you see, to write not only my life, but my opinions also; hoping and expecting that your knowledge of my character, and of what kind of a mortal I am, by the one, would give you a better relish of the other.” Like many critics, Hickey originally set out to do something else (anything else); unlike many critics, he actually has – and he'd like you to know it. The scope of his allusions, and his actual practical knowledge of such diverse crafts as car customizing, songwriting, gambling, professional rhythm-guitar playing and running a small business, are what give the book its flavor and authority.

Weaned in “the cacophonous, postwar milieu that gave birth to bebop” – his father was a jazz musician, his upbringing “unruled and unruly” – Hickey grew up to spend important time in “record stores, honky-tonks, art bars, hot-rod shops, recording studios, commercial art galleries, city rooms, jazz clubs, cocktail lounges, surf shops, bookstores, rock & roll bars, editorial offices, discos and song factories,” any of which he clearly prefers to the faculty lounge or the museum. In the late '60s, he ditched “the hothouse babble of graduate school” to open a gallery and in the process came to see “the big, beautiful art market as an embodied discourse of democratic values” and art as “a betting sport,” animated by risk, trust and community support – “the raw investment of attention.” His book-jacket photo, which dates from those days, shows him sporty, in rather a Belmondo mode, the dealer as free man.

In his opinions Hickey is passionate (he indulges liberally in italics) but not obstreperous; indeed, these pages are overall wonderfully cheerful, and he's the first to say “What do I know?” At the same time, even while shying from the critic's “implicit aspiration to timeless authority,” he is given to broad, bold, cheeky overstatement: He declares that “art doesn't matter”; that, apart from jazz and rock & roll, the 20th century is just “term papers and advertising”; that “all the volumes of Proust were nothing, quantitatively, compared to the 20-minute experience of eating breakfast on a spring morning at a Denny's in Mobile” – provocative strokes that function as a writerly equivalent of turning the amp up to 10 to get the kids up and dancing.

Because “participation,” to Hickey, is all; it's what's separates the players from “the looky-loos,” the guitarists from the air guitarists. He envisions art ideally as “a mode of social discourse, a participatory republic, an accumulation of small, fragile, social occasions that provide the binding agent of fugitive communities,” yet the present state of the arts, particularly the tenured, academic art world in which he has for a decade labored (he sold out for the health insurance, he swears), he finds hopelessly sclerotic: “In place of the tumultuous forum, we have the incestuous cloister, and in place of customized art, we have an academic art, which, like the commercial, courtly, religious and official art of yesteryear, is content to advertise its pre-approved corporate values and agendas.” And so, he writes,

I would like some bad-acting and wrong-thinking. I would like to see some art that is courageously silly and frivolous, that cannot be construed as anything else. I would like a bunch of 23-year-old troublemakers to become so enthusiastic, so noisy, and so involved in some stupid, seductive, destructive brand of visual culture that I would feel called upon to rise up in righteous indignation, spewing vitriol, to bemoan the arrogance and self-indulgence of the younger generation and all of its artifacts. Then I would be really working, really doing my thing, and it would be so great!

It may well be, as Hickey says, “a loser's game,” but at its best, criticism shares if not the shape of art, some of its functions and effects: It focuses through its subject to study the workings of the wider world; it abuts philosophy, assails received ideas, questions the common wisdom, and is less concerned with having the final say than with keeping alive the conversation. It seems to me that Air Guitar succeeds in all these respects – though, of course, it may just be that I agree with the author more often than not. At any rate, it's a jolly read, full of interesting twists and turns and unexpected connections. Left to my own, I'm sure I would never have noticed that the lowrider aesthetic expresses “the Catholic language of material light, of chrome and polychrome,” nor heard in the music of Chet Baker “the cool economy and intellectual athletics of long-board surfing,” nor concluded that “In institutional cultures there is neither failure nor success, only the largess or spite of one's superiors” nor that “all songs are sad songs, borne as they are on the insubstantial substance of our fleeting breath.” This is good, useful stuff.

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