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The Boston Phoenix Dave Hickey

"Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy."

By Fred Turner

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  AIR GUITAR: ESSAYS ON ART & DEMOCRACY, by Dave Hickey. Art Issues Press, 216 pages, $17.95.

Dave Hickey is not the kind of writer you expect to find in America. Art critic, memoirist, social theorist -- and usually all three at once -- he resembles the polymath Cold War freelancers of Eastern Europe far more than he does the highly specialized journalists and academics of his own country. Like Ivan Klíma, say, or the young Václav Havel, Hickey has let himself slip on and off the high-culture radar screens, working variously as gallery owner, rock musician, freelance reporter, and executive editor of Art in America. His writing, too, has escaped the political and literary orthodoxies of its day: like his Czech counterparts, Hickey has developed a rich alternative theory of democracy and a deliciously democratic style of prose.

For that reason, Air Guitar is almost impossible to categorize -- at least in American terms. Since it consists principally of essays previously published in the bimonthly Art in America, you might expect the book to be an inconsistent read, a bumpy ride from one piece to the next. Yet, in his preface, Hickey claims that the essays collectively represent a sort of memoir, "an honest effort to communicate the idiosyncrasy of my own quotidian cultural experience," and as such, they do hang together. Blending the political and the personal to a degree not seen in this country since the heyday of New Journalism, Hickey's essays comprise both an intellectual autobiography and a critique of American civic life. Together, they argue for a new notion of democracy, one that expands the arena of citizenship beyond the polling booth to include the painter's studio, the after-hours dance club, and the living room.

For Hickey, as for writers like Havel and Klíma, "the language of pleasure and the language of justice are inextricably intertwined." Thus, when he takes on the issue of multiculturalism in his essay "Shining Hours/Forgiving Rhyme," Hickey begins not with a discussion of individual rights and collective wrongs, but with a memory of pleasure. For several thousand words -- an eternity by American journalistic standards -- he summons up a 1940s childhood afternoon in which he watched his white jazzman father jam with two black beboppers and a refugee German pianist in suburban Texas. Bluntly reminding us not to read this scene as "an allegory of ethnic federalism," he then turns to the paintings of Norman Rockwell. In them, as in the jam session, Hickey identifies a quintessentially democratic leveling. If American high art -- and, by implication, the high academic theory of identity politics -- promote hierarchy and exclusiveness, then in Hickey's view, jazz and the paintings of Rockwell reveal the possibility of inclusion and equality. Moreover, as Hickey's afternoon with his father suggests, that possibility is not merely an ideal -- it can actually be lived.

To be lived in Hickey's terms, however, democratic ideals must be stolen back from governments and universities, from theorists and corporate honchos alike. They must cease to be exclusively a matter for abstract debate and become an occasion for concrete participation. Ever the horn player's son, Hickey makes this point by anecdote: in "Romancing the Looky-Loos" he recalls a night he spent on the Bowery, hanging out with Lester Bangs and David Johansen, listening to the Tuff Darts. At the end of a song, Johansen looks at the back of the club and spots a small pack of yuppies, come to catch the scene. They were "spectators," remarked Johansen, and thus signaled "the beginning of the end" of the underground scene. For Hickey, democracy at its best is a lot like underground rock and roll: friends play for friends, everybody pitches in, and nobody just watches.

Yet as much fun as a night with Lester Bangs and David Johansen might be, it is a too-seductive and too-simple emblem for democracy. Here as occasionally elsewhere, Hickey's leveling impulse gets the better of him. When he hops up on his soapbox and proclaims that "in the twentieth century that's all there is, jazz and rock 'n roll. The rest is term papers and advertising," or that "bad taste is real taste . . . and good taste is the residue of someone else's privilege," he inadvertently apes the simplistic thumbs-up/thumbs-down sensibility of newspaper columnists nationwide.

Fortunately, such lapses happen rarely. Hickey may be a soft-shoed social theorist, and occasionally he may let himself dance away from questions of how his metaphors might be translated into concrete political action. But insofar as he has refused to separate his politics, his prose, and his pleasure -- that is, insofar as he has refused to take on the role of "responsible commentator" in a "democratic" society and with it, the distanced voice of the uninvolved spectator -- Hickey has opened up a tantalizing democratic vista. It is a vista in which both pleasure and justice share an equal place in language, and one that writers like Klíma and Havel would be proud to call their own.

Fred Turner is the author of Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory (Anchor Books).

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