Comment Here! Did You Read/Love/Hate/Feel Indifferent Toward Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey? [Art Book Club]


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One of my all-time favorite books is Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell. It's about the three Presidential assassinations that preceded Kennedy's, but get this — it's hilarious. The fact that Vowell can make a subject as dark as assassination not just humorous in a New Yorker cartoon kind of way, but in a real-life laugh-out-loud spit-all-your-coffee-out way has everything to do with her personal spin on the characters, the strangeness of history, and the habit we have of commemorating it all with weird statues and little plaques on old buildings. Sure, plain old history is fine enough, but what Vowell writes about is the idea of history — the thing about the thing — and that's why I love it.

I've long looked for an art writer who could do with art what Sarah Vowell does with history — crafting stories that are personal and informative, but above all INTERESTING. In fact, I've been searching for so long that it's a little embarrassing that I've only just discovered Dave Hickey, who is basically the apex of the type of writing that I can't get enough of. He's well-informed, but he doesn't tell dry versions of past events. He considers ideas in new and totally relevant ways, then questions them, reconsiders them, and spins them out again with a personal anecdote that will make you why you'd never thought of it before. And his writing is powerful — well-structured sentences and really tight rhythmic wording that never seems to try too hard to be beautiful.

Emily Clayton was my first choice for Country Life's artist of the month, and when I sent out an email to a wide assortment of Nashville artists asking for book recommendations, her response — Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey — became my first choice for this Art Book Club. I loved the book, made lots of notes, reread a chapter or two, created a Pinterest board with images that corresponded to whatever chapter I was reading at the time, and basically just nerded out all over the place.

I asked a few friends and Country Life readers to read along with me and create a collaborative post, but sometimes wires get crossed, and more than one person has told me that they thought we were going to have an honest-to-God meeting IRL. So I'm opening this post up for comments — but also an announcement: We've decided to take this club out and in public: We're meeting up next Friday afternoon at Casablanca Coffee in the Gulch to mull this cultural tome over. Want to come? Please do! Hate leaving your computer for that long? That's fine too — we'll be commenting here the whole time.

In the meantime ...

So, Air Guitar. Did you hate it? Do you think Hickey's overrated? Did it make you re-access your ideas about Vegas, kitsch, etc.? Has reading it influenced your creative practice?

Here's what Hickey himself calls it in the book's introduction:

“It's hardly High Noon, I know, but these essays do represent an honest effort to communicate the idiosyncrasy of my own quotidian cultural experience in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century — to recount some of that experience and, whenever possible, account for it.”

“This is just the ordinary stuff — the ongoing texture of the drift, where, it has always seemed to me, things MUST be okay, or the rest will certainly kill you.”

Here's what Veronica Kavass had to say about it:

I was first introduced to Air Guitar when I worked at a bookstore in San Francisco in 2006. In that atmosphere, everyone thought he was swell. But when I arrived in London the following year to go to graduate school, all the academics bashed him. Probably for the same reason he bashes art academics. It is clear he needs to tie his interest/investment in art to his own identity. That is what his readers like about him. That is what his critics do not like about him.

My favorite things about Air Guitar:
• The characters in it, whether they are Andy Warhol or some pothead musician his dad played music with.
• I like his description of Las Vegas as his home.
• The tablecloth analogy of psychedelic drugs on page 95.
• His piece about Flaubert — I LOVE that.

Personal story: A couple years ago I was at the New Museum gala, sitting next to the woman who had organized it. She kept trying to convince me to steal the butter plates (which had Warhol faces and quotes on them). Eventually I did. She was a fun Texas woman. After a few drinks she started telling me more personal tales, especially about a certain ex-boyfriend. After a while, I said, "This ex sounds kind of amazing."
And then she said. "You might know him." PAUSE. "He's Dave Hickey."
To which I said, "Damn, that must've been fun."

Brent Stewart's quick additions:

• Did you know we might not have a George Clinton and P-funk if it weren't for Hickey?

• He's like my late Uncle Bill — the cool uncle with a 1979 Trans Am like the one in Smokey and the Bandit who would still drive it in 1992. It's a great Lester Bangs kind of read for keeping cultural critique smooth.

Need more background on Art Book Club? Read here, here and here.


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