In 1993, the late art critic Dave Hickey published: Invisible DragonA collection of four essays that re-emphasize the centrality of beauty as a category for appreciating and thinking about art. Those unfamiliar with the contemporary art world may be surprised that an art critic’s defense of beauty was controversial, but it was. This was because, under the influence of academic critical theory in the early 1990s, beauty began to be viewed with suspicion as a malevolent construct reflecting the prejudices of white men. Beauty no longer had to be appreciated; it had to be deconstructed because of its role in perpetuating systems of oppression.
Hickey took aim at the institutional framework of art that emerged around social justice and identity politics; this ethos was on full display, for example, at the Whitney Biennial the same year that Hickey’s book was published. New York Times As “a biennial with a social conscience”. Today’s art world is even more preoccupied with the same ideological concerns that began to gain priority in the early 90s. This is therefore an opportune moment for Art Issues Press to publish its new, expanded edition. Invisible DragonIt brings Hickey’s classic text back into print along with several previously unpublished essays.
According to Hickey, beauty is that which “arouses visual pleasure in the viewer” and is thus the primary reason for engaging with art in the first place. Therefore, any theory of art that does not base itself on beauty is “doomed to insignificance.” Hickey believed that beauty was eternal, but he was not a strict traditionalist. On the contrary, his passion for beauty forces him to turn to both high and low art, and he rarely prefers one over the other. He worked primarily as a critic of country music in the 1970s, coining the term “outlaw country” for this now well-known subgenre. Her admiring profile of Dolly Parton serves as the first chapter of her new edition. Invisible Dragon. Hickey believed that art institutions operate through the logic of Foucault’s panopticon: they bypass our spontaneous interaction with art and shape our responses to it by telling us what we are looking at and what meaning we should make of it. In his view, this is far more damaging than the oft-lamented effects of an art market that is relatively indifferent to meaning and liberates the perception of art. Institutions, by contrast, distrust appearances because they inherently threaten the possibility of understanding art without their guidance. “We are so obedient children of the panopticon,” writes Hickey, “that we have transformed the complex choice between the brutal justice of the king and the bureaucratic discipline of Bentham into a progressive utopian option: the ‘corrupt old market’ versus the ‘brave new institution’.”