David Hickey in Madison

On Thursday, we caught another offering from UW’s Center for the Humanities. David Hickey, freelance writer, cultural critic and professor of modern letters at UNLV, riffed colorfully for 90 minutes or so on politics and the art world. The talk was titled “Neocon/ceptualism: What the New Right Owes the New Left.” It was very entertaining, at times enjoyably so. Grains of salt were taken all around. Among Hickey’s statements: Get the government (and, for example, its NEA) out of the world of art and culture. Minority artists seeking grants must, to gain the interest of committee members, be making art that is actually about their minority status. An unfortunate amount of power is now with art collectors, who are the ones who shouldn’t have it. Being fair has become more important than making critical judgments and staking out opinions. Curators now select shows, from year to year to year, so that they may never be fired for ignoring a certain group; newspaper and magazine editors cover the art world for the same reason. And the more the cultural world is driven by fairness and inclusiveness, the stupider everyone gets.

This last bit reminded me of Francine Prose’s polemic “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American High School Students Learn to Loathe Literature” from the September 1999 Harper’s. Part of Prose’s attack was aimed at those educators building curricula with more emphasis on fairness and less on quality. She writes: “The question is no longer what the writer has written but rather who the writer is – specifically, what ethnic group or gender identity an author represents … Meanwhile, aesthetic beauty – felicitous or accurate language, images, rhythm, wit, the satisfaction of recognizing something in fiction that seems fresh and true – is simply too frivolous, suspect, and elitist even to mention.”