|The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey, University of Chicago Press, 2009|
In The Invisible Dragon, Hickey delves into, among other things, the question of what beauty is in contemporary art. He starts by explaining how he once got an obtuse question pertaining to “What the Issue of the Nineties will be” and in an “improvisatory goof” said that it will be beauty. As he went on to explain this concept he realized the lack of interest in the room. From that night on he became interested in the vacancy of this thought in many contemporary artists and art theorists. He then spent the next year “canvassing” artist, students, critics and curators to try and get some feel on how the art community felt about the word “beauty.”
It seemed that the majority of people questioned about what beauty is in art today made statements about “The corruption of the market.” They saw the art scene, controlled by the art dealers, as shallow and being more interested in the work’s physical appearance and “how it looks” rather than caring about what it means. They felt that the meaning of the art should be more relevant and that the art professionals employed by our schools “really care about what it means.” Hickey counters this by saying that if art only does something after we have talked about it then it hasn’t done anything at all, we have. He then goes to say that the corruption of the market is equivalent to a “cancer patient with a hangnail” and that he can’t imagine anyone “abandoning an autocrat who monitors appearances for a bureaucrat who monitors desire.”
Kind of a mouthful if you ask me, but he shows a parallel to Michael Foucault and his book Surveiller et punir in which he looks into the difference between “bureaucratic surveillance and autocratic punishment.” He begins his writing with a look at old story of Damiens, a regicide, and his lengthy public torture and execution. He then juxtaposes this seemingly harsh punishment with the theory of “reformative incarceration” thought up by Jeremy Bentham in his “Panopticon.” Bentham believed that prisoners put into a circular confined space, knowing they were being watched and ridiculed from the outside would eventually, “internalize that surveillance as a conscience.” Foucault then goes on to argue that King’s justice is “ultimately most just” in that he does not care what we mean; he only demands the appearance of loyalty and faithfulness. If we fail to do so he will kill us with our convictions along side. But Bentham’s warden “demands our souls” and knows that if we cannot overcome our struggles and conform into “social normality” we will punish ourselves using his insistent surveillance as a form of self-destruction.
Confusing? Hell yes, but Hickey believes that these same thoughts can be represented in the art community but that “the weight of the culture is so heavily on Bentham’s side that we are unable to see them equally tainted.” We see the king’s cruel punishment as the “corrupt old market” and Bentham’s views as the “brave new institution.” If this is true then beauty has to be associated with the “corrupt old market” because the art dealers, like the King, value images that will produce an exciting or pleasurable viewing experience. The message is only secondary, if that even. On the other hand, our institution’s professors and curators hold the "public trust" and in doing so must really care about what the artist is trying to say and what they really mean. Therefor they must “distrust appearances-distrust the very idea of appearances, and distrust most of all the appearance of images that, by virtue of the pleasure they give, are efficacious in their own right.” If you look at art and don’t get anything out of it until the artist explains the meaning with an elongated, convoluted sense of entitlement then the art means nothing in a true world of beauty.
Teachers are forced to care about the inner workings and deeper meaning of their student’s art and therefor become somehow connected to that feeling rather than looking at the art and giving an honest, subjective critique of it. “If art sells itself, it is an idolatrous commodity; if it sells anything else, it is a seductive advertisement.” I feel that this view on art today is very intriguing but do not completely sign over to it. Artists should in fact focus more on the visual qualities of their work and really try to detach themselves from it to hopefully be able to put themselves into the hypothetical viewer’s eyes; but I still feel that artists can make beautifully composed pieces of art that still maintain a strong message.