Writer/editor, educator and art historian Julia Friedman compiles the highs, lows and everything else, of a well-followed art critic’s social media.
The art world is fickle and hypersensitive; it doesn’t take kindly to criticism, especially when it’s the honest kind. So it’s no wonder that professor, essayist and art critic Dave Hickey has been both loathed and lauded by contemporary artists, collectors, dealers and art fair organizers.
For decades, Hickey disseminated his writings the traditional way—in books and magazines (ArtNews, Artforum, Interview, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, to name a few). He was also executive editor at Art in America. But a few years ago, in the summer of 2014, while bedridden and recovering from an illness, he decided to try a new medium and tapped into Facebook, which became his temporary window to the world.
While following his banter Friedman (who taught modern and contemporary art history at ASU from 2011 until 2014) got an idea. She says she approached Hickey with the idea of doing a project based on his Facebook posts. When she got his blessing, she began collecting his posts. This led to the publication of two books Dust Bunnies: Dave Hickey’s Online Aphorisms and Wasted Words: The Essential Dave Hickey Online Compilation. “I wasn’t even friends with him on Facebook [at first]. I just followed him,” Friedman says.
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When word of the two books began to circulate publicly, there was a concern from his friends and followers that she might be exploiting him, she says. They were very protective of Hickey, because they all love him. But since the release of both books and an initial book signing at the L.A. Book Fair at LACMA earlier this month, Friedman reports that the vast majority of feedback has been positive.
“Dust Bunnies is a heavily edited collection of posts from Dave’s page, only—a ‘best-of’ of sorts,” Friedman says. “People post for all different reasons. Some are just happy to be on Hickey’s page. Some want to look smart to Hickey. Some want to look smart to everyone else. And some are just addressing the issues. It’s humanity, at it’s worst [and best].”
“Anyone who knows Dave Hickey or has gone to a talk he’s given knows that has this really naughty streak in him. He loves to scandalize people,” Friedman says. “It’s not like he has an evil bone in his body, but he is notoriously known for biting the hand that feeds him.” One could deduce that the impatience and hostility of Hickey’s tone in many posts might stem from his physical debilitation. Friedman says he never was incapacitated, per se, during his time in bed and on Facebook. He simply used the platform as a vehicle for his free-flowing ideas.
Friedman had an intuition that, although Hickey was prolific on Facebook, it probably was short-lived. Sure enough, after about a year of frequent posts, his page suddenly disappeared, leaving devoted followers scratching their heads. Hickey told her he left Facebook when he felt better. Now he is back to writing books and essays and simply doesn’t need this alternate medium as an outlet anymore.
Shortly after the release of Dust Bunnies, someone on Facebook referred to Friedman as “Dave’s Fan Babe,” completely ignoring the fact she has a PhD in art history and has published significant works of her own.
The cover of Dust Bunnies contains several covert, intellectual jokes built into its design. First, it is adorned with minimalist red bands across it to resemble an imprint by Éditions Gallimard, an iconic French publishing house established in 1911 that has put out many important literary and critical works (http://www.gallimard.fr/). Instead “Editions du Piràtes” appears on the cover “in reference to the Pirates and Farmers book he just wrote,” Friedman says. Embedded in the cover design is a faint imprint of Hickey’s face, almost like the image on the Veil of Veronica (you have to hold it in just the right light to see it).
Wasted Words: The Essential Dave Hickey Online Compilation is the complete, unedited transcript of his posts, conversations and threads, with replies from friends and followers. It is 600 pages long with text in a seven-point typeface and it is impossible to index, Friedman says. If Wasted Words is Ulysses, then Dust Bunnies is the CliffNotes.
Friedman says that in the complete manuscript the only thing she redacted were last names (she left the first initial of the last name). She describes Hickey as a Baudelarian writer who never needed to work with an editor, because his prose is so clean. The manuscript is “interspersed with insults and his personality quirks,” Friedman says.
The contrast between Dust Bunnies and Wasted Words is vast. “The other interesting thing about the project is that it took me an insane amount of time to edit because there is so much Americana in it. Many of the names were misspelled. This is extremely ironic, OK? Because he has a Russian editing all of these American references,” she says. “It was the biggest learning curve, for me, since studying English.”
If you look at the posts in sequence, it’s almost like following a class syllabus. “He is a teacher, he entertains, and he is a critic.” At times when prompted, he lists volumes of “must-reads” for those curious to learn more about art. It’s not prescriptive but very complete. “He likes to investigate humans,” Friedman says. “He likes to poke and test the audience. He finds that edge and then he probes.”
Friedman and Hickey will be in conversation in Las Vegas at a Contemporary Arts Center members’ event in Las Vegas March 5. They will also be in conversation at UCLA’s Hammer Museum in May.
Friedman will discuss Dust Bunnies and Wasted Words at SMoCA March 31 at 7 p.m. For more information about Friedman and the books, visit juliafriedman.net.