Where You Find Them

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You may think Las Vegas is a quicksand of tasteless glitz and shameless spectacle. So does Dave Hickey, who figures that makes it the perfect place for art. Visual thrills are a local industry, mile-high neon and fake pyramids just part of the scenery. "Vegas aspires to visibility," he says. "Art is an extension and refinement of what Vegas is about."

Vegas is also the perfect place for Hickey, who has taught at the University of Nevada since 1992. It's a freebooting and democratic city where people with funny resumes fit right in. Whatever else he is--lucid hipster, tenured iconoclast and barbarian at the gates of art-world convention--Hickey, 62, is the only American art critic of consequence who used to play guitar for a country-and-western band. He is also proof that MacArthur Foundation "genius grants," like the one he was awarded this year, go to some shaggy characters, the kind who like low-rider cars and chain-smoke as a reminder of more intense pleasures wisely put behind them.

Pleasure is Hickey's big idea. In books like The Invisible Dragon and Air Guitar, he has proposed the heretical notion that we should trust our responses. If you like it, it might be good. This seems self-evident, but for years the academic discussion of art was focused on issues of race, gender and class. Pleasure was beside the point. If that moralizing tendency is in eclipse now, it is thanks partly to the persuasive power of Hickey's ideas--and his writing, which is flip, brainy and plainspoken.

Relying on pleasure as a standard of judgment, Hickey has endorsed without shame some of the great middlebrow passions of the past century, from Liberace to Perry Mason. His essay on Siegfried and Roy, the illusionists who make whole pachyderms dematerialize, is the best meditation on a pop-culture subgenre since Susan Sontag met Godzilla. He is suspicious of art that claims to transmit transcendent truths. Jackson Pollock wanted his spattered canvases to represent universal psychic turmoils. Hickey loves them but says they are better regarded as freedom made visible. "They stand as permission for certain kinds of human behavior." He tells the story of a friend who painted a mock Pollock at his surfer bar to clue in visitors that this was a wiggly kind of place. "The 'Pollock,'" Hickey explains, "was no different from the sign at the front door that said, 'No shirt, no shoes, no problem.'"