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What catches the eye and entices the imagination is a mystery. What snags me and holds my attention is often a surprise. Why does India endlessly compel? Why are fluid dynamics and ferrofluids so mesmerizing? The landscape of the desert, what is it about that barrenness that keeps pulling me in? And what is it about language forms, understood or not, that are so provocative?

There is a context that can enrich the way these questions are considered. In his introduction to Between Artists, Dave Hickey does his usual—he provokes, prods and delights in describing how artists navigate a confusingly convoluted and quickly morphing world. Hickey is good at being the agent provacateur. He is also very funny.

One of his themes deals with the downside of postmodern trends:

In the late sixties…the ideas of the artists as an originative, independent, litigious voice in the forum of cultural politics became intellectually discredited…the artist became a mere cultural producer whose work constituted a “collaboration” with the culture at large….In this way the work of art, which had been rendered mute and symptomatic by modernist theory, remained mute under the new regime, a voice symptom, while the artist, who had previously been allowed the occasional cri de coeur, was rendered mute as well…

This disenfranchisement of the artist’s voce is the consequence of a failed project by pop, minimalist, and postminimal artists in the late sixties to suppress the artist’s presence in their work, so the work itself might speak to its beholder—so the work itself might comment on the cultural context we all inhabit, rather than reflexively referencing the artist…So the artists of the sixties…strove to cleanse their works of the allegory of the self, sought to present their works as public declarations as transitive, rhetorical instruments of advocacy in the forum of cultural politics.

Hickey goes on to make his case with that Hickeyesque hyperbolic intensity and flair. What is an artist today? Where does art making fit in the cultural landscape? According to Hickey, the interviews in this book (which I have recommended earlier here and here) demonstrate the fact that it is not “high art” and that rarefied construct that have driven artists to their vocation:

Again and again we discover that the “threshold experience” of these artists took place on the street, that it has little or nothing to do with the experience of high art within the confines of high culture…most artists become artists because they find the art available to them unsatisfactory. “Artists make things because they want to see them,” Terry Allen remarked…”They make the art that’s not there for them to see.”

Artists, says Hickey, are the hedgehogs in Isaiah Berlin’s famous hedgehog/fox analogy, and these interviews speak to that reality. “They know one big thing, the thing that drives the engine, that perpetually eludes articulation…We get the atmosphere, the filigree of little things, of accident and incident, of nuance and desire, that surrounds the enormous absence that the work of art must, necessarily, fill in our lived experience.”

What a welcome injunction: Fill it.

Ferrofluids: Images made with magnetic fluids and magnets

(To watch the creation of this image in action: click here)

The “rag and bone shop” barn studio of my (nearly) lifelong friend, artist George Wingate. Our conversations here and in other venues over the last 40 years have been some of my favorites.

My friend Robert Hanlon recently wrote me and said, “You are an expensive friend: you make me buy books!” Sorry Robert, but here’s another one I know you are going to want to read and mark up as your own. It’s a fortunate thing you are so good at selling your art.

Between Artists: Twelve contemporary American artists interview twelve contemporary American artists is a simple idea but oh so valuable. Reading these artists conversing with other artists (who are, in most cases, already good friends) is a bit like listening to really good mechanics talk shop with other really good mechanics—a lot of under the hood chatter, sharing of tips and the undefended discussion of the practical as well as the intuitive. In these conversations both the art and the craft of a body of work are worthy topics. Of course some exchanges are more resonant with me (I will be sharing some highlights later from my favorite, Chuck Close interviewing his graduate school buddy Vija Celmins) but all in all this is a volume I’ll be referring to many times in the future.

As a teaser, here’s a few lines from the introduction, written by the inveterate trickster king Dave Hickey:

The speakers in these interviews are saddled with the tragi-comic injunction to talk about that which they cannot: their art—to discuss that practice, which, were it explicable, they should not be pursuing, to explain those objects which, had they known what they were making, they almost certainly should not have made. Thus, Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog and the fox is applicable here. “The fox knows many little things,” Berlin explains, “the hedghog knows one big thing,” and artists, as artists, are almost always hedgehogs. They know one big thing, the thing that drives the engine, that perpetually eludes articulation. So what we have here, between these covers, is the conversation of hedgehogs playing at being foxes. We do not get that one big thing, nor could we expect it. But we do get the atmosphere, the filigree of little things, of accident and incident, of nuance and desire, that surrounds the enormous absence that the work of art must, necessarily, fill in our lived experience.