For those who have about an hour to kill, the Dave Hickey lecture above is worth a gander both for his ideas on the development of art viewing, and his thoughts on the Internet. To begin, Hickey describes the American art discourse as informed by a conflict between ideas proffered by the 15th century church — that the existence of an image needed to be validated by god — and Paganism, which at its heart is about imbuing objects with power. As such, the prevailing belief in the US that works of art need to be validated finds its roots in religion.
I’d suggest this is a simplification of America’s relationship with art though Hickey adds to a little to his thesis as he goes on. “Stupid money” — that which supports sameness and mediocrity because it knows no better — is a thorn in the side of the artist who wishes to challenge the status quo, he tells us. This leads to the idea that engaging in commerce is an object’s validation in the United States, though Hickey never explicitly makes this generalization.
The most severe criticism of American cultures offered comes near the end of Hickey’s talk though by this point he’s barely talking about art. Now the subject is validation within dysfunctional communities, and the writer unleashes on the Internet:
We are at a point now where the primary benison of this democracy is being challenged. I refer you to federalist ten James Madison. Madison’s great insight was that small republics always fail by faction. Athens fails by faction, Rome fails by faction. What Madison understood was that the sheer size and distribution of a culture across the American Continent could not fail by faction. There were regional interests, there were local interests, there were local religions, it was splintered. Or it was, until we had the Internet. Now we can fail by faction. Now motorcycle gangs have websites, couture has websites, so we reorganize ourselves into a nasty little mediterranean republic that will collapse of its own organization. And it’s all communitaze, because what we have done is turned the city, the vast city of the world into a village. And if it’s anything culture needs it’s not a village. Have you ever lived in a village? Where the smartest person cleans the sewers, have you ever lived in a village where the biggest business man runs the harley shop. Have you ever lived in a village in which your neighbors go through your garbage every night to see how much you’re drinking?…So what I’m saying is that at this moment, when the organization of American culture is collapsing through shear faction and so when the vast republic of complex statistical distribution that James Madison imagined is being run by Rush Limbaugh and people of even more virtue perhaps we might just leave culture alone and let people people run it themselves and try to fix a cure for this problem.
Long monologue short: communities are healthy when they are diverse, and the internet not only promotes sameness, but has anyone and everyone performing menial tasks. There’s some truth to this even if the latter isn’t typically cast in a negative light. Interestingly, yesterday I spoke with Tomorrow Museum’s Joanne McNeil about how many community based websites are now finding themselves crippled under their weight communities. Like Hickey’s village, websites like Threadless and etsy spend large sums of money on community moderaters, the loudest voices within those crowds often receiving the most attention regardless of the merit of their opinions. (See also: Jerry Saltz’s facebook page.) In this light Facebook’s much criticized stance that users need to be told what they want, may have its advantages.