Unimportant enough to be criticized

Reflections on critic Dave Hickey’s essay “Frivolity and Unction,” from his book Air Guitar, about what’s gained and lost by considering a work of art to be “important.” If perceived importance (or, in a parallel that comes up later in this article, percieved holiness) keeps us from fully taking in and making something of a cultural artifact, then the unimportant and the unsanctified might have an advantage. But I wonder whether we can hope for a concept of importance, and of holiness, that doesn’t shut out but rather welcomes in.

[Dave] Hickey’s essay “Frivolity and Unction” is an assault against “puritanical,” non-profit interests in the 1990s that aimed to sanctify the practice of artmaking, leaving it immune to real critical appraisal. He says in the essay that art would benefit from being considered a “bad, silly and frivolous thing to do,” for, if we could admit that art was frivolous, it could fail, and thus, by contrast, be allowed to succeed in ways sacred objects aren’t. The essay is a staple of art criticism courses and is usually met with fierce resistance, as it ruffles most people’s sense of what’s proper too much to actually listen to what Hickey is saying. By “silly, bad and frivolous,” he means art should be unimportant enough to be criticized. Ascribing general terms like “silly” and “frivolous” might seem belittling, but they should be distinguished from more active and specific terms about how art directly communicates, such as “unmoving” or “ineffective.” “Art” can be unimportant and still allow for the experience of a work of art to be life-changing. I value the memories I have of listening to baseball games on my grandparents’ porch, but Baseball, as a concept, remains entirely unimportant. Such concepts as baseball, art, and Hickey’s example of rock and roll, are wholly unimportant except for the experiences they foster and the history to which they contribute.

from “The Importance of Being Unimportant,” by Shane McAdams, The Brooklyn Rail, September 2009 :: via kottke.org

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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