[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.
Speaking of literary critics, I was thinking yesterday of Rozanov’s devastating critique of Herzen: He is so good, wrote Rozanov, so reasonable, so sane—and yet he will never make a young girl cry over a page of his prose.
But then I thought, as I do whenever I think of that line: What’s so great about making young girls cry?
But also, this time: If a young girl ran into Herzen in the comments section of a blog, he would almost certainly make her cry.
Are you happy now, Rozanov?