We'll bring out Dave Hickey in a minute, but first: This past Saturday's Vegas Valley Book Festival at downtown's Fifth Street School was, as the cool kids say, boffo. There were a lot more attendees than the phrase "book festival in Las Vegas" might suggest, and some quality vendors, including our own Stephens Press and the University of Nevada Press, as well as single-author booths like the one manned by fantasy writer Maxwell Alexander Drake (who, caught afterward as he loaded his truck, said he'd done some brisk business that day). From small presentations on the poetry stage to the big talk and reading by Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, it was a good day for reading and writing in Las Vegas.
Now to Hickey: High among the day's highlight was the panel "All I Need Is the World," featuring Hickey, the media-beloved art and culture critic (Air Guitar being his most famous book) and former Las Vegan; and novelist Katie Arnoldi, a Californian. Expertly moderated by Desert Companion Editor Andrew Kiraly (once of CityLife), the talk was meant to be about how these very different writers transform observation and experience into prose. And while they did talk about that some, the event ranged ar more widely, becoming, perhaps not unexpectedly, a bit of a Hickey showcase. He brings all the mad skills you want in a book-festival panelist, from aphoristic punch to deft name-dropping (Lester Bangs, James Wolcott, Ed Ruscha and various art-world biggies, a friend who's won two songwriting Oscars); from a knack for the surprise revelation -- he mentioned that's he's quit the New Mexico university he went to after leaving UNLV -- to, best of all, a gift for offhand provocation. Sitting in the audience, I Facebooked a couple of his zingers:
On writing to be liked, Hickey said he doesn't care if he is or isn't: "I'm a critic. I don't gain anything from the adulation of idiots."
On writerly motivation: "I often write with a sense of malice."
But easily his most risible comment was this: "I don't give a shit about local artists. If you were any good, you wouldn't be a local artist."
It wasn't long before that post on my FB page trailed some 20 comments, some mildly amused ("Ohhhh! SLAM!"), some definitely not ("This guy is no genius, he lives under a rock ...").
One local artist said, "Hickey is a beatnik," before disputing an ealier commenter's assertion that, during the years they lived here, Hickey and his wife, curator and critic Libby Lumpkin, brought national attention to the city. "Not sure what National attention they brought to Vegas? There r def some wonderful artists here who can compete on an internat'l level, but they need to have a good marketing team behind them." (Actually, there were quite a few national stories about one or both of them during their years here, by journalists drawn to the easy narrative of a high-powered art couple living in, of all places, Las Vegas.)
Another said, "We crossed paths several times and he struck me as a pompous ego-centric know-it-all, which is probably what he thought of me."
And this, from local writer Joshua Ellis: "This coming from the same dude who wrote a long editorial piece about how Hunter Thompson was a hack. Yes, because people have been ripping off Hickey's style and putting up posters of the cover of Air Guitar on college dorm walls for forty years. Oh, wait...."
It seemed clear, though, that Hickey's point wasn't about location, but frame of mind. Trifecta Gallery owner Marty Walsh grasped this: "I take his remark of 'local' artist as being parochial, not worldly, not thinking larger or beyond their own backyard, narrow, etc."
Kiraly weighed in in a similar vein: "Perhaps too optimistically, I took the comment as an inimitably Hickey-style admonition against provincialism. In the bus-ticket riff [Hickey said something about how people sho want to support artists should give them a bus ticket out of town], I imagined that artist, eventually, with a *return* bus ticket and a brain packed with new perspective. Regardless, it was a nice tonic against a brand of hometown pride that often flirts with complacency. Sometimes, the ass needs kicked."
And here's CityLife art critic Jenessa Kenway: "Hickey's comment strikes at the blind, unconditional support of local art for fear any negativity could damage the 'fragile' Vegas art scene. In a recent discussion with LA art critic David Pagel, he talked about the early days of the Los Angeles art scene and a 'circling of the wagons' to protect the sapling art community from 'the savages.' Eventually, the need for shielding ended and Pagel broke the ice by starting to write more critical reviews. Likewise art in Vegas has pushed pass the delicate phase and can benefit from robust examination and critique. Hickey himself commented towards the end of the lecture, 'in Vegas you just have to make the art better, you don't have to reinvent the art.'"
It was, as you can imagine, quite a lot of fun.
Oh, and, lastly, this: Check out Katie Arnoldi's books. I bought Point Dume on the way out -- it's a tale of clashing marijuana growers and cartels in California -- though Chemical Pink, set in the twisted world of female bodybuilders, also tempted me.