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Pre-order our book YOU ARE AN ARTIST (which includes new assignments!) here: This week we kick off The Art Assignment Book Club with Dave Hickey's "Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy." We discuss everything from John geeking out in a library to Michael Jackson's chimpanzee - Bubbles. Oh, and we discuss the book a little too.

If you haven't yet read Air Guitar find more information here:
Sarah: Hi everybody, today we are doing art assignment book club, and we're discussing Dave Hickey's Air Guitar.

John: Yeah, I wanted to start by talking about this quote from the book that I really loved. Hickey talks about communities of desire that like, communities that are built around shared passion, shared loves, instead of demographics or age or sex or race or whatever.

Sarah: I definitely think it's important to emphasize that this book was written and published in 1997. 'Cause he says that communities of desire weren't really, uh, embraced at the time.

John: But I think they are now.

Sarah: Oh my gosh, fan culture?

John: We've had this argument for many years-

Sarah: Yeah.

John: -about whether love and enthusiasm and unironic enthusiasm is okay-

Sarah: Right.

John: -or if you have to be kind of intellectually cold (Sarah laughs) and rigorous when you're looking at a work of art.

Sarah: Okay, so I remember when we were in Amsterdam-

John: Yes.

Sarah: -a number of years ago, and we went to the newly opened public library, the central library-

John: (whispers) Amazing!

Sarah: -and, so we were just riding the escalator, and John (laughs) was completely geeking out, thinking it was the most amazing thing.

John: I was almost in tears.

Sarah: And - it was fine!

John: No, to quote Sarah directly, "it's a library!" (Sarah laughs) I was like, "can you believe the immense amazingness of this library?!" And she was like, "yeah, it's a library."

Sarah: But you weren't saying why it was amazing. You were just like "oh, cool!"

John: But that was my only reaction! Like, that was what it did to me.

Sarah: That is what Dave Hickey says in this book, that is extremely important. It's not about what art is, it's about what art does.

John: Yes. Like there's that Hickey essay where he's talking about jazz and his dad playing jazz with a bunch of other people-

Sarah: Right!

John: -and how it's what the music does to them, the way it brings them together, that's the magic, that's what's good and interesting about it.

Sarah: And he connects it with the artwork of Norman Rockwell-

John: Right.

Sarah: -which is art that is really sort of, everyday. It's on the cover of Life Magazine-

John: It's super popular.

Sarah: -it's not high art. You think of Norman Rockwell and you think of, sort of, the perfect family scene. But then if you really think about it, there's all sorts of weird strife that's within the pictures-

John: Yeah.

Sarah: -but it's that, that strife that's normal.

John: Yeah.

Sarah: I really like that about sort of, rectifying art that everybody likes. There's kind of the assumption in the more academic art world, that, if everybody likes it, there must be something wrong with it.

John: Let's talk about some of the work, in our own experience, that has done something to us. I'll start with the Amsterdam library.

Sarah: [laughing] Okay.

John: So, I think what I couldn't explain to you at the time was: the whole idea that appeals to me about a library is: this is a place where everyone can go and have access to knowledge.-

Sarah: Sure.

John: -This is a place that is truly democratic, that represents the best ideals of equal opportunity.-

Sarah: Yeah.

John: -And the Amsterdam Library, because it is so open, it feels welcoming, you know, and there's all those comfortable couches-

Sarah: Hmmmm.

John: -and everything, it feels like a place for everyone. There's food, there are computers, there are books. It feels democratic in its.. in its architecture but also in what it does, and that's what made me love it so much.

Sarah: Growing up in Alabama, I got to see the art work of Lonnie Holley.-

John: Hmmmm.

Sarah: -He went by, uhm, the moniker, "The Sandman", uhm and he would make, uh, these amazing sculptures out of trash and rusty old metal and he would create these amazing worlds, but it was very welcoming, it was opening, and, at the time, I didn't know the whole history of, like, appropriation in art, and artists doing this historically, but it was so wonderful, it was such a great, uh, entrée into that world.

John: One thing I love about Air Guitar is that it doesn't draw the line between high culture and low culture, it doesn't pretend that this is art and that isn't. I have to say, I know that we talk almost always about contemporary art on this.. on this show, but I also feel that way about.. Starry, Starry Night, the Vincent Van Gogh painting. 

Sarah: [Laughs] You mean Starry Night?

John: Starry Night.

Sarah: Just one.

John: Just one. Just-

Sarah: Just one starry.

John: -Just, just.. it's singular. Singular starry. 

John: It does something to me, right, like, it-

Sarah: Yeah.

John: -has a transformative, uh, effect on me.

Sarah: Right.

John: Seeing it. And I don't know the extent to which its because I know it's a famous painting, or if its Van Gogh's brush strokes or, or.. or what it is but it, it works.

Sarah: For me, I get really engaged in art when it does something I'm not expecting it to do, like, I do think a lot of people expect art to be beautiful or to be optically interesting. For me, I think it's more interesting when it's disruptive, so when I go into an installation-

John: Van Gogh was disruptive.

Sarah: Sure he was, yeah, but that was a long time ago.

John: I still think, I-

Sarah: I-

John: -still feel disrupted by Van Gogh, does that make sense?

Sarah: Yeah.

John: Like, I still look at that painting and I still feel, uh, sort of altered, I still feel like I'm being challenged, somehow.

John: Another thing I wanted to talk about; there's a great moment in that Norman Rockwell essay,-

Sarah: Hmmmm.

John: -where, uh, Hickey is talking about populist art and he says that "Art that is for the people must be accepting and forgiving. This is art doing something to us - accepting and forgiving us."

Sarah: That is such a great idea.

John: Yeah.

Sarah: I mean, it reminds me of this book I read once, by W. J. T. Mitchell that was called What do pictures want? And it's such a great foil for thinking about things, like, to look at a piece of art and to say "What does it want? What does it want from me?" and to think about what it's, what it's doing to you, whether it's making you angry, or repulsing you.

John: Well, I think of a lot of art, uh, contemporary art, isn't accepting and forgiving, uhm, and I think that's a lot of what people react to so strongly. Like I just saw this Old Navy commercial starring Amy Poehler in which there's contemporary art that isn't really art and Amy Poehler calls out that it isn't really art and the real art is Old Navy jeans which are available for just 19 dollars at your local Old Navy store. And as I watching that I was thinking  you know what people really are thinking. They feel like there is something dishonest about this whole pseudo-intellectual relationship with art because they feel like it pushes them to the outside. It makes me feel like art isn't for me. Because it isn't accepting me. It isn't welcoming me. It isn't forgiving me. It's this cold distant thing, and I do think that art, populist art at least, fails when it is that.

Sarah: Well, you can think about and artist like Jeff Koons. His work uses forms and objects from our everyday world, like a like a blow up bunny. Is that more welcoming? Is that a more populist art?

John: I don't know that it's ultimately more welcoming. In fact I think that Jeff Koons is a really good example of this, because from like Bubbles, the Michael Jackson monkey, to the balloon animals, at times I feel like he's almost making fun of me as a regular American who actually kind of likes Bubbles, Michael Jackson's chimp.

Sarah: So I can't help but to feel like we didn't really discuss the book that much John.

John: No!! But we talked about it, like how we felt about the book, and hopefully it will be the beginning of the conversation, so pleas share with us your take-aways from Air Guitar by Dave Hickey, and thank you so much for watching. We'll see you in comments.

Sarah: Yes, and don't forget to keep doing art assignments.

John: Yeah, they're so amazing.

Sarah: So good.

John: Thank you.