Nov 2, 2011

REVIEW | The Invisible Dragon | Essays on Beauty | Dave Hickey | University of Chicago Press | 2009

Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty is an exploration of what beauty is in post-modernism and how it is viewed in the world of art criticism.  Starting off in Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty, Hickey paints the scene for the reader.  While daydreaming during a panel discussion, Hickey is questioned by a graduate student on what he thought would be the “Issue of the Nineties.”  In a rash response, awakened from his reverie, Hickey simply replied “Beauty.”

This was met with a dead silence, not of awe, but an awkward silence that makes you hear the chirping of the crickets.  With no way to backpedal out of it, he argued that “beauty was the agency that caused visual pleasure in the beholder; and any theory of images that was not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder begged the question of their efficacy and doomed itself to inconsequence.”

Beauty, at this time in the late eighties, was seen as a ‘corruption of the market.’  Beauty sells.  Beauty is marketable.  Beauty is for the uneducated.  Art dealers are only concerned with how an artwork looks; Art professionals care about what the artwork means.  He went on, “If images don’t do anything in this culture, if they haven’t done anything, then why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them?  And if they only do things after we have talked about them, then they aren’t doing them, we are.”  The art deemed as ‘worthy’ of praise in the eyes of art professionals and its effectiveness “must be the cause of the criticism, and not its consequence.”

Hickey’s statements contradicted the institution’s hard held beliefs and did little to rouse the panelists, but this event stirred up something in Hickey that inspired him to explore the beauty and his displeasure for the world of art criticism and the critics influence in the experience of art.  Hickey discusses the works of Andy Warhol, Michel Foucault, Raphael, Caravaggio, as well as many others.  He goes into great detail on Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit X Portfolio, going as far as making a comparison to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

From the first few pages of these essays, I was hooked. Hickey’s storytelling brings life to the pages.  The slim compilation is insightful and thought-prokoving in its exploration of centuries of ideas about beauty, gender, sexuality, and religion. 

 -Theresa Newton


  1. I find this very interesting. A lot happened in the 90's that set the stage for the 21st century. Everything from the spill over of fashion from the 80s to the violent events of Columbine and even through to 9/11. I can see beauty as the issue that is addressed in every century. Beauty as language, as religion, as visuals, as auditory pleasure and in beauty in the frailty/ugliness of humanity. I haven't read this book, but I am going to look it up to read it .
    -james perkins