The sum of our own positions on things we value determines the shape and texture of our social lives. This is why contemporary Americans acknowledge the things they find beautiful and talk about them all the time. Our commonality as citizens resides almost exclusively in the world before our eyes. Those little explosions of harmony with the world beyond us constitute landmarks in our inner lives. The landmarks we share with other have personal importance to us as opportunities to experience the confluence of our community.
–Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon
I am back home from three weeks of hiking and tramping (yes, that is what they call it there) through New Zealand. Everyone told me it was an extraordinary place, and since I did see all three of Peter Jackson’s Ring movies I had some idea of what to expect. But you can’t get the full expanse of the place until your body is actually there and in that landscape for real. Even so it still feels a bit otherworldly in its pristine beauty: Is there another place in the world where you can hike for 35 miles and the water is drinkable for the entire length of the trek? (If you know of one, you probably want to keep it a secret.)
The only book I had with me while I was on the trail was the reissued version of Dave Hickey‘s now legendary set of essays on art and beauty, The Invisible Dragon. Originally published in 1993 when the “fluid cultural weather system” (Hickey’s phrase) of the art world was in very different place than today, it speaks to issues that have shifted over the ensuing 20 years. But framed with a new introduction and an additional essay, this is still a book that delights and provokes. As Hickey says himself, “The Dragon was a successful book. It appealed to children and other adepts of ecstasy.”
And the Dragon actually proved to be a formidable companion while I was immersed in a landscape that is so lush and well, beautiful. Of course that word has so many meanings, inside the world of art and out. As Hickey points out, “Beauty is not a thing. The Beautiful is a thing.”
I read the book twice while I was there and I marked up every page. Even so I still feel hungry for another dip into Hickey’s irreverent dismantling of gatekeepers and tastemasters. Maybe this will have to wait since at this moment the rapture from being in such an extraordinary world still has my head spinning. And apropos of that feeling, the final line in Hickey’s book is a good one: “Beauty is and always will be blue skies and open highway.”