Lack of personal value in art brings out comic book shop nostalgia

By Adam Fotos

Dave Hickey introduces his book “Air Guitar” with an essay that lays out the value of quotidian experience and how the “everyday” differs from what is considered culture. When I came across his works while interviewing for graduate schools, I latched on to his ideas of democracy and beauty in art, particularly in his interest in the art market.

He discusses how the American art world, unlike most other economies in the United States, responds not to supply and demand (in the most basic understanding of economics) but to a self-established bureaucracy of theory and conceptualism that regulates what is “good.” Value is not negotiated by whether or not someone likes to look at the artwork, but rather how well everything other than the pleasure of seeing it can be discussed.

In the art world economy, art exists to appeal to the trained professors, artists and critics who speak “art speak,” and is entirely suspicious of anything that has popular and possible consumable appeal.

“When I was a kid, books and paintings and music were all around me, all the time, but never in the guise of ‘culture.’ . The whole cultural enterprise, when I was growing up, was at once intimate and a little mysterious,” Hickey says.

This subculture was spread throughout America, as he describes it, taking place in little stores, people’s homes, bookstores and record shops, art galleries and jazz clubs.

In these places Hickey says, “People would talk to you, not because you were going to buy something, but because they loved the stuff they had to sell.”

These places became forums for ideas and personal histories where one could hear and share stories or knowledge that was not conferred by a large bureaucratic institution.

While I never was one for jazz clubs or record shops as a kid, a parallel world of which I was a part of touches on similar ideas. That world is the comic shop.

In the summer of 1998 a new comic book shop had opened in my hometown of Greeneville, Tennessee. The older shop had closed the previous year, and Mr. G, a substitute teacher, had opened G’s Galaxy to fill a void that he saw in the town.

Mr. G liked comics, and he knew we liked them, too, so he gave us a place to hang out and buy comics. We could stop in anytime and be guaranteed that some of our friends would be there. We played card games, read comics, traded books, and played some pinball. We discussed comics and gaming with a passion – worlds that we knew a little too well. We would buy things every once in a while, but I never thought Mr. G wanted to make any money off of us.

That was the summer I had taken to David Mack’s Kabuki comics and since I didn’t have much money, I was satisfied to just flip through them. One day Mr. G said he would give me a few if I drew something for him, and my work suddenly had a new kind of value. It wasn’t the kind of value that comes from an art teacher who says you’re doing a good job, but that someone, outside of art, was willing to give up something he owned for something that I had created. The drawings weren’t all that great, but that summer I was able to draw my way into a better comic collection – even a couple signed Kabuki’s.

Could this exchange have happened outside of a small shop in a chain store or even a larger comic shop that is more about selling than about what they carry? Probably not. But those places are still likely to stay open longer than a year, which G’s Galaxy did not.

Still in that one year, I found an interesting model for a business. A business with built in failure since it didn’t make much money, but a business that did more than sell a product. A business that brought people of similar ideas together, giving them some unified space.

To me this is how a gallery should function. I’d like to see art handled like comics. Not tucked away in Mylar bags, but shuffled through and discussed casually. I would like to see what would happen if the value of a work of art reflected how much someone really wanted to get into it visually for the sheer joy of seeing, rather than how well art stood up to theoretical inquiry.

Hickey says when you buy art “you are not paying for art. You are paying for assurance, for social confirmation of your investment, and the consequent mitigation of risk.” You are paying for assurance that what you are purchasing has value. It is a matter of who’s assurance with whom one is comfortable. Do you need the assurance of a large bureaucracy of institutions or a small band of people with similar interests to your own, who judge not by what is written about something but rather by what they see?