Imagine working as an artist for a decade only to burn out, melt down, and vanish from that world to spend 10 years driving a truck. Then, having never written before the age of 40, returning to that same world, but this time as an art critic for some of the biggest magazines and arbiters of taste in that domain. Having never been formally trained or degreed or even studied art in a formal way. How is that even possible?
That is the story of today’s guest, Jerry Saltz, the senior art critic at New York magazine and Vulture, and the author of the New York Times bestseller How to Be an Artist and his most recent book Art is Life. In 2018 Jerry was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. A frequent guest lecturer at major universities and museums, he has spoken at Harvard University, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and many other venues, and has taught at Columbia University, Yale University, the Rhode Island School of Design, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and elsewhere.
Jerry Saltz is one of our most-watched writers about art and artists, and a passionate champion of the importance of art in our shared cultural life. Since the 1990s he has been an indispensable cultural voice, and an early champion of forgotten and overlooked women artists, work of African American, LGBTQ+, and other long-marginalized creators.
In Art Is Life, Jerry Saltz draws on two decades of work to offer a real-time survey of contemporary art as a barometer of our times, arguing for the importance of the fearless artist—reminding us that art is a kind of channeled voice of human experience, a necessary window onto our times. The result is an openhearted and irresistibly readable appraisal by one of our most important cultural observers.
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photo credit: Celeste Sloman
Jonathan Fields: Art echoes out into every other thing in many ways. Art was here before we were, Art is a creative force that’s using all of us to reproduce itself. And as it reproduces itself, it changes us. So I guess I should end this podcast right now to say it’s all good to just get to work you big babies. So imagine working as an artist for over a decade or so only to burn out meltdown and largely vanish from that world to spend ten years driving a truck. And then, having never written before the age of forty, somehow being inspired to return to that very same world, but this time, not as a working artist, but as an Art critic for some of the biggest magazines and arbiters of taste in that world. Having never been formally trained or degreed, or even studied Art in a formal way, how is this even possible?
Well, that is the story of my guest today. Jerry Saltz, the senior Art critic at New York magazine and vulture, and the author of New York Times bestseller. How to be an artist and his most recent book, Art is life in twenty eighteen. Jerry was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He’s a frequent guest lecturer at major universities and museums spoken everywhere from the Harvard Moma, Guggenheim to Columbia University, Yale Rossetti, so many different places. Jerry is One of our most watched writers about Art and Artists. He is a passionate champion for the importance of Art in our shared culture. Since the nineties, he’s been an indispensable cultural voice and also an early champion of many forgotten and overlooked Artists from women to African American LGBTQ plus communities and other long marginalized creators and artist life.
Jerry, he draws on two decades of work to offer this real time survey of the world of Art around us right now as a barometer of our Times, arguing for the importance of the fearless artist reminding us that Art is a kind of channeled voice of Human experience a necessary window into our Times and the result is this open hearted and kind of irresistibly readable appraisal by One of our most important cultural observers. We also dive deep into Jerry’s personal journey, the moments along the way that brought him to Art. What Art did to and for him sometimes in the best of ways, and sometimes in ways that sent him into a very dark place, is why he made these seemingly abrupt changes and how in the world he was able to pull them off. And then more broadly, what is Art? Who gets to decide who gets to criticize? Who gets to pass judgment and what’s happening in the Art scene. Now everything from Mega galleries and collectors to the online world and how that is profoundly changing things. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is a Good Life Project.
Jonathan Fields: We always ask just before for a little bit like what’s on your mind, what’s your current passion? And One of the things that you shared that took me by surprise, although it shouldn’t have given your Instagram account is passion for Formula One racing.
Jerry Saltz: I love Formula One racing. That’s for me about the best thing that came out of you know, the horribleness of covid, that we got something called Netflix as old people. And I turned it on and there it was. And as an American who grew up watching only baseball and the NFL, I went nuts about this and now I have podcasts, I follow, you know, Formula One fans. All I can say to people is, these guys are about as big as jockeys. Every single One of them is so gorgeous that it’s a little scary. They’re Europeans, it’s like soccer Americans don’t know how to do this yet, but we bought the Falcons sport. So now they’re Producing it and it’s a big show and please check out Formula One. So I’m obsessed,
Jonathan Fields: I love that I actually have a friend of mine who back in the eighties was a Formula, One mechanic before being. He worked as an electrician then like out in Colorado at Red rocks where some of his most iconic shows were gradual. Like youtube’s sort of like, famous show out there that almost didn’t happen and probably shouldn’t have but largely broke the band and then in a good way. But if Formula One is interesting, so let me ask you a question. Do you draw any parallels to what draws you to Formula One and to sort of like the bigger world that you live in?
Jerry Saltz: Absolutely. I see people working alone and together, willing to fail flamboyantly in public. They put their actual lives on the line. The drivers, specifically, but metaphorically that connects to me very much as well as the obsession with how something is made. What it looks like, form the individuality of each, say team, each driver. Every aspect of it has echoes in, of course Art, but then Art echoes out into every other thing. In many ways. Art was here before we were that we have never been without it. A species that lived before us Neanderthal made hand stone axes that they shared in their material culture by passing out trade routes, different materials to make these hand stone axes. And now we know they were painted and had incredible designs on them. So once Art comes, it never leaves. I believe that every person listening to this that every cell in your body has creativity in it. Flexibility, adaptability, the ability to learn something new every day. It’s a bit like waking up in the morning, doomscrolling Instagram, and within twenty two minutes, you will feel astonished at stuff you never thought of. Horrified that other people are not as good as you are. And even worse about how much worse you are than they are. And I’m not talking about envy. I’m talking about several fundamental positions in life that actually change not only daily, but in real time, you can track them as when we all make things and to get back to F1 as we aficionados like to call it. You see those decisions made in real time, and I’m really interested in that. I’ve always watched sports for that. So the cooks have it. Chefs talk about this constantly. I see a like a sort of ganglia where Art is a force, a creative force that’s using all of us to reproduce itself. And as it reproduces itself, it changes us the mainframe which then changes it and none of us knows where our work comes from. We just know how to do it, even though we don’t know what we’re doing. So I guess I should end this podcast right now to say, it’s all so good that just get to work. You big babies.
Jonthan Fields: Just stop listening right now and get to work. You know, it’s interesting also, right? Because if you think about it, there is this element. If you, if I think about my experience of Art through the years and what it does to or for me both at the same time, you know, in no small part, it captivates me. It stops time. It very often challenges my model of the world even just of that moment and invariably shatters it and invites me to sort of like re-imagine it a little bit differently. And there’s a fearlessness to it. It inspires me. There’s something that gets awakened to me that says there’s something more, there’s a capacity in this person in that person in all of us in me that I never knew was there. And it’s a lot of the same thing that you’re describing here. So I can just kind of share that the way that I experience Art as well. And I think that’s an interesting just sort of topic to visit as well. Because when we use the word Art, it’s a really big, ambiguous word. When you use the word Art, what are you actually talking about?
Jerry Saltz: I guess I’m thinking, first of all, I’m fine with somebody calling. What they make is Art. What I guess then I do is say, I’m just going to assume that what you made, you call Art. And a lot of Times people make things that they don’t call Art that I do think is Art, many diagrams, charts, things like that are astonishing to me, in how they sort of program ideas. My idea of Art is you embed thought in material. That’s the first thing. The next thing is that each time I see Art, and by the way, I should have finished the first thought saying. So if you call this Art, what I’m interested in, as an annoying Art critic who has no degrees and never went to school and didn’t start writing till he was forty years old and had been a long distance walking truck driver desperate, exiled self exiled, wanting to be in the Art world, the job I gave myself was kind of like a hockey goalie where I thought it’s going to have to be pretty pretty good to get by me. So well, all I’m trying to do is try to figure out why I’m responding to your work or not. And then try to put that into some explanation. That’s not too boring to read and written in an academic jargon that really only One hundred and fifty five people understand. And I am not one of them. I’ve never understood One review in the Art world’s great sexy, fantastic, and indispensable school newspaper, which is Art, form magazine. I love it. I’ve never missed an issue since I was in my twenties. I don’t think I’ve read more than fifteen articles, but I’m always amazed that there’s this going on and they’ve press forward a lot of great ideas. So another thing that Art is that you mention Jonathan is, let’s say Hamlet is Art. Even though, by the way, the story was incredibly old, or Romeo and Juliet was very known when Shakespeare wrote his version of Romeo and Juliet, there were many of them. All he did, like Dolly Parton did with country music, she took a known form and changed it by writing Jolene, and I will always love you n the same day. Where Shakespeare in telling the story, everyone of his time knew by heart, it would be bored. The thought of another play about it. He rewrote what love languages and he invented something we call young love. He changed the age of his lovers. So that’s changing the form. And I find that that’s what I’m looking for. Maybe your idea isn’t brand new, you didn’t invent Hamlet. Every narrative may be quasi in place. Then I want to see how you do your crucifixion and she does hers. And that is the sweet spot for me. And then I’m going to say One more thing because I am alone all the time. Like most Art critics, you think we’re out there. I have no social life. I’ll talk about that later. What makes Hamlet say great? Or a Mark Rothko or a Vermeer, or Frida Kahlo, or a Georgia O’keeffe or a sonata by you know, a Bach is that your Frida Kahlo and my Frida Kahlo is different. And then if it’s really good, my Frida Kahlo is different every time I see it. And that’s what you had talked about Jonathan with, which is a simple idea. It’s a stable thing that is never the same. A bit like you and me. And that’s kind of amazing. So you connect on a kind of cosmic psychic plane to Art that way and feel it in materiality in your cells again.
Jonathan Fields: Yeah. Now I love that. And it also reminds me that, you know, I might go back to the same exhibit or the same show multiple Times, or, you know, if it’s rotating and then three years later I go back to it. And I’m saying to myself, this is so different than what I remember, it’s hitting me very differently and think is, is it the thing itself that’s hitting me differently? Is it the moment is the fact that I have changed and shifted and I bring a different reference to the experience of it. And so it’s almost like it’s not just the object. It’s the relationship that you have to the object and that shifts and changes over time based on just the circumstance.
Jerry Saltz: It’s changing in time and context and place and distance from the second. It was made because all Art was contemporary Art. The day it was made, every renaissance painting is actually in a huge fight with all the other renaissance paintings going well. Yeah. Rafael, you’re good, but I’m much younger than you. And my name’s Michelangelo, and I have a completely different idea of why I should be hired for that ceiling. I think Art is the most advanced operating system that our species has ever devised to explore consciousness, the seen and the unseen worlds. And I just, I love that. And Art has done many things in its time. Now, it’s only a noun, something that we look at. For the first say, fifty thousand years of its existence. It was a verb. Art was something that did something it could help you get pregnant or stop you from getting pregnant. The eyes on the side of Russakoff Egyptian sarcophagus allows the dead to see out in the afterlife. Like I say, Voodoo, Voodoo dolls. Pictures of saints. Saint Luke was supposedly painted a painting, so it has as many uses as there are people that might make it. And I actually sometimes feel sad that we’ve made it this One thing. There are in white rooms. Always hung out fifty two inches, centerline or whatever it is for a painting. And I always want to say guys, what would happen if you say, made a panorama or painted? Nobody’s ever going back up to the ceiling to start painting those things because that is where the sublime lodged itself for some time in around forty two, in the fourteen hundreds through about the seventeen, hundreds in the West. That’s where the sublime lodged itself for millennia before that, of course, the sublime was in the caves of looking at fire, and then it moved to Neolithic stones, and then, and in the nineteenth century, it moved out into nature. And I think I know where the sublime is now before I shut my up, I think. And I really felt this with covid, that the sublime, the big feeling, the buzz you get from it all, is in each other. The sublime is in you. I’d rather be with you it turns out to loser’s chatting maybe than even standing in the Grand Canyon. That’s something happens when we touch antenna. Sniff each other’s pheromones, say silly things like this to each other. That sometimes when I’m in the Grand Canyon, I’ve, when I was a truck driver, I went there once and I still remember thinking, getting to the ledge, looking into this amazing thing and thinking, my pants are kind of tight. I did not like the hotel room that much. I might get lonely in there. There was no TV there. And I actually didn’t take the hotel room, climbed back in the cab of my truck and left loving the Grand Canyon. So that’s, Art does all that for me, gets a lot going,
Jonathan Fields: it does apparently, and I think, you know, part of what lands with me as you share that is, you know, that we tend to say Art is the thing. But maybe Art is, is actually the in between it is the ether that exists between you and the thing, the person, the experience, the moment that dynamic. And that in fact is the true point of impact like that is what actually moves us deeply.
Jerry Saltz: I love what you’re saying. Proust said something like every reader when she or he is reading a work is actually reading themselves. Hmm. And I think that that’s an echo, again of what you’re saying, Jonathan, that you’re looking at a thing that’s looking at you and in that whatever you call the membrane. A good word that I wanted to make a note of and steal
Jonathan Fields: One of the things that you also described as you just shared this notion of, you know, it is, there are a thousand Pictures of this or that, or you know, person or by and yet you know like yours is different and part of the Art is like, how is yours different. Yeah. So we’re having this conversation at a, actually a really interesting moment in reference to that point like this will air later. But as we have this conversation this week, there’s actually a case argued in front of the Supreme Court about this picture of a photograph of prints that was then changed by Warhol and now it was reused commercially later. And it goes to this whole question of transformation. Yeah. Like the original photographer says it’s, it’s still my picture even though there is no colored plate over it. And it’s kind of interesting because I actually listen to a little bit of the argument in front of the Supreme Court. And for the first time in a long time, it sounded like the justices were actually having fun together, being playful about it. And so I’m curious about your take of this notion of, you know, less about just really what is the law, who’s right and who’s wrong. But the notion of transformation, like if one person, like first you have Prince who’s actually performing on stage or sitting for a picture, that alone is a moment of Art. Then you have the capture of it through the photographer’s lens and there aren’t and you know, and it’s not just what’s being captured through the lens. It’s what they choose to sort of like, shoot through the lens. And then it gets into the hands of what, who was then a very young Warhol like very early in his career. Who decides I’m going to actually transform this into something else
Jerry Saltz: Because he looked like a Prince and he was beautiful. I guess I’m the worst person to ask this because my point of view on this is so unpopular Jonathan, I actually think that all our, our ideas of copyright no longer exist, not a single One. Tell me, I believe my credo, and I’ve written this many times is take anything you want from me. Anything. I have a book coming out. If you took that book, put your name on it, sold it through a big publisher. You could take the money as far as I’m concerned. If you took my negative review of this podcast and changed all the words to positive reviews with like digital technology, I would say fine, my belief is that Artists use materials. The picture of Prince regardless, I’m sorry artists listening to this are writers like me, regardless of who made the image that image even if it’s just a digital file, which after all is how ninety nine percent of the pictures you now see never existed in physical space and they never will. And with the technologies that we use now become obsolete in the next ten, fifteen years, most of them like the bad videos and the tape players use, you will never be able to access any of these images again in any event. So for me, I’m afraid I’m the worst person to ask, I would say, use any material you can. And if you can make it original fine, even if you want to sell the Jerry Saltz review as your work, be my guest, be my guest, I can’t stop you and I don’t want to, I’ll be irked. I’ll be hurt if somebody more powerful. If Matt Damon sells my book as his book, I would so want to get a selfie with them. And then I would probably sue him. But in my heart, I would never sue him and never ask for the money. I would just say he took my material and used it. So don’t ask me, this is going to be so unpopular. And I feel bad because more often than not the powerful take from the power less. And that is why, that is why, this is incredibly important and valid question. So I’m just not the man to ask about this at all. I’m seventy one. I’m stuck back in older ideas.
Jonathan Fields: Not so much, not from what I’ve seen actually. But I mean, it is interesting, right? Because you have the ideal and you have the idea and then you had the reality and in no small part, the question what the question really plays into. It’s not just pedigree or status, but is survivability. You know, I think fundamentally when you keep asking, why does that matter, why does that matter? Why does it matter? At the end of the day, most people will say, because I can’t survive unless I can say that I have providence to something and that providence is what has. That’s what we’re seeing in the world of digital Art. Now NFTs, you know, you’ve been trying to recently, it’s like it’s about the providence at the end of the day. That’s where the value lies. And I think it’s such an interesting moment right now because everything’s getting blown up around all of these ideas. Nobody knows where it’s going to land.
Jerry Saltz: Nobody does. And again, I’m in favor of everybody listening to this making money off of their material. Okay. I’m just a weird anomaly, a bug in the system. Because I’m interested in the material of the system. Maybe that pathetically Platonic disengaged point of view. And so I feel for every artist out there that says, but that was my photograph of Prince that Andy the late Andy Warhol, the most openly swish artist in the history of Art probably who was shot. And I don’t know, it just all, it’s all part of the same ball of wax to me.
Jonathan Fields: So your reference to being fascinated by the systems. As you reference… so you start out and in the early days, you know, the legend is at nineteen years old. You get exposed to Jericho’s, the Raft of the Medusa, and it’s like a light bulb moment for you. You’re like, this is something that has changed me profoundly. And the next decade, fifteen years or so, you’re like, what would it be like to actually be a working class? Can actually do this as the write, the creator myself, you dabble a bit in, I don’t necessarily say you dabble, you spend some time in the educational side of it. It’s not a great fit for you, but you know, you’re bouncing around the Chicago Art scene for a while. They get together with some friends, open a gallery, and you’re, you know, you’re making work on a daily basis. And something happens where like you had a point where it’s like is not working for me right now. And I’m curious because I’ve heard your take on this moment. And part of my curiosity is, is like, was this an internal combustion? An external combustion? Or just yes to all of the above.
Jerry Saltz: I think these are great questions and to fill in the listener, I would just say that I was making Art and selling it and showing it in Chicago in the late seventies. So that meant it was in a time when there was no money and no Art world, I lived in a four thousand square foot loft, unheated with no running water in Chicago, which is really cold. And slept on a mattress in the floor, used a water bucket to help flush the toilet, had a hot plate. And I don’t think I was ever happier in my life. I was free, I was a freedom machine and I would have odd jobs and the rent was like One hundred and twenty five, which seemed like a huge amount. But that was then and I would work all day and I was never happier. And I got the National Endowment for the arts grant, which was a huge boon. And I made, I think, twenty five hundred dollars. And I took that money and I moved to New York. And while I was working here within the first year or two the demons that lived within all of us, descended on me. But all at once.
Jonathan Fields: That should put as time was also like early eighties ish. Right?
Jerry Saltz: I moved here in nineteen seventy nine just before he was killed. I saw John Lennon walking down Madison Avenue with Yoko Ono and they were the sum of all things. And I did not look directly at them. Instead I followed in, in wake behind them, as I noticed that everyone as they passed through the crowd gave them their space turned to the left or the right looked away and the sort of light of forever shown for around them. So I was happy here.
Jonthan Fields: And this was also, I mean that’s the emergence of the downtown Art scene, you know, is when like Haring and Basquiat. And this is when like that’s all happening here which on the one hand is amazing. On the other hand, it’s got to be like a little bit brutal to step into that.
Jerry Saltz: It’s interesting. I think I was dumb enough. What you must be to just think, well, I’ve got a shot here. The problem wasn’t outside. I’d love to say it was the problems of outside it was inside the same voices. Every person heard a three fifteen this morning. This said, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t have any degrees. You have no money. You’re not that good looking. You’re a bad schmoozer, your ankles are atrocious. You have no clothes. You didn’t go to the right schools and on and on.. does this matter? And I listened, and I went a year without making Art and pretended I was still an artist. But then I went about two years and I was in my late twenties by then. And then I self-exile I had what I think is earlier a walking nervous breakdown where I couldn’t be with people. I think I was having what are now called panic attacks. And I would walk sometimes for five hours a day just to walk myself down and talk to myself. I don’t know what was going on. But so I became a long distance truck driver and left the Art world for about ten years or so. And was really sad because the best physical, psychic, spiritual, social experiences I’d ever had in my life were hanging out with other Artists late at night, talking with/sleeping with/arguing with each other about this funny thing. And I put myself on the outside of the Art world. All arts are an all volunteer army. That’s always a deep content to my work, some weird connection that I always think. I think I know what you feel like you who made this bad Art or good Art or interesting Art. So I try to put that in my work, that’s all.
Jonathan Fields: So after a decade then what brings you back and why instead of, you know, like coming back and saying okay, I’ve had a decade of separated from it and hopefully like I’m a lot wiser, maybe I have a little bit more perspective, whatever it may have been right, you’re better traveled for sure at that point after ten years drinking. What makes you think or say to yourself, okay, it’s time for me to step into the next season. And instead of stepping back into the creation side of Art, I’m feeling a calling to step into the critic side of it. In addition to the fact that you also, as you shared weren’t really a writer before this.
Jerry Saltz: I’d never written a word, I barely can read honestly.
Jonathan Fields: So what happens there? Tell me about like what, what, how does a flip get switched?
Jerry Saltz: Well, I think the thing that’s going to happen to every listener here when you Finally do rule One of my how to be an artist, ideas, work, work, work, work, work. You’ve got to work. And so it came from desperation, Jonathan. I knew that his terrified as I was to fail as horrible an artist or Art world person or curator, or whatever. I would want to be that No matter what it was, nothing could be worse than how I felt eating Colonel Sanders chicken, drinking coffee, peeing and cops driving from morning till night. Never getting out of the trucks. Sleeping in motels, unable to meet anybody, buzzing every night. I thought anything I do will be better than this. And so I thought, what could I do? It never occurred to me to be an artist again, the demons had put their foot down inside of my mouth, evidently without that one. So I thought, how can I meet women and be rich and famous? So I thought maybe critics have that. The woman thing never happened because anybody that knows me knows I don’t have the vibe. You know, I just don’t, it’s a nightmare. They make very little money. It turns out my wife, Art critic for the New York, one of the Art critic for the New York Times, Roberta Smith and myself are among say, the last eleven twelve fifteen people in the United States writing weekly. And in my case, daily criticism in print, we are already a dead species. I am among the last of my kind. Anyway, I decided, oh, being a critic must be easy. I mean, what’s involved with that you go to galleries, you meet people, you stay up late. People love you, they’re going to give you money. And so I started reading Art form in the cabins of the truck all day and all night when I could. And I never understood a word and I thought that’s exactly how I want to write the late commodified object of Neo capitalism finds its marks as simulacra in a, you know, a paradigm, you know, blah, blah, blah. And I started writing that way. I have no idea what I was writing and then to make a too long story Short, One day a gift came from hell called a deadline. And I put off writing on something and a painter unknown today. And I put it off and put it off. And Finally I thought, oh my God, I have to have this done tomorrow. And by accident I wrote what I really thought. And for the first time I didn’t use other people’s language on the one hand and more important for me. And I learned this from my wife, Roberta Smith. I didn’t only say why it was good. Because even when you watch your favorite baseball team and your favorite directors and your favorite musicians, you don’t love everything they do, my God, you can go to the Prado in Madrid, and you won’t look at every Goya, even. So if not all Goya is great. I’m sorry, not all the Art that you’re going to see or make is great. Is it in play? Maybe? And so I started by accident writing in my own voice because it had to happen that way. And telling what I didn’t like and why without being mean, I tried never to punch down ever. And that set me on a whole new path. I may have been no good, I may be no good. Now. I never identify as a writer ever to this day. I have a Pulitzer Prize that I keep here. This is it. It’s so small, it’s smaller than an orange. I thought it would be money and a gold belt or something and but even when I got this incredible lucky thing in 2018, to this day I consider myself more of your listeners may not know this name but a Sister Wendy. Like folk critic, she was a nun that had a TV show about Art and I just loved or Bob Ross, or these people that want somehow to create an interface between this intimidating maybe elitist because it is and very expensive these days thing. And just us losers in the back of the bus still love this thing. And we think we can understand Homer and look at a Jackson Pollock or, you know, a Kara Walker and be able to stomach it and process it. So that’s what I set out to do, and that’s still what I’m doing. I’ve still never been asked to write for Art Forum because really, my work doesn’t belong there. I would stand out like a glockenspiel or like some weird didgeridoo, some oddball instrument. I don’t belong in that orchestra. I’m in this whatever folk music thing and who knows what it’s worth? Nothing.
Jonathan Fields: It’s interesting, right? Because part of what you decided to do, it sounds like when you, when you say yes to this is to not try and sort of like keep the gilded walls up to say listen, you know? Yeah, I just need to tell it the way I see it in the way I see it. You know, you self-identifying at that point as more of a commoner with, with a love for Art than an actual artist.
Jerry Saltz: Yes,an Art lover.
Jonathan Fields: Right. And the intention is, can we expand this, can we make it accessible and available to everybody, whether you agree with me or not? You made another point which I don’t want to just gloss over, which is this notion of not punching down like you alluded to earlier in our conversation. There is very often, especially in the entrenched Art world and not just the Art world in so many different domains, this really, really big inequality and power dynamic in the Art world for sure. I think that’s changing and we’ll talk about that shortly. And that’s a lot of what your newest book is about, but it’s been there and it’s been really, really, really imbalanced. So the notion of you being able to punch down and even build a reputation by being amazing at punching down. It was probably available to you, but there’s something inside of you that says I’ve been that person. Yeah, I think I need to be honest, but I can’t do that.
Jerry Saltz: I love the way you’re putting it because you make me sound good. When what I, what I was doing was being frightened because people talk about taking risks all the time. I sometimes think that we spend so much time not taking a risk because it’s so horrifying. But the underlying model, is what I call radical vulnerability, which is because I was that person and frankly am you could say such every day if you look at my Instagram and I hope people do look at this. Like there’s going to be several hundred comments ripping me a new one. And I think that that’s fine. Because I’m intentionally trying to be as vulnerable as I think the artist is in their work. And it’s just too easy to pick a nobody and go, this is why that’s no good. On the other hand, all critics now do, they every review is positive and I think that this not being critical of Art is a way of selling it. Short being critical of Art is a way of showing Art respect. And now every review of every TV show movie book meal, everything is positive and I always think, but that can’t be true. You’re lying. And on the other hand, the set of negative reviews you will read are always on low hanging fruit, like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. Look, Jeff Koons is like a Teletubby Ronald Reagan or something, you know. And he talks that way, but you just never know when he’s going to make a really amazing work of Art. He does still do it. I’m not sure about Damien Hirst. He may never have been a great artist. He made two or three great, great pieces, but his great thing that people forget is he deEngland-ized England. He and a group of young Artists back in around nineteen ninety or so stopped England from just being this little thing that was ignored and they invented a thing we call cool Britannia, which grew immediately into Brit pop, which grew into the Tate Modern, which grew into the Frieze Art Fair that’s going on as I’m recording this with you. And so I give him credit. I give him a lot of credit, but anyway, punching, you know, punching down bad and low hanging fruit. That’s pathetic. I just get sick of everybody attacking the same seven people: boring.
Jonathan Fields: I mean, and it’s also having been not necessarily on the other side of it, but knowing what it’s like to show up every day for years and years and years. And really just trying to do good work, you know, put you on the other side of it in a way where, you know, like I would love to believe that there’s some empathy in forming that as well. But you brought up another really interesting point, which is, and you kind of referenced it, but you referenced this notion of like everybody’s writing all these positive reviews. And I wonder if you feel like that’s part of the tune you’re in your newest book Art Is Life. You know, it’s sort of like a look at what’s happened in the world in the last two decades, really. Right. And there have been monumental changes. One that you point out is sort of like the emergence of the, like, I think you describe it as the Mega gallery, but it’s not just the Mega gallery, it’s an enterprise built around it, which is designed to effectively king make people.
Jerry Saltz: I’m going to divide this into two things. One, okay, and then criticism of the Mega gallery. My book Art Is Life tells the story of Art of this century. The twenty-first century, we may say, and I write this in the book that from the contested Election, 2000 of Bush vs Gore through nine eleven and the Bush Cheney war machine. And all the revolutions all the way to the contested revolution of revolution. Election of 2022 till today. None of the Art made in this century has been made under vaguely normal circumstances. And that much of that Art therefore, has a deep content of the now and that part of that deep content is the conflict. The shifting, you know, tectonics, social, economic, cultural, political, political, political, that was on the one hand,
On the other hand, there was the rise of money. More money came into the Art world than frankly, had ever been here in the history of the world. More schools existed and produced more Artists which created more galleries, which created more collectors and curators and directors, and looser older Jewish Art critics and all of the rest of us. But then something happened in that period, Jonathan, about what you call Mega galleries. The answer to every question turned out. We simplified the question of like, what is to be done about the museum? What is to be done about the gallery? What is to be done about the career about the market? The answer to every One of these questions was, I don’t know is the unspoken part, but let’s make it bigger. So everything became more just like after 9-11. America did not change. On 9-11 America, a demonic force was released into the world that resulted in the annihilation of the then two largest things on earth, a national television before the, you know, a, then four billion people. And that America started becoming and is still doing so. More of what it already was. That’s what the Election of Trump was. He was already there. The answer to every question was make it bigger. So more money came in. Prices went up, galleries got bigger, useless, gigantic atriums were built in museums, glass walls. Moma rebuilt itself at a cost of a billion dollars in 2004 and the outside of the building. I always tell famous architects, I’m lucky to know them. You can do anything you want to the outside of your buildings. You can make them look like pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies on the Baltic, shiny triangles. I do not care what you do with the outside of your buildings, but the inside belongs to Art. And what they did is they made the inside of the building filled with staircases, perches and glass atriums that have to be air conditioned and heated for the rest of time. And collections were cheated. Art was cheated. Artists were cheated in the Art galleries. The honey smell of money must have called hundreds of Artists and galleries started multiplying to where Larry Gagosian now has more than twenty two locations. And probably you and I will end up working for Hauser Wirth, which actually I think owns an island somewhere off England. I don’t know what they all alone, and we should be envious and jealous, but that is just part of the system. In the meantime, Art fairs have proliferated and I could go on and on. On the other hand, with the social changes. Finally, Art world apartheid started and is more speeding up coming to an end that underrepresented Artists, women, Artists, Artists, of color, disabled, etc., etc., were able to take the stage en masse. This has caused some of that criticism to be all positive, and I understand that we are seeing stories, Jonathan, that we have never seen in the history of Art. Because of just with the example of women say that fifty One percent of the population story was never seen before. This is not true in literature, but it was true in my world, the Art world, which talked the talk but did not walk the walk. The argument against it these days is but Jerry, all so much of it is mediocre. So many of these TV shows are mediocre, and the books are mediocre and the movies. My answer is yes, it is mediocre, but it’s no more or less mediocre than the mediocre Art that got through in the last say, two hundred and fifty years. There’s a very successful artist, I won’t punch down his name is Sean Scully respected, sells for in the millions paint stripes and boxes and squiggles. Very handsome, abstract paintings has museum shows. He’s mediocre. And I always tell people, eighty five percent of the Art made during the renaissance was mediocre. You just never see it. So, as an older person, Jonathan, I now accept that change is more important than anything else right now. And that all of the bad Art or the mediocre, it’ll get filtered out. It’s not to get our shorts in. What about and when I don’t like something, I’ll say it and we should talk about it. If I can shut my app, what happens when a critic says, a woman, Artists say is bad. What happens is if I say a woman is bad, or if your Art is about social justice and I don’t like your Art, the horrible thing that’s happened for a critic is, if I don’t like your Art about social justice, I’m attacked in articles are written and things are run in the New York Post now jerry Salts is against social justice. And I always want to go, no, I just didn’t like the work. The subject matter is the first thing you see, but you can’t only see the subject matter again. If you did all crucifixions, would be the exact same all bathers by a river, all luncheons on the grass, all cows in a field. All abstract paintings would be the same but they’re not. So I should just take a nap. I probably. I’ve bored everyone because I do spend all day every day with my wife in the apartment alone. We see twenty five or thirty five shows a week. We go out, we come home. We speak to demons. How we shouldn’t ever be able to write anything because we’re not that good. And then we meet our deadline. The last thing I’ll say is I, the one thing I’m most proud of in my job life is I’ve never missed a deadline. And I recommend any deadline person to never miss one, don’t call your Art dealer, go. I broke my wrist even though you didn’t. And I can’t do the show. Just meet the deadline, you big babies.
Jonathan Fields: There’s a lot to dive into there but. But there’s one thing that actually, and like you kind of walk through like there’s this just complete creative destruction and reimagining of what’s been going on, both in terms of the content and the Art itself. But also the system that supports it, that supports Artists that provides access to it. And as you shared on the one hand there, you know, like you could look at it and say, oh like, this is the downfall of everything that was good. But your frame is no actually like blowing up is change and change is good. It’s creating more access for more people and it will all shake out the way that needs to shake out. So part of my curiosity around that is, you know, part of this transition to a certain extent is on the One hand, you’re seeing the gatekeepers getting bigger and bigger and bigger and more and more and more powerful. But simultaneous with that, you are seeing paths to building a body of work to building direct relationships with people who would enjoy your work. You would support it financially. You like these are breaking out into the whatever and a good friend of mine who was a teacher and then in her it is always assumed that she was not the artistic kid in the family and started just to make illustrations. And for the joy of it and for practice, she decided every day for a year on Instagram, she would Post a collection of things where she would Post an illustration as a learning tool and accountability mechanism. You know, fast forward it’s got to be ten or fifteen years right now. And she has built for herself a fantastic career as an illustrator, like with commissions all over the place with commercial collaborations, and also like you know, pieces hanging in people’s houses in different places. And whether there are enough people who look at the work that she creates and puts out into the world and are moved by it that she now has been able to bypass all of the old systems and completely control her destiny. And the only person that to her, it matters who likes her work, are the people that are directly in relationship with her. I’m fascinated by, what seems like a simultaneous emergence of the like the mass expansion of the old system. And then simultaneously, the proliferation of all sorts of ways to bypass that system for people who are looking to do that.
Jerry Saltz: I love the way you put it. Listener’s read Jonathan don’t read me. You saw how long winded it took me to get there. But yes, there’s these God awful Art Fairs that go on. Twenty four seven that probably burn up more carbon, you know, unpacking and getting there than many industries. But on the other hand, look at your Instagrams and see all of these black Artists that are there. Producing bodies of work being seen for the first time, Getting a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance like me, from the trucks where they never would have had that. And the machine, as horrendous as it is the market, fifty percent of our collectors are probably far right wing Republicans and are against every single thing that most of this Art says it’s about. Those are the same people that like Bruce Springsteen and tell them to shut up and sing. But it doesn’t seem to matter. We are and I write this, you might have read it. This is the time of paradox. It may be obscene and growing and far too expensive. I mean, you know, a new artist now might cost seventy five thousand dollars. And that to me is not great. I think it’s a self-defeating system, but you know what? It hasn’t defeated itself yet. And there are all these rich people that are still willing to do it. I think also what you bring up is that the gatekeeper question. This is a game changer. When I first posted on Facebook whenever that was fifteen years, twelve years ago, and accidentally instead of writing, I went to the dentist today. I wrote, I made without thinking I put a picture of Marlene Dumas, a very well-known Dutch figurative painter. And I said, this is why I don’t like her work. And on that day, Jonathan, instead of like thirty five forty people saying Yes, I went to the doctor too. It’s very cold in autumn. All of a sudden, five hundred people came on my Facebook who I never knew were out there. It told me why I was a jackass. And within one second, I saw the whole thing. I saw a way out of my dilemma, which was the pyramidical structure that you are referring to of the One speaking down to the many. And I saw in an instant that on Facebook there were no other platforms. And on Facebook you could have the many speak to one another. And that this could be major. And I went on to do it and a little bit in Twitter or a much weaker there because you have to be smarter and snappier and that isn’t my style. I’m a little long winded, for a 149 characters or whatever it is. And especially Instagram, I used to be on those power, One hundred Art lists and all the magazines. And I remember about eight years ago, One of them warned me the last year I was on saying, Jerry Saltz us this and that. And he’s One of the fifty six most powerful and but they warned me they said however, if he keeps practicing Art criticism online, he will devalue the field. And I never look back from that. I just thought, yeah, your definition of my definition of success and the field and the expanded field is totally different and I can’t get in your game. You won’t let me in your game and anyway, the top forty people on your list are your advertisers. What the hell am I supposed to do? I can’t afford a fifteen thousand dollar color ad. So the gatekeepers being down means that you can have a career and an audience that is not as big as say, you know, Jeff Koons. But maybe you don’t need the whole bloody world to be loving your work and buying it. It’s possible and I’m telling you, I know it happens five or ten collectors could support you. One curator, two critics, and you only need to fake out one dealer, pull the wool over her or his eyes, and think that your work is any good. And if they stick with you, all of this is in motion, what you describe is true, access has changed. Again, crapola gets through, but I’m crapola and I got through and then it’s my job to stay and play.
Jonathan Fields: So I agree and it’s it is amazing to see the pace of change accelerate. Also it’s, it’s breathtaking and slightly terrifying. Because if, if you try and keep up with it, it can brutalize you at the same time. The other thing I just wanted to bring up is this notion of and you’ve written about this and you’ve spoken about it, but it’s also really emerging in all the different things that you’re talking about. Here is the role of cynicism. It seems like this. Cynicism has been turned into an industry to a certain extent, in the name of value criticism, or arbiters of like cutting all of the noise in the name of really finding the signal. And yet, it can be such a devastating weight.
Jerry Saltz: Terrible
Jonathan Fields: You know, you’re open, you’ll be direct, you’ll critique, you say exactly what’s on your mind. But it’s never from the place of a cynic. It’s always from the place of hope and possibility.
Jerry Saltz: I love what you’re saying, because I think that cynicism, contrary to everyone’s belief, doesn’t cut out the noise. It cut out the signal. When you think, you know why some bozo is doing what she’s doing, or why that picture of a young Ecuadorian man dancing is selling to a museum. When you think you know that you actually stop knowing whatever it is that’s in the work and where it fits and how it fits. I have two rules on Instagram and I made them up that same day on Facebook. One, you may call me any name you wish. I have elephant skin, and I recommend that all people that live in our world of any creativity accept rejection, but not be defined by it. I have elephant skin, but you may not call anybody else in this thread. A name because that’s when things go to hell. Everybody starts fighting and I can’t even keep track. The other thing is I block cynics. That means when you say, well, I know why she got the show. Her father is a trustee at mulk, blah, blah, blah. And I always tell people the same way every person listening to this comes to hear from trauma. Every work of Art has courage in it. Even if my work is no good, somehow I mustered what little I have to put together into this bad review. You’ve made your bad macramé. Whatever it is. And I always dismiss cynics because they make me sleepy. They make me sad. That Cynicism thinks it knows things when it knows fuck nothing. Certitude, to me, is the enemy of Art. Like I say, Art is a paradox. More than One thing is true at a time about it. So that’s where I’m coming from. You know, and like I say it’s an all volunteer army. And if you want to come, come, just stay up late every night with other vampires like you make a small gang, protect each other at all costs and go for it. If somebody like me can get anything, I promise you, you were never a bigger loser or poorer. Possibly that could be wrong. I was. So go for what do you have to lose? Really?!
Jonathan Fields: I love that.
Jerry Saltz: So please do.
Jonathan Fields: And that feels like a good place for us to come full circle as well. So in this container of Good Life Project. If I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up for you?
Jerry Saltz: First, I would say time, you must define success, not as happiness because I’m successful and I’m not happy all the time. I’m successful and I don’t have a lot of money, so it’s not money. I’m successful and have I have recognition, but critics are lost. The minute they die, most people listening to this have never read the most famous Art critic that ever lived. What’s his name, Clement Greenberg. They read two essays by him. But they haven’t really read his work. So it isn’t a, you know, eternity and immortality. What it is is time, what I want you to have in your work, is the time to make your work, whatever that is, muster the courage to make it. And make an enemy of envy. Because if you spend that doom scrolling first ninety minutes of Instagram or whatever you’re scrolling, looking at others and how pretty their ankles are and how rich they are and why they’re in Venice and you’re not. Envy will eat you alive. It will really eat you alive. And so make an enemy of envy today, and that to me will set you on living a really good life. You walk around instead of your big green eyeballs looking out the window looking in and that’s not so bad. You’ll be thinking, I’m a fucking genius. Then you have to prove something, so that’s the good life to me and take better care of your teeth.
Jonathan Fields: Thank you. Until next time I’m Jonathan fields. Signing off for a Good Life Project.