I was bribed to undertake this hatchet job on Jerry Saltz who, when young, wrote for the New Art Examiner. I have no beef with him myself but my editor offered marriage to his eldest daughter with the olive groves as a dowry. Or was it a laurel wreath? I have nothing against his wit, vocabulary or turn of phrase, though I cringe when I see him on YouTube, he looks like Hemingway’s man ‘with the eyes of a failed rapist’. Something broke in his youth, perhaps from antisemitism, and everything from that moment was coloured by his shame. My own lack of principles, for chopping Jerry in order to line my own pockets, should warn the reader to draw their own conclusions and not take my word for granted. But this disclosure allows me an unusual freedom of expression, without being unfair.
Jerry Saltz wrote of himself “It pains me to say it, but I am a failed artist… I miss art terribly. I’ve never really talked about my work to anyone. In my writing, I’ve occasionally mentioned bygone times of once being an artist, usually laughingly. Whenever I think of that time, I feel stabs of regret… But once I quit, I quit; I never made art again and never even looked at the work I had made. Until last month, when my editors suggested that I write about my life as a young artist… But then I looked back, into the abyss of self-doubt. I erupted with fear, self-loathing, dark thoughts about how bad my work was, how pointless, unoriginal, ridiculous. ‘You don’t know how to draw … You never went to school. Your work has nothing to do with anything. You’re not a real artist. Your art is irrelevant. You don’t know art history. You can’t paint … You don’t have enough time to make your work. No one cares about you. You’re a fake. You only draw and work small because you’re too afraid to paint and work big. ‘Every artist does battle, every day, with doubts like these. I lost the battle. It doomed me. But also made me the critic I am today.’ (My Life As a Failed Artist 2017)
It was a similar affair with John Powers, a 21-year-old art student who answered a help-wanted ad at the SoHo studio of Jeff Koons (I was Jeff Koons’ studio serf 2012). Paid $14/hr., for six months he was the lead painter of “Cracked Egg” which in 2003 sold at Christie’s London for $501,933, at the time Koons’ most expensive painting. Powers tells, ‘The following year, I left school without a degree. In my final critique, my professors piled into my tiny studio and ripped me to pieces. I’ll admit I had it coming. My work exhibited every bad habits they’d tried and failed to break. It was too tight, too constrained, too controlled. And it was too late to start over.’
In Zoroastrianism, the devil Ahriman is born from Ahura-Mazda’s doubting thought. Jerry Saltz’s failure, just like John Powers’, was listening to their doubts, believing their insecurities. They didn’t have to do that. Both Saltz and Powers had a choice of rejecting self-denial, of validating themselves as individuals but they didn’t know that, so they allowed doubt to sap their self-confidence. The ancient Farsi said it best – doubt is the devil in disguise.
His detractors say Saltz is a Johnny Carson of art who could not succeed without New York, but then his “protractors” mention how many try and how few actually make it; that takes talent. The hardest thing is to write a small town review that attracts big town eyes. Not so in New York with its publications, money, its market exporting ideas and fashion, bestowing success and publicity. Hello, Art Hollywood. A cathedral with main altar and side altars, with Jerry as the cheeky chappie buzzing center stage, although no one would look up were he to buzz the county line. Saltz’ wife Roberta Smith is art critic for The New York Times and a lecturer on contemporary art, a protege of Ross Kraus. She writes straight structuralism and post modern art criticism. Solid conservative, reliable but very cautious.
His nemeses shadow him, saying Saltz plays at trendy liberalism, his writing accessible à la Readers’ Digest. His critics also maintain his following is nurtured on smart public relations described as “oozing self-conscientious sincerity; quick to sense the popular zeitgeist he draws a large following of people out for an easy fix”. Last year, as a gag, he published his bank account to prove he did not make much money, a tacky stunt like dropping your pants on stage. But then he surprises with some intelligent words. “I think of Marianne Moore’s poem on her beloved subject, ‘Poetry,’ which begins, “I, too, dislike it.”
Still at times Jerry Saltz seems light-weight for rubbernecking unsound ideas. He wrote, “All great contemporary artists, schooled or not, are essentially self-taught and are de-skilling like crazy. I don’t look for skill in art…Skill has nothing to do with technical proficiency” (Seeing Out Loud 2005).
I’m unsure how Saltz reconciles that with dictionary synonyms for skill: technical proficiency, ability, mastery, capability, artistry, virtuosity, talent, expertise, skillfulness, adeptness, deftness, dexterity. It is possible for a poet or painter’s skill to be insufficient to their inspiration. Skill has everything to do with technical proficiency. As if lack of skill could work miracles. It sound like a Republican health care plan. No crippling of one’s ability nor downsizing one’s skill can, by any miracle, exceed the mastery of a skilled practice, even during the golden age of the simple minded. Then what we seek in art is not failure but vision, and complex vision is expressed in complex statements, not in the scribbling of the illiterate.
In Critique as Unlearning (e-flux.conversations, 2017) Sreshta Rit Premnath, artist and Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Parsons New School, personifies a language hosting superficial trends over the realities of complex history. “…I would like to consider what it might mean if we took Gayatri Spivak’s call to unlearn one’s learning and unlearn one’s privilege as the aim of studio critique.” As Premnath suggests we unlearn our education, we notice a critique of education and privilege by a very privileged tenured New York academic earning many times the typical wage, who is not about to unlearn his education, the fundamentals of his own power. Unlearning our way to an innocent politically correct utopia is a childish fantasy, superficial trends ignore the complex realities of history; historical illiteracy.
Benjamin Buchloh also asserts that Art Is Not About Skill (published on e.flux.conversations). He advocates for artists to “de-skill” in order to bring about a golden age of the ignorant. Unfortunately no downsizing or crippling of one’s ability can rival a skilled practice; the words are synonymous, art means a level of skill that creates spiritual values. A person lacking spiritual values is simply another monkey with a diploma, patiently tolerated by the lectern in a seminar room.
Jerry Saltz is better than that; insecurity can raise one to the dignity of an art critic. He writes well, makes sense, and conveys myriad details that bring a scene to life. That means not only plenty of research but a type of magical luck that drops wild card information in your lap, which only happens to those blessed by the gods of creativity. Jerry’s writing has the right words and spicy outlook, but he can’t hold my attention long. I am not drawn to keep reading as my eyes drop off the page. Jerry’s not bad but he could be better and for that he need a special kind of shrink.
Jerry, pick up your paintbrush again. That investment in your self-esteem would improve your writing and provide real world experience. Instead of falling for nonsense, you would understand the meaning of art as you did the days when you wrote for the New Art Examiner.
And last, but not least, you’re in New York. Wanna hustle some bucks? By now, any gallery will give you a show since New York’s about notoriety not talent. And who knows, you might even have talent, which awakens when you take that risk and believe in yourself.
Miklos Legrady holds a B.Sc. in Photography from the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, N.Y. / S.U.N.Y, Purchase, N.Y., and an M.F.A. in Photography and Multi-Media from Concordia University in Montreal. He was co-founder of the New York performance group The Collective Unconscious and co-director for 3 years. His writing on art theory has been published since 2015 and as of 2017 Legrady is Toronto Editor of Chicago’s New Art Examiner.
Volume 32 no 3 Jan/Feb 2018 pp 16 -17