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Jerry Saltz on the future of art criticism, Miami, secrets to success and comedians

Jerry Saltz. Image courtesy of Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.

Jerry Saltz: senior art critic for New York Magazine, judge of Bravo’s Work of Art, and compulsive facebook user. There is little introduction to made for one of the most magnetic personalities in the contemporary art world. In anticipation for his lecture just past at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, Jane Hart, Curator of Exhibitions facilitated a little interview for me with Jerry. We spoke over the phone and discussed his take on everything from facebook to the meaning of honesty in art criticism and his daily ritual of sitting in front of the computer from 7:30 am to 1 am.

Art criticism is such a funny animal and with the supersonic spread of blogging, tweeting, facebook status updates, etc it’s become even more so. You use both shorthand and longer prose formats and I wonder if you have a preference for one or the other?

JS: I would like to collapse both formats. I don’t make a distinction between “serious” and “not serious” writing. I always write about serious stuff that I’m thinking about in either format. I write for the reader. Most things I read are too long and don’t get to the point. You can go through five paragraphs before you get to one critical adjective that maybe has a point. Density in all things is good.

An art critic has to make themselves as vulnerable as what you’re writing about. You have to get out there and make yourself as available as possible. I don’t like being the critic on top of the mountain, speaking down to the masses. I want the many to speak to one another… to create a horizontal conversation. Art criticism should be chaotic and should recreate the experience of looking at art. It should not be easy to process, because looking at art is not easy to process.

And besides, art criticism doesn’t pay anything. And in all likelihood in the future it will pay even less so. So what that means is that you have total freedom in what you write about. There is no writing for money. You’re writing for the reader and reading about art can be as exciting as looking and talking about art.

Going back to what you had mentioned about the vulnerability, which format to find to be most honest?

JS: Every format! Look, if you’re not honest, the reader will know it in two seconds. You fall into the Mitt Romney role. Artforum is pornography. I can’t understand what they’re saying and they’re not taking any kind of a risk.

And beyond that honesty is really only a lie. A critic is like an artist inventing their ideas, language, persona, syntax, etc. It’s a fabrication. It’s really the idea of Wallace Stevens’ “supreme fiction.”

The effects of the onslaught of Art Basel Miami Beach have been widely discussed among locals in the art community as both a blessing and a curse. Based on your previous discussion on art fairs in general and their relationship to artists and art-making what are some of the positive and negative/ social and economic ramifications of this kind of event on a relatively young art community?

JS: Ok, Art Basel Miami Beach: good for emerging artists, good for the blood, good for parties and touching antennae and having a good time. How can it be bad, if you have the entire volunteer army of the art world at your doorstep? To say it’s a bad thing is being ungenerous. Even as fucked up as things have gotten, as horrendous as the equation between capital and quality has become within this system.

And it has to die; in fact it’s dying as we speak. I just posted an article today in response to Adam Lindemann and Charles Saatchi already turning on the system they helped to create. But this doesn’t mean we have to throw out the baby with the bastards. In fact, the babies need the bastards and vice versa.

One of his recent posts in New York Magazine is a sharp lashing of  Adam Lindemann’s supposed moratorium on this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach (he did in fact attend), and Charles Saatchi’s harsh criticism of the current state of the art world and collecting.

After we spoke, Adam Lindemann posted this response in the NY Observer.

“More on Miami – I’ve heard complaints from a lot of local artists about the void in Miami after Art Basel. Is it a viable place for an artist to work and hope to enjoy some success beyond our swamps and beaches? Is New York still the Shangri-La of the art world?”

JS: In Miami you can have a life, a studio and afford to work. Wherever you are, an artist needs to test your ideas out on strangers on a regular basis.

If you move to New York you won’t die, you’ll live in a shit hole, and you will have an inner life, but your outer life will die. In Miami, you can have an outer life and an inner life. I have no outer life, which is why I look the way I do. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

(Jerry’s concept of the inner life refers to artistic practices and time spent thinking, talking and working, while the outer life could possibly include everything else.)

So what’s better? Do you have to move to New York to get rich and famous? I don’t know… it helps.

I have two secrets. I am going to tell you the second one first. I have very thick skin. I never take criticism personally because I know that there is probably a grain of truth to it. Even though it hurts, I always address them back. If you’re writing to be loved, then you’ve got trouble. I’ve never been asked to write for Artforum and they would never ask me to either. My voice would make no sense there.

The first secret is energy. Put yourself out there and produce, produce, produce. I have no degree (except my three honorary PhDs), and started in my forties, I’m a late bloomer. But I just put myself out there every day.

Finally, who is your favorite comedian?

JS: Sarah Silverman, Larry David, and I’m old school so Chris Rock.

One could argue this point, but Jerry Saltz is one of the art world’s most distinct figures. He is known for his unabashed critical observations of the contemporary art world and of course his wit. People either love him or hate him… either way they find themselves reading what he has to say. Saltz’s approach to art criticism is considered brazenly honest and straightforward, and he is not one to squirrel away from voicing his opinion, a quality that has also gained him cult status among fans.  Jerry credits his self-proclaimed “privileged” role and unique approach to beginning his career late in life. If you can imagine it, he once drove semi trucks across country and did not begin writing about art until his forties. Even now, when asked about being an art critic and how he came to be, Jerry has this to say:

JS: I feel lucky to get whatever I get. I’m where I am partly out of desperation. I came into the game so late, and I had to admit how badly I wanted to be in the art world. And I don’t consider myself a critic. At best, I consider myself a folk critic.

Upon finishing up the interview, Jerry invited me to communicate on facebook and exchange ideas with him on his page. I may be taking liberties here, but I invite all you facebookers (even the ones with the secret accounts) to do the same. Even if you hate him, go ahead, he can take it[.]

This past Saturday Jerry Saltz gave a lecture as part of the Hot Topics Discussion Series at Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.  For more information about past and future lectures in this series please go to:

This post was contributed by Melissa Diaz.

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Jerry Saltz on the future of art criticism, Miami, secrets to success and comedians