Jerry Saltz with Jarrett Earnest
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): For various reasons, some of which you’re responsible for and some of which you aren’t, you often get talked about as a cartoon character. So I would like to get more of a sense of you as a person. Perhaps we should start with your early life: when did you first become conscious of art and decide that you wanted to be an artist?
Jerry Saltz: I hated art as a kid. It was for sissies. I grew up in the inner city of Chicago. Then my father invented something called the “Dexter Hand Sewing Machine”—you may have seen it late at night on cheap-o commercials—and made enough money to move to the suburbs. Art was not part of my life in any way, shape, or form. It wasn’t anything we thought of or talked about. One day when I was ten years old my mother brought me to the Art Institute of Chicago and kind of parked me there—it was a real mystery to me, I didn’t really understand it. I walked around there, and at one point got stuck looking at two paintings. In one a guy was in a prison cell with people visiting him outside. In the next his head was on the ground, and his neck was spouting blood through the cell. I remember looking back and forth and it suddenly hit me that these two paintings were a narrative, they were telling a story. My mind was blown. I looked around and thought, Everything here is telling a story, everything here has a code, has a language—and I’m going to learn this whole language and I’m going to know the story.
Shortly after that my mother committed suicide. We were never told about it, so what sounds like a traumatic event never, in my life, actually happened. I came home and was only told my mother had gone to visit the angels, and that was it. She was never spoken of again in our house, never, not once. And I never went back to a museum and long forgot about that episode, until many years later I realized my favorite artist was Giovanni di Paolo, the 15th-century painter who made those two paintings I had seen. Later when I saw his work I went completely wild inside—the Met has two. I did not know why at first, but now it’s obvious.
Rail: So your mother, out of the blue, took you to the museum? Was she artistic?
Saltz: She was a housewife. I had two other brothers—this is so boring. Do you know where I begin when I read biographies? I skip to the chapter that starts, “And then she arrived in New York City,” or, “And then he came to Paris,” or, “And then they got to Moscow.” I have no interest in people’s early lives. I always assume the author will say there is some connection—duh! I just want to read about what happened once you got there, but that’s me.
Rail: So you have an aversion to me asking about your childhood?
Saltz: Yes! [Laughter.] I can analyze anyone else’s. I almost think it all goes without saying, so I’m not that interested in biography doing that.
Rail: But that story about the paintings was really terrific.
Saltz: O.K., well, Giovanni di Paolo—look at the stuff I love: I love narrative, I love small scale, I love local color. Don’t forget, if you know his style, he’s painting during the Renaissance, but he’s still in a late medieval mode. He’s an individual, and I’m totally interested in that.
Rail: You say you’re not a reader, so when you saw those paintings and realized they were stories, what was your context for narrative—from TV or movies or comic books?
Saltz: I think it came from growing up in a house where nothing was spoken about, so I had to grow invisible antennae. Looking back, I suspect that in this fine middle-class suburb I was treated differently as a child of a suicide, that people around me, people’s parents would have changed. There would have been a dark cloud over me. I suspect that that’s how I grew these antennae. I have a great sense of the pheromones and the kind of group-mind around me, and I’m constantly making giant stories out of that.
Of course, I watched TV, but mainly I was a kid who watched sports and whatever sitcoms were on at that time. I wasn’t a film student and certainly I didn’t read. Never occurred to me to read. It was out of the question. To this day, I pick one gigantic book each year and spend the whole year reading it. I’m a slow reader, but I’m going back to get the whole canon. I started with the Iliad and proceeded from there; if you name a big epic, I’ve been there.
Rail: Without trying to bog you down in more biographical tedium: Chekhov’s gun is placed on the mantle at age ten in the Art Institute of Chicago. When does it finally go off? When did you decide to be an artist?
Saltz: In high school I was not good with girls and I looked around and saw that the theatre people were having sex and the art people were having sex. The theater people were a bit, you know, demonstrative—I wasn’t reading the codes. So I picked art, and thought I’d try to go into the art world. I somehow ending up thinking of myself as an artist—I don’t think I knew a thing about art. Art to me was Michelangelo, Salvador Dalí, Gustav Klimt, Vincent van Gogh, M.C. Escher, and Norman Rockwell—that’s probably my canon. It’s a nightmare canon, it’s a disaster, but that’s the suburban middle-class kid in me who didn’t know, and who was too stupid and too smart-alecky to learn. So I tried to go to some school—didn’t work. Tried to go to the Art Institute, and just started hanging out in the cafeteria, going to protest marches, trying to meet girls, saying I was an artist.
Rail: What is interesting to me about that story is that I don’t recognize any artist I know as having had that experience. It’s almost always something they know very early on. It never seems like a decision they drifted into.
Saltz: They’re like ventriloquists or gay people: apparently you know when you’re very young if you’re going to be a ventriloquist. Like very young. Then you go through phases of denying, accepting, or trying it out. Artists usually know when they’re very young without going through the “hiding” part of the narrative. I did not know. I had no vision of my life.
Rail: What you said about developing antennae to piece together larger narratives makes a lot of sense, because that is something that has run through your writing career. For instance, those two early books you did in the ’80s: Beyond Boundaries: New York’s New Art, and Sketchbook for Voices.
Saltz: I tried to throw all the copies of Beyond Boundaries out but some survive.
Rail: I got them both online, easily. They’re really interesting as documents surveying New York at that time. You’d been in New York for five or six years then, and you did these books attempting to make a big picture of what the art world was like. How did you start working on them?
Saltz: There is another phase I haven’t written about, it was the last phase of making art. Another portfolio of my very last work just surfaced and I’m about to get it back. These are portfolios that I thought I had thrown out, that were lost along the way, and out of nowhere it looks like about seven hundred drawings surfaced.
Anyway: I tried to keep making art in New York, it didn’t work. I got a job as a long-distance truck driver, and I was miserable. Just in agony. I would romanticize it to people, oh yeah I’m going down to Texas again, the whole thing. Eric Fischl, who I knew from Chicago, asked if I’d like to help him with a book he was doing called Sketchbook with Voices—would I be the one to interview artists and find out what problems they would assign to the art world? He payed me with a drawing, which I lost or a girlfriend got along the way, so that was irrelevant. It reintroduced me to wanting to be in the art world. The artists in that book were famous—I would have nervous breakdowns doing them. I remember standing at Alex Katz’s doorbell and thinking, I’ve got to get out of here, I can’t do this. I don’t know how you’ve done it as a young guy, meeting all these really famous people, because I have a fear of really famous people, to this day.
I kept making art, and I got this assignment with Eric Fischl, and thought, Oh gee, I could be an art critic—that must be easy! You know, maybe I could meet women that way, maybe I could be in the art world that way. Maybe I could be back into the family of art that way. It’s not like I didn’t know what was going on in art either. In that period, if you asked me any ’80s artist, I could tell you who they were, in Germany or here, didn’t matter, I knew. Then the people who did Eric’s book offered me to do Beyond Boundaries and it was as the exact moment that the early ’80s were segueing into the much bigger thing of the late ’80s—commodity art, neo-conceptualism, all of that theory-inflected work that would grow into multiculturalism. I happened to put enough of them in the book not to look back and be totally horrified that I missed them.
Rail: Why do you have such a bad feeling toward that book?
Saltz: I wasn’t grounded enough. I shouldn’t have been the one to do a book like that. Again, it wasn’t paid, I’ve never been paid for any of the books I’ve done. I’ve done five and never got one dime for it. But I think most people on our side of the aisle, in criticism, just want to be in print—I do. I’m not ashamed of them, but I’ve never looked at them again.
Rail: When you first started writing criticism was it for Arts magazine?
Saltz: I wanted to be an art critic, and as a drove around the trucks I would fantasize about what I would do. I thought, I’ve got to be different somehow. I came up with this idea that I wanted to write about one work of art, as opposed to a show. I would start writing columns on a single artworks: “notes on a painting”, “notes on a sculpture”. So I floated my crush on Arts magazine around the high school that was the art world, Oh, I sure would like to write for Richard Martin. One day he called up and said, Hello I’m Richard Martin, would you like to write for Arts? and I told him my idea, and he said, Sure. And I started. It took me the full month to do it—I looked back now and that’s sort of unbelievable. I’ve never had the luxury of that much time again. And that is how I started.
Rail: That was the late ’80s?
Saltz: I’m born in 1951 and I’m sixty-seven during this interview, and I think that my first piece probably appeared in ’89. Just so everyone reading this knows: Late! Bloomer! I am a very late bloomer, and you can be too! I was thirty-eight years old before I wrote my first word. Mozart was dead by then. Michelangelo had made the David at twenty-nine. I really started late and I’ve never gone back to read that work either; I tend not to look at the early stuff.
Rail: You started to write for Art in America in the early 1990s.
Saltz: Arts closed and Betsy Baker of Art in America asked if I wanted to write for her and I said yes.
Rail: Do you remember how that happened?
Saltz: I have to assume that I would hang out as much as I could back then, and hope that I could maybe get a job somewhere. Roberta and Betsy knew each other. I always assumed at that phase of my life I was getting things because I was with Roberta. I’m aware of that.
Rail: By the time Beyond Boundaries comes out, which Roberta wrote an essay for, she had just started writing for the New York Times?
Saltz: When we started working together she had been fired from the Voice and had no job at all. It was a short period, maybe a year. She was single, I was single, she was a freelancer, and we got together. We celebrated her first column for the Times together as a couple.
Rail: That’s a great relationship marker!
Saltz: I’ll say.
Rail: So how did you start learning to write criticism?
Saltz: Everything I learned about criticism I probably learned from Roberta. Before Roberta, I thought, I guess you talk to the artist and you get the inside scoop there, then maybe you read all these smarty-pants theory people and you throw a bunch of that in, and that will be what criticism is. In very short order I saw Roberta was doing it another way, and I loved what she was doing. I had never read her once before the Times, because again, I was a lazy smart-alecky guy, and because I thought, Oh, she’s former Village Voice critic—she was famous once and now she’s in the wilderness. I’ll rescue her! [Laughter.]
I learned to look at the art myself, from Roberta. I learned not to talk to the artist, from Roberta. And then from myself and necessity I learned that I have to tell the truth. As deadlines came faster, and I took what I was doing more seriously, rather than just as a device to be in the art world somehow, or to be liked, I started realizing that I was hearing all sorts of things in my head that I hadn’t been writing but now wanted to write—in order to be as honest as I could in my criticism, to say the positive but also the negative. I became horrified by criticism that was all positive, all the time. Sometimes there seemed to be a squirrelly opinion buried deep in an Artforum review, where in the second-to-last ’graph, they’d say, Such and such this problematizes the art…. Then you never really know where they stood. When I read things like that, I always felt like the critic wasn’t putting herself or himself on the line, that they were hiding behind something. I hated it. I’d say, there’s no juice here, there is nothing vulnerable, there’s nothing real. And so I tried to write in my real voice, so that people could say, Well, Jerry is a dope, or, Jerry is on to something. Or, There is a grain of truth to what he’s saying. And that is what I was trying to do when I started writing criticism.
Rail: It seems like one of the ways you started creating an identity for yourself as a critic was in the big pieces you wrote for Art in America in the early ’90s. They were these epic, marathon pieces, beginning with one called “May Day” in 1993.
Saltz: It’s detailing everything that happened on one day in the art world in 1993. Like forty shows opened that day and I wanted to create a sense of how much was in play. Maybe how much is always in play in art.
Rail: And it was a really long piece.
Saltz: It was a hinge moment, and we’re in one now—an extended one, let me tell you. Then I did “A Year in the life of Painting.”—
Rail: Right, called “Tropic of Painting,” in 1994. You created like 12 categories to talk about everything that happened in painting, my favorite being “Our Bodies, Ourselves, You Asshole” to discuss painters like Nicole Eisenman and Lisa Yuskavage. How did you conceive of doing these pieces? Because they have a pretty unusual form.
Saltz: I always think the “form” of criticism is really worth plumbing and playing around with and seeing what can be done. I don’t think I invented this. I give you Oscar Wilde’s “Critic as Artist” as an example, or my favorite, Alexander Pope, “An Essay On Criticism” and that is written in rhyming fucking couplets.
Rail: Well he was just deliciously the smartest—The Rape of the Lock? Story of my life.
Saltz: I know. [Laughter.] And he writes, by the way, my favorite translation—
Rail: Of the Illiad. Mine too. And it’s deeply out of fashion. Every time I try to get someone to read it they say, No thank you. They want something that sounds more modern and raw and thus somehow more ancient.
Saltz: It’s totally accessible because it’s in rhyming couplets—you read two lines and catch your breath, and it’s all there again. I’ve never read the Dryden Odyssey, which some people swear by, but it has a longer rhyme scheme and because of my learning disabilities I can’t track that long.
But back to those long articles, I thought, Play with this form. Make this alive. Criticism should be interesting, and I thought maybe I could make it more than just about the show, and I could frankly cover my weakness in an open way without shame. I’m very prejudiced, but I think Roberta is unsurpassed at examining a work of art—really looking at it. Maybe my attention span isn’t long enough or my eye isn’t sharp enough, but I needed, out of necessity, to find other things to do in criticism.
Rail: What is interesting to me about those long pieces is that they seemed like the beginning of you using yourself as a persona within the writing, as a character.
Saltz: I’d say that is true, too. I started to locate myself in it: I’m at dinner, I went here, I felt bad about having to invite myself there. I liked doing that, a lot obviously.
Rail: The other thing about those pieces, which relates to something we started talking about earlier, is that they’re almost panoramic views of the art world as a whole system. The thing that is so charming about the “Tropic of Painting” essay is that you talk about noting it all on sheets of colored graph paper, all the painting shows of the year, and doing the percentages. It seems that grappling with this bigger quantifiable art world was part of what your persona was—
Saltz: I think that’s very perceptive and it goes all the way back with me, of wanting to grow antennae. To see if I could understand this thing that I don’t understand. Because, we don’t understand Mozart. We don’t understand art. And yet I’m always looking for gigantic systems—like Dante. I’ve read all of Proust. All of Whitman. Every epic. I’m re-reading Paradise Lost. If I could develop a system to understand the whole world then I’d know more than I could know. These are obviously juvenile ways of trying to have control, of a life I had no control over as a kid. Confronting this thing you can never know—art—this great subjective mystery where every painting is different every time, and yet somehow you have to say what you think.
Rail: What role does obsession or hyperbole play in all this? For instance, in the cover story you wrote on Mathew Barney for Art in America, it said, “By a critic who has watched Cremaster 4 over seventy-five times.” So seventy-five times of a forty-five minute video is well over a work week of just watching. Why did you have to do that, and what solicited that kind of relationship to Matthew Barney’s work?
Saltz: When I first saw Matthew Barney I saw it as Giovanni di Paolo. I saw it as Dante’s Divine Comedy. I saw it as Paradise Lost. I saw it as the Tibetan Book of the Dead—these things I’ve read and fallen in love with. Do I actually know about these things? Of course not. Like all people that read them, I think I know but only much later realize that I didn’t. When I first saw Barney, in one second in his studio, I went, I understand this entire thing. I’ve had this with a few artists that I’ve seen before they’ve shown—Kara Walker, Matthew Richie—these more complicated gigantic systems. So when Barney made his first film every single person wrote, this makes no sense, this is just surrealism and fantastical, and I thought, No, it’s pretty easy. If I just watch this carefully then I will understand it. That’s the only way I could access it. I could not approach it the way all those other brilliant critics did, by seeing a half of the film. My genius friend, Peter Schjeldahl probably never has seen all five of the Cremasters in full. He doesn’t have to in order to write brilliantly on them. He’s that good. And yet I have to sit through all the motherfuckers over and over and over, because that’s me.
Rail: That early childhood experience with a “beheading” painting is interesting because of your continued engagement with medieval images of torture on your Instagram. But I also want to ask, you wrote recently that your father would hit you with a strap “fashioned in the shape of his hand”—that was so strange and shocking to me. Did he make that himself?
Saltz: That is shocking to people, but it is a part of my childhood story in the way yours would be shocking to me. I was never hit early in my life, but when we moved to the suburbs, my mother killed herself, and my father remarried a Polish Catholic woman who brought in her sons, one my own age, so I became a twin. They were what was then called “Greasers” or really, juvenile delinquents. Their hair was slicked back and they wore tight jeans—they were cool. The first night I was with my new brother in the same bedroom he woke me up and said, We’re going out. I said, What do you mean? He said, We’re sneaking out the window. And we crawled out of our house and wandered around our suburb. He brought tools and we took down all the street signs and brought some home and put them under the mattress. My father eventually found them and was furious, and as I was about to confess my new stepbrother said, We don’t know how those got there, maybe Charley, (our older brother,) put them there. And I saw another way of life right away, a more outlaw life, and I thought, This is cool, you can lie, you can sneak out of the house, I don’t have to be a normal kid anymore. I will compete with him for the crown of being outlaw, which was a hard crown to wear in that house. It meant beating each other up severely. Then my father started spanking us and my step-mother had this belt, about 18 inches long, 4 inches wide, that she brought from Chicago that she and her ex-husband used to use to strap their boys, and she had it fashioned into the shape of my father’s hand. As he’d hit me I remember I’d just stare him down. I’d think to myself, You are not going to see me react. They eventually started beating my Father up. That part never occurred to me. So you have this very stately suburban home, very large, if you drove past it today in now River Forest, you’d say, This guy grew up with a lot of privilege—two separate entrances, two dining rooms, three floors of bedrooms. But as in all houses, hell had broken loose. That is why as a kid I used to crawl through the bushes and stare at what I did not know were Frank Loyd Wright homes. They were right next to me, about sixteen of them. I kissed a girl in one of them. These houses became really important to me.
Rail: What did they represent to you?
Saltz: An ideal existence. These really beautiful homes, I thought they were Japanese or something—his earliest work is there and I highly recommend taking the tour. He was an American genius. Busby Berkeley, Fred and Ginger, and Frank Lloyd Wright were the three early American popular genius. I was witnessing American genius without knowing what I was seeing.
Rail: Of course Frank Lloyd Wright is another one of those totalizing visions for how to live.
Saltz: A way of living. So: giant systems, idealized lives, other peoples’ lives that I would learn about through my super antennae, that I would assimilate without having to read about it or really know its language, because I was too scared and lazy, so I would invent my own system.
Rail: Do you think that is why you’ve said of the art world it’s “an all-volunteer army, we’ve come here naked, we all have similar needs. We have no choice.”? Is that why you value the artworld, as a kind of bohemian family?
Saltz: I see that: this was the family that none of us had. Your generation comes from slightly better families but I still think that people have to individuate within this art new family. It is all volunteer, you can get in just by saying it, as I did. One day I got out of the trucks and was at some party and someone asked, What do you do? And instead of giving a long story I said, I’m an art critic. And the person just said, Cool. I was one just because I’m saying it, and that’s still true in New York.
Rail: Something I noticed by reading your writing from the 1990s and your two collections of writing from the Voice that goes up until about 2008, is that your persona as a critic has evolved. I’m not sure if it tracks specifically with your engagement with social media but that seems to have something to do with it. How do you understand that trajectory?
Saltz: I understand it as a trajectory, that I somehow got in my work, against the rules a little. I didn’t mean to be getting into my work as much I did, but I liked it because it allowed me to say more things. Then came social media that made me understand it finally, that I didn’t have to be only speaking down or from on high to other people, but I could be speaking with other people. Back and forth. That I could be myself, but as a character, a second self, because my real self doesn’t go out—it has never gone out. But this second self goes out all the time, it goes to openings. I want to show everybody they can get into this family much easier than they think. If I can, of all people, at such a late age, you can. You can do this!
Rail: When did you start thinking about your “second self” self-consciously, as a tool for your criticism?
Saltz: That is social media, for sure. I was in a bar finally, where I couldn’t be in bars before—it’s too loud for me, it’s too late for me, it involves too much flesh-on-flesh. I do have a hard time when people are super high, because of my antennae: I can’t locate them, so it’s like I’m getting a false positive all the time, and that is hard for me. Online was like the bars and backrooms I always wanted to be in. It felt like when Quintin Crisp said he had one great moment at the end of his life where these sailors were openly flirting with him and there was no problem—he wasn’t going to be beaten, they were not going to take him home—it was just a beautiful flirtation, where everybody understood what was going on. I felt that way online. I thought, We can all talk to each other. Critics can stop being at the top of the pyramid and be wrong in real time, and be right in real time. Fighting with people, having arguments and having the ability to change your mind in real time—I love that. I just love it.
Rail: It also has gone hand in hand with you assuming your own kind of celebrity, which was why it sounded so strange to me earlier when you said you’re frightened of famous people. It seems to be a fascination of yours. How do you understand that dynamic?
Saltz: I’m super lucky and I’m aware of it. When I go out I’m often recognized. Imagine: An art critic being recognized? I think I have to understand that gift, and to keep myself as open in public as my second self is online, with the half-a-million followers. I go to twenty or thirty shows a week; seeing art is really my whole life outside writing about art. Every person that says “Hi!” to me, I tell myself, Stop, talk to them, tell them what you’re really thinking and talk to them until they bullshit you, and when they do that, tell them, you’re doing your sales pitch on me, stop, let’s just keep talking. I’m trying to do a Vito Acconci thing, under the floor, masturbating in public, but still having this private self that is constructing it, making yourself have an involuntary spasm. And I see that people treat me as a cartoon character in writing, of course Jerry Saltz was off in a corner doing whatever. I have to accept that. But I don’t want it to erase the greatness or horribleness of my work. I grant that for many people I’ve made it very easy to put that in front of my work.
Rail: You created this character for yourself, and it seems like other people have adapted it for their own purposes too. It reminds me a bit of how people talk about Dave Hickey—art world people love to hate him like a cartoon villain, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with him as a writer, which is like an angel, or as a man, who is a cowboy sweetheart.
Saltz: Well at least when you get people to read his work they kind of grunt and admit, He’s a beautiful writer. When they get to me, it’s just, He’s the one that was on TV.
Rail: Well to the question of the celebrity: when you did that really long interview with James Franco in New York, I have to admit that I rolled my eyes and thought, really Jerry? Why did you want to do that?
Saltz: I had written very negatively on Franco. Twice I think. Turns out Roberta had too. It was like this guy had been pounded. Franco had written terrible things about me too, he made fun of me a few times on social media. I, for whatever reason, have elephant skin. You can say whatever you want about me and I seem to be absolutely O.K. with it. It’s bizarre, but I can do it, because to me there is a grain of truth in whatever you say about me, because I have to ask, what did I do to allow you to say it? How am I responsible? Because, ultimately, I believe in criticism.
New York magazine asked me to do the interview. I said, Are you insane? I’ve only seen Spring Breakers, which I’m in love with, and the movie where he cuts off his arm. I think he’s a great actor. Then I said, I can’t be around a famous person, but they insisted. I went nuts and I loved doing it once it started. Why? I think he was one of the most honest quote unquote artists I’ve ever met in my life. When you ask artists to name another name, or talk about their dealer, or about a big fight they had with a collector, they say they can’t—they have to protect their domain. Franco was not like this, he would go right at it. He would say, You hated this about my work—he would challenge me on it. I found it incredibly refreshing.
Rail: It’s one of the only interviews you’ve ever done. Why is that?
Saltz: I’m a bad listener, as you can see. I get off on my own tangent in order to understand things. And I don’t care. I don’t want to hear about artists’ lives that much. I don’t like interviews that recap a person’s career. I would be most interested in interviews that told me exactly how you made something. If somebody paid me to do my own set of interviews, I would just say to an artist, let’s look at one painting, I want to walk though second by second how you made it. Just technical shit. I do not want to know what it means. Because it doesn’t. Whatever you say it means, it doesn’t.
I was at Tanya Bonakdar’s gallery and some famous artist had a show of clouds. I was looking at the clouds and a person said to me, Those are clouds above Ferguson, Missouri, and I said, They are fucking not that. Do not say that to me! It’s not in the work. It has to be in the work! I’m pretty old-school on that.
Rail: Even when you used the metaphor of Acconci’s Seedbed as a way of describing what you’re doing as a critic—what’s the sex thing for you? There was period where people were coming after you for the sexual pictures on your Instagram, and I want to know how you’ve understood that.
Saltz: Of the images that I was posting that people didn’t like, 99% of them were works of art. One half of one percent might have been photos. One photo in particular that I happened to post without thinking about what it could mean, got people really upset. 99% are works of art—I’d say works of overlooked genius that have only come to light because of the miracles of digital photography and image sharing online. If I have an idea while I’m writing, if it’s a beheading, I will then go to google search and hyperlink my ass off until I find some incredible site of pictures from the end of the Roman empire to the very beginning of the hegemony of Christianity—that is the period I love, this estuary, where these two worlds are absolutely overlapped. I would post these sick images of incredible things: demons fucking people, beatings, breasts being cut off, balls being opened up, and write ridiculous captions like, I’m going to do this to you at your crit today at Colombia. That is the wise guy in me. I will grant that those images would not have disturbed people without the captions, that I did prompt them, didn’t realize that they were making people that upset. But people were really upset. Facebook and Instagram wrote to me, in case after case, they would say, we are getting multiple complaints from your followers but you are not violating our quote unquote community standards, and I didn’t know it. I was so horrified.
Rail: It’s complex with you, because you are the self-styled “folk critic” who speaks to people outside the art world, more than any other critic does. So when you were saying that artists won’t talk trash about their dealers or other artists, it’s maybe not necessarily because of middle-class values, but it might be because we’re protecting our little gang from the harsher culture of the outside world.
Saltz: I’ve said this before: I think criticism is a form of showing respect. I do not think it hurts the art family to say things that you’ve actually thought and considered. The people who were objecting to those images were not the outer-world people, they were art world people, and it was then I understood something that I see more of now, a certain conservatism in the art world is afoot again, and a desire to police other people’s pleasure. I understand that, I have it too. And I speak up when I see it, and I guess people have to speak up when I do it.
Rail: The last thing I want to ask you about is how you said we’re living in a hinge moment, and I’d like to understand a bit more of how you see it.
Saltz: We had such a luxury these last eight years, and really we were correcting history, and black lives were mattering and more women were and are finding their way into the canon. The prices kept going up, and going up for women too and artists from South America and Asia, and it felt like the art world did open up. The system seems broken to me and played out. I don’t have suggestions for what’s next. A handful of artists hit the lottery and made a lot of money; good for them. I like to think they provide cover for the rest of us who are trying to do our work, while all the attention is on the eleven auction prices, fifteen zombies, or the five mega galleries, or on what Marina, Jeff or Klaus are doing—sometimes Jerry gets thrown in there—but that gives cover for other things to happen.
So, the emergency we are living in is we will see if people will adapt. Even the people just painting abstract stripes, the deep content of “now” is in them—they watch the same idiot news things that everybody is watching—and we’ll see if that feels like it’s part of their work, or if the art world is hiding in its bellybutton. Or, if the art world is just an ongoing a system because it has momentum. But I really see the next year or so galleries closing. The prices are too high for young artists. Collectors always say to me, Jerry, you always knew about new art, now when we go see a young artist it might cost $20,000. What I tell them is that if they don’t have crazy money, and they have children, they would be an irresponsible ass to be spending $20,000 a pop on artists that the odds are very high will not be around in a few years. They’ll have given them temporary life, and that’s all.
Rail: When people lament that after their MFA they had to to stop making art, I usually say, good. The tragedy is if they had to go into debt for it, but I think if you can stop making art you should.
Saltz: That is the last word: Don’t be an artist unless you really have to be one. Because 99% of the people reading this are going to be poor. 1% will make big bucks and that is not the definition of success. It never was. Nobody ever thought it was. There was an illusion of it for a while, and it was fun because half of them were pretty great artists, but you know, this new phase is here. It’s already happened.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.