Jerry Saltz: Superstar

January 12, 2011 · Print This Article

(This one’s for Dmitry).

Okay, yeah, I know — to describe Jerry Saltz as a “superstar” as I just did is to engage in more than a bit of hyperbole. But when it comes to Jerry (since everyone seems to feel like they’re on a first-name basis with him, I guess I can be, too), “superstar” doesn’t seem all that off-the-mark, given Saltz’s relative media fame versus the utter obscurity within which most art writers/critics labor. This has always been the case, even in the days when art critics actually played a hand in shaping the discourse–and they haven’t done that in quite awhile. So, you know, we should be happy that there is at least one art critic famous enough to hobnob with Sarah Jessica Parker and her ilk. Jerry seems like a genial guy and a kind enough spirit and so personally, I don’t begrudge him his fame.

I was surprised, however, that Ben Davis (newly of Artinfo) didn’t mention Saltz at all in his column on the state of art criticism. Asserting that “art criticism isn’t dead, it’s just in eclipse,” Davis argued that

“If you had to name the major development in art discourse during the 2000s, it would undoubtedly be the ascent of “art news,” which has definitely replaced “art criticism” at the center of discussion. There’s been an enormous proliferation of writing about the art scene. Artforum.com’s “Scene and Herd” was founded in 2004. Artinfo.com, the publication I write for, was founded in 2005. And of course, there is the tremendous excitement generated by the art blogosphere, which draws its strength from attitude and outrage.”

Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City, who’s a pretty good examplar of the developments Davis is describing, didn’t seem to think much of Davis’ analysis. Responding to his post on her own blog, Johnson wrote,

“I feel like I’ve been reading about the problems of the 24 hour news cycle for fifteen years or more, and the problems are the same. Davis’s piece doesn’t bring much new to the table past what we already know: news is a large component of many blogs and websites — particularly the ones he’s worked for — and criticism isn’t doing that well.The trouble has less to do with news per se than the reality of publishing: it’s a volume industry and professionals need more time than we’re given to produce good work. But there are some ups to these downs, so I don’t believe it’s been as eclipsed as Davis thinks — it’s just not where he’s looking. Some of the best criticism on this blog appears in the comments section, and it’s no different for other blogs or even Facebook pages like that of Jerry Saltz.”

Johnson made good points. Like Saltz or hate Saltz–or rather, like/hate the style of critical engagement Saltz represents–you cannot ignore the behemoth that is the Saltz/Facebook/Social Media machine. His Facebook groupies, his TV stint as a judge on Work of Art, his “Ask a Critic” column for New York magazine–all of these represent fairly radical shifts in the relation between critic and audience. One that is more open, more “radically vulnerable,” as Saltz himself has so memorably put it, and one where, to some greater degree than before, the art critic must answer (and answer and answer and answer) to the statements he puts out there via his reviews and other published pieces.

The problem is that all of these radical shifts in the critic/audience relationship apply only to Jerry Saltz. Saltz hasn’t changed the state of art criticism one bit – he’s just upped his own name-recognition value within it. To be fair, Saltz has argued repeatedly that his own experiments with open-ended interactions with his readers, “friends,” and “fans” is something that can and should be duplicated by others. And that’s certainly true. It’s just that most art critics are way more boring than Saltz is and nobody really cares enough about what they have to say to want to have an ongoing conversation with them, virtual or otherwise.

James Panero, writing in the New Criterion, has described his own “Jerry Saltz problem.” To my mind, Panero’s critique is the most persuasive I’ve yet read, though I could have done without some of his prose, which seemed to border on jealous personal attack. I think this is the strongest section of Panero’s argument:

Another problem with Saltz’s “accidental criticism” is that he has not leveled the playing field at all. He has instead flipped the traditional critic’s role from peripheral character to central actor. His comment writers, many of them wayward artists, are now the critics, while he has become the new art star around which they circulate. Jerry Saltz has become “Jerry Saltz,” a socially networked performance piece of art criticism. His online work is not unlike the performance art of Tino Sehgal, who took over the objectless Guggenheim rotunda earlier this year to ask questions like “What is progress?”

The lure of interactive performance art is that it shares the stage equally with the viewer. Marina Abramovic’s staring contest at moma became a sensation because it felt like we were the art, just as online comments make us all feel like we are the writers, or through Facebook we have 5,000 “Friends.” Following Andy Warhol’s dictum that “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” and Joseph Beuys’s pronouncement that “everyone is an artist,” Saltz has wondered “if all of our interconnectivity and social networking also made everyone a critic.” But this fame game can become a pyramid scheme. In exchange for the brief rush of recognition that you might feel sitting across from Abramovic or posting to Saltz’s Facebook page, you grant them much more than their fifteen minutes. You end up ultimately diminished—another brick in a 250,000-word wall—while adding to their cumulative luster. You “need to partake of the blood of others to grow,” Saltz writes. And he should know.

(Oof! That last line had to hurt, didn’t it?).

I find the notion of the critic-as-performer to be a really interesting one. I’ve always been an advocate for a criticism that incorporates the subjectivity of the writer into the form and content of the critique, in certain appropriate contexts. Jerry Saltz now does this in every context, and that’s no doubt why many observers have grown weary of him. It’s too much Jerry. In the same way that Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and, ugh, even Sarah Jessica Parker can’t  be considered real actors anymore–they’re merely celebrities, whose every new role offers a new format in which to play themselves–Jerry Saltz has become a celebrity critic who’s finding it difficult to talk about anything but himself, even when he truly does want to be talking only about art.