(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 Iâ€™ve been reading about the problems of the 24 hour news cycle for fifteen years or more, and the problems are the same. Davisâ€™s piece doesnâ€™t bring much new to the table past what we already know: news is a large component of many blogs and websites â€” particularly the ones heâ€™s worked for â€” and criticism isnâ€™t doing that well.The trouble has less to do with news per se than the reality of publishing: itâ€™s a volume industry and professionals need more time than weâ€™re given to produce good work. But there are some ups to these downs, so I donâ€™t believe itâ€™s been as eclipsed as Davis thinks â€” itâ€™s just not where heâ€™s looking. Some of the best criticism on this blog appears in the comments section, and itâ€™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 Saltzâ€™s â€œaccidental criticismâ€ is that he has not leveled the playing field at all. He has instead flipped the traditional criticâ€™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 â€œJerry Saltz,â€ 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 â€œWhat is progress?â€
The lure of interactive performance art is that it shares the stage equally with the viewer. Marina Abramovicâ€™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 â€œFriends.â€ Following Andy Warholâ€™s dictum that â€œin the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,â€ and Joseph Beuysâ€™s pronouncement that â€œeveryone is an artist,â€ Saltz has wondered â€œif all of our interconnectivity and social networking also made everyone a critic.â€ 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 Saltzâ€™s Facebook page, you grant them much more than their fifteen minutes. You end up ultimately diminishedâ€”another brick in a 250,000-word wallâ€”while adding to their cumulative luster. You â€œneed to partake of the blood of others to grow,â€ 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’tÂ 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.
Jerry Saltz is interviewed in Time Out Chicago this week about his role in the much-anticipated (among reality t.v. fans and art snarks like me, anyway) new television show Work of Art. I never knew Saltz was from Chicago! Nor did I realize he was an adjunct faculty member of the School of the Art Institute, either. Check out the full interview here; a brief excerpt follows.
Whyâ€™d you want to be a judge on Work of Art?
It isnâ€™t for the money. I wonâ€™t tell you what I make, but itâ€™s really not much. I wanted to perform criticism in public to show that itâ€™s not an elitist practice but specialist and subjectiveâ€”and more thrilling than people imagine.
So you think the show will help make visual art more accessible?
I do. People are frightened of looking at and making judgments about art, and they donâ€™t need to be. They just need to look longer, see harder, listen to themselves, and theyâ€™ll hear voices they didnâ€™t know they had in their heads, voices of real discernment.
It helps that, unlike with Top Chef, viewers experience the products themselves, so they form their own opinions as the judges form theirs.
Yes. I think the act of making art is not inherently sexy to most people. With food, thatâ€™s implied penetration and sexual. Sometimes watching somebody saw a piece of woodâ€”not so interesting. To me, however, itâ€™s metaphysically sensualâ€”watching somebody try to imbed thought in material.
More than any other art form, visual art seems off-putting to people.
Why do you think that is?
We are not sure as a culture what art is to us. So when people are presented with stuff that is called art, nobody knows what to do with it. And thatâ€™s sad to me because people make visual judgments every single day: what color are you wearing, what material is it.
Has the art world itself contributed to that sense of inaccessibility?
It takes a lifetime sometimes to understand why an all-white painting is art. Itâ€™s hard for me sometimes to remember, to relive why a bicycle wheel mounted upside down on a stool is art.