The Age of Delusion: Jerry Saltz, 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism by Michael Newberry

Dielh-Saltz-1976
Saltz circa 1976, in front of his drawings. Photograph by Carol Diehl

Those Who Can’t

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, critique.” And no one represents this weakness better than Jerry Saltz, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his article, “My Life as a Failed Artist.”

Jerry Saltz, study for Canto 1
Saltz drawings for the inside panels of a Canto I altarpiece. Photo: New York Magazine. If this was the work of a 13 year old, I would have to dig deep for encouragement. You would expect a kid to be more fearless, less worried, and less tentative. If I were talking to the kid’s parents, I would tell them that the scratchy quality and ugly color sensibilities might be a reflection of chronic doubt and dull frustration. And if I were the parents, I would encourage the teen to spend time doing something that he had talent for.

Jerry Saltz writes about his younger artist self: “In 1973, I was 22, full of myself, and frustrated that I wasn’t already recognized for my work.” But a few years later he had some great acceptance from the art world: museum purchases, a $3,000 NEA grant in 1978 money, reviewed in Artforum, exhibited with Barbara Gladstone Gallery and with Rhona Hoffman. He was ecstatic with the recognition, yet he had a nagging contempt for his art: 

“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,’ I told myself. ‘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… No one cares about you. You’re a fake…'”

Jerry Saltz, study for Canto 1
Saltz drawings for the inside panels of a Canto I altarpiece. Photo: New York Magazine. These are three drawings, a square shape in the middle flanked by two verticals. I am all for anyone doing art, but in Saltz’s case, his sincere early ambition to take on the art world with no talent is disturbing. I could skewer these panels in detail for the dead colors, inept drawing, nonexistent composition, and lifelessness, but beyond all that, they are not honest. That is the saddest part. Art is not an intellectual exercise. He doesn’t give a crap about the triangles, forests (the green and red thing?), or atmosphere. It is as if someone dumped a putrid raw chicken on your dinner plate. So why? I once taught a college student with no talent, she had flunked the course twice before with different teachers. Yet she managed to be in a gallery show, when she handed me the invitation she was gloating, as if having the show was revenge on the students that could draw, on her parents paying for her education, and on me. Gloating, revenge, and ineptitude are an ugly combo.

Truth is the Culprit

It’s a shame that Duchamp’s cynicism, Kant’s aesthetic nihilism, and the CIA’s misguided and malicious underwriting of Abstract Expressionism and its shills combined to foster hope of greatness to talentless, pretentious hacks. In his frank assessment of his art, Saltz is completely right. Expertise in drawing and painting, a grounding in art history, and vision, all those elements need to be mastered to become a great artist. Yet, instead of doing the massive introspective and technical work necessary, Saltz opts for a scapegoat. Truth is to blame. Truth is the culprit for his failure:

“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.”

Failure is not a qualification for critical expertise. 

A Critic’s “Wet Kiss”

I first became aware of Saltz as a Village Voice art critic in 2003. He writes of a Matthew Barney’s video piece: 

“Suddenly, this 22-year-old appeared naked, in a videotape, climbing ropes, then lowering himself over a wedge of Vaseline and applying dollops of it to his body … Since then, Barney has been able to do no wrong by me, which is exactly the kind of unequivocal wet kiss from a critic I hate.”

Saltz’s stance of being a critic and giving an artist carte blanche is a disqualifier and adding that he becomes what he hates is repellent. He has an incongruous way of lacing extravagant praise with acid:

Jeff Koons is as earnest in his Howdy Doody–Teletubby way as Francesca Woodman and Francis Bacon. That’s part of what makes his great work great, that willingness to fail so flamboyantly!”

Pulsing Veins Skimming Under the Surface

In contrast to mediocre art critics, I love good art historians with their ability to discuss styles, artistic feats of genius, color theories, and comparisons. And watching their unselfconscious wonder as they point out Michelangelo’s ability to give stone the feeling and look of living flesh with pulsing veins skimming under the surface; or Monet’s ability to recreate the brilliance of daylight by changing the hues of lights and shadows. It is not the the same as two-way romantic love, but good art historians react to the artworks as if they are alive with radiant energy, and their job is to nudge students to “get it.” Sometimes you see their disappointment when it is not the artist’s best work; it would never occur to them to put aside their critical faculty. 

So Which Is It? 

Saltz, decades later, after having received two nominations for Pulitzers and countless published articles, was asked to review his early artworks (above), which would become his article My Life as a Failed Artist. Saltz flipped 180 degrees on his earlier self assessment: 

“My breath was taken away. I fell madly in love with my work. I was astonished at how beautiful much of it was. How it all made sense. I thought, These are fabulous! I was a great artist. I looked and looked. I was stunned. There were tears of joy in my eyes. Relief.”

He did a lot of drawings hashing out an ideé fixe, but the works are not very good—there is no sense of composition, no emotional import of the colors, no creative variations, and no recognizable symbolism. Just someone hopelessly stuck. 

His wake up call was when his wife, longtime NY Times art critic, Roberta Smith, sadly shook her head. 

“I [Saltz] think they’re beautiful. Aren’t they great?” She turned back to the drawings, looked a little longer, and finally said, “They’re generic. And impersonal. No one would know what these are about. And what’s with the triangles? Are they supposed to be women? …She talked about how many artists “never get better than their first work.” And just like that, I was right back to where I was when I quit: crushed, in crisis, frozen, panicky. ”

What does this say about Saltz the critic? He may love the role of being in the arts, he is definitely a master of art world machinations, but does it speak well of his art knowledge? And he knows all about flipping narratives, i.e., being pathetic therefore qualified? Got to hand it to him, he is great at duplicity.

When Con Artists Become Key Communicators

The crime of people who live in the eyes of others and lie to themselves is when they seek to stave off terror by manipulating others through powerful platforms. If you ever wondered how civilizations devolve into oblivion, it’s when con artists become the key communicators. 

My addition to the “can’t do” expression: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, critique. And those that can’t critique, con.”

It’s time to return honor and insightfulness to awards like the Pulitzer and to institutions like the Guggenheim. Kick out the postmodern BSers and get art back on its evolutionary path. The world will thank you. Children when they grow up will thank you. And authentic people everywhere will have their faith in humanity restored. 

Michael Newberry, Idyllwild, 2/23/2020

3 Replies to “The Age of Delusion: Jerry Saltz, 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism by Michael Newberry”

  1. I can’t stand Salz; and his early art, in my estimation, is muddled, indecisive, and contentless. I think I read that article for which he got the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, because I’ve seen his triangle paintings before. Yyyyyyuuuuck!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Saltz is the exact right person for this age of art where talent isn’t really important and fine art has gone full circle – around from 70s dada to 90s realism and back again – twice around to “anything goes”. He embodies the spirit of the carny clown that cheers on whatever takes the stage. His longevity in the art marketplace and gift for wit are his accolades. Everything else is smoke and mirrors.

    Liked by 1 person

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