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Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz on Conflicts of Interest, Tribes of Shyness, and High Hopes for the New Museum

Dear Jerry,

You say dealers shouldn’t talk to you about their shows. Yet you talk to them — I’ve seen pictures of you with dealers. You’ve written that you go to gallery parties. Isn’t this a conflict? Bloggers have said that you speak at art galleries. Aren’t critics supposed to be distant and disinterested? Aren’t you violating a lot of your own rules? And also being a crybaby?

—S. Collins

Dear S. Collins,

To me, nothing in the art world is neutral. The idea of “disinterest” strikes me as boring, dishonest, dubious, and uninteresting. The art world is an all-volunteer force. No one has to be here if he or she doesn’t want to be, and we should be associating with anyone we want to. Frankly, I like the unruly, unregulated, impure, internally conflicted, band-of-gypsies nature of the place. We’re loaded with overlapping conflicts of interest, flaming attention-getting stormbirds, troublemakers, drama queens, and crybabies (like me).

Dave Hickey, a great critic, writes for exhibition catalogues almost exclusively. (It’s one of the few ways an art critic can make any money.) That is 100 percent interested and non-neutral — if a show stinks, he can’t say so — yet I don’t think he’s any more or less pure for it. (I haven’t written a catalogue essay for more than ten years, not because of any high-minded idea but because of weekly deadlines.) I’ve had my share of collaborations with dealers, too: In 2008, I spoke at an Obama rally at a Chelsea art gallery, and at other galleries for breast-cancer fund-raisers. Of course I’m in photos with dealers! I go to openings, and talk to the hosts. Last week, someone shot me with Larry Gagosian, which felt like a “Luke, I am your father” moment. (I’ve posed with Bill Clinton, too, and the instant he put his arm around me, I found myself wanting to have sex with him.)

I go to art-world dinners, too. I’m lucky to be invited, though I really prefer stand-around parties to sit-down events, because shy people like me should be allowed to rove and mingle, instead of being pinned down with two people, one of whom is the husband of some New Jersey collector and thinks “art is silly.” So, now that I’m now old enough, I go to parties for the cocktail portion of the evening only. By 10 p.m., I’m home watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey rather than talking to the spouse of one. Which brings me to the next question …


Dear Jerry,

These days it seems like artists have to schmooze in order to make it. I’m shy. I hate party chat, and I'm inept at it. Am I doomed?

—ShyArtist

In last week's comments, you said you’d tell us what you think about the New Museum. So?

Believe it or not, I hate schmoozing too, and I’m not very good at it either. Neither is Jeff Koons, for that matter. But virtually all of us do it. The only artist I’ve met who made it without socializing is Matthew Barney. (If you’re that talented and good-looking, you don’t have to go out, either.)

ShyArtist, I want to tell you that you don’t have to chat people up. But I’m afraid artists (and dealers, and their associates) are like vampires. You have to go out at night. Besides, it’s not good for you to be too alone. You need to commune with your own kind as much as possible. You also need to partake of the blood of others to grow. I know you want to dance naked in your studio, work, and whatever. But if you also want to dance naked in public, you have to test your ideas on others, be part of a crowd, link up with the group mind.

Besides, socializing is a learnable skill, and if you’re an artist, you’ve taught yourself to do plenty of difficult things. If you live in New York, go to gallery openings. Just a handful, a couple of times a month. Force yourself to stay in each gallery for at least fifteen minutes, even if you know no one and have the heebie-jeebies. Really look at the work; forget yourself and your nervousness. Then stand by the wall and look around, carefully. You’ll soon notice that other people are doing exactly what you’re doing. These people are your tribe: artists who are uncomfortable with the social whirl. Go up to them, and strike up a conversation about the art — not about how everyone else is a loser and you’re panicky.

You might think all this is silly, shallow, superfluous. You could tell me that a “true artist” doesn’t ever need to leave the studio and that all that counts is the end product. Fine. If you hit the lottery, are rich enough not to have a job, are totally psychologically self-sufficient, can expand your artistic viewpoint without any dialogue — well, nobody is all those things, and you’re either deluded, duped, or damned. Just go out. Show up. Get nervous. Be bonkers. But be part of the flow for a few hours. Then go back to your studio. Guess what? About half the people you saw earlier that evening are doing exactly the same thing you are. It’s garden-variety being human.

Dear Jerry,

In last week's comments, you said you’d tell us what you think about the New Museum. So?

—C. Edelman

Dear C. Edelman,

It’s a ticklish, touchy subject for many these days. In the three years since it reopened, it’s gone from lovable lamb to goat. I love this museum, its history, what it’s been. It anchors the Lower East Side gallery scene, and looks good doing it, at least from the outside. But I hate the interior, which is boxy, generic, and deadening. I feel similarly divided about its programming, which has been uneven and occasionally annoying — but also deserves some credit. Even if you didn’t like the surveys of Elizabeth Peyton, Dorothy Iannone, and Mary Heilmann, these artists deserved shows in a New York museum, and nobody else stepped up. You might have disliked “Unmonumental” and “Younger Than Jesus.” Yet each of these shows either codified a type of art that was prevalent or introduced artists that other museums and galleries have since exhibited. The recent two-floor Rivane Neuenschwander exhibit was weak and twice as big as it should have been; I still think Urs Fischer is great, even if his show wasn’t.

As a result, the New Museum has lost a lot of credibility. Almost anyone I talk to about the place expresses exasperation and disappointment. Last month, the excellent curator Laura Hoptman decamped for MoMA, and director Lisa Phillips woke up and made a change that might help right her troubled ship. She appointed Massimiliano Gioni, who’d been at the institution since 2006, associate director and put him in charge of the whole curatorial department. Gioni is a world-class talent, and by all reports his recent Gwangu Biennale in South Korea was a triumph. Under the guidance of his perceptive eye, original mind, and vision, the New Museum could soon return to form. Let’s hope so, because we need this institution to sing.