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Jerry Saltz Answers Your Questions on Elitism, Careerism, and Cronyism

In his new column, Jerry Saltz dispenses art advice to all comers. Got a question for Jerry? Send it to

Dear Jerry,

I know you don’t think art is an elitist activity, but I do. And I think that’s a good thing. Why would I want to make work Sarah Palin could relate to? Or talk about work in a way that Glenn Beck could understand?

Stefany Benson

Dear Stefany,

I know where you’re coming from; I still disagree. It’s been said that art is for anyone; it’s just not for everyone.

In an article last year, I challenged Glenn Beck to put his taste where his mouth is and curate a show of art that he liked. I even promised to write about this show here. I did this after he went bat-shit and tied together Obama, Mussolini, syphilis, fascism, and a door frame at Rockefeller Plaza showing a figure with wheat and a man holding a hammer. When I heard his hysteria, I wanted art to be elitist, too — so it could hide from the likes of him. But art isn’t elitist — although it does often hide in plain sight.

The point is that no one rails at physics or science or medicine for being “elitist.” Like physics, medicine, etc., art is a specialist field — something you understand more the more you study it. Unlike these other fields, however, someone can really teach themselves to be an expert in art, just by looking, going to shows, seeing everything possible, and really thinking about it.

Art can also seem elitist because it’s not democratic. Again, thank God it’s not. If art were democratic, the best artist would be Leroy Neiman or the art that sells for the most money. Sadly, we just went through an idiotic phase where the art world actually started to mimic this sort of demented thinking — the most expensive art was assumed to be the best. That is passing. The other thing that does make the art world seem elite is that art may be the most expensive handmade thing on earth. I often wonder why art is so expensive.

In any event, whatever you do, don’t tell Beck the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty is by a communist Jewish woman.

Dear Jerry,

Dave Hickey said, “Start at the top, cause there is no ladder.” True or false?

Mary Judge

Dear Mary,

I know and revere critic-cowboy-philosopher Dave Hickey. Hickey is a renegade shaman-metaphysician living on the edge of the art world in the desert (I hear he’s leaving Las Vegas and moving to Albuquerque to teach). He’s our Keith Richards and Emerson rolled into one — our man in black. I have to disagree with him on this one, however. These days the art world is so big and comprised of so many people doing so many different things, with no established hierarchy of isms, styles, museums, or pecking order of artists, that there is no “top” anymore. Now the art world is more of an amorphous cloud — something that changes shapes, expands, contracts, appears, and disappears.

These days, if a young artist starts out showing at Larry Gagosian it feels silly, misguided, out of scale, and odd — like the artist is in it for the wrong reasons. But what do you do if you’re a young ambitious artist and a megadealer like Gagosian asks you to show? I want all artists to make money if that’s what they want. If you’re driven into this tent-city, casinolike arena, I think you can say “Yes,” but for God’s sake, scale it back a bit; you don’t have to use the whole space, do you? Maybe close a few of the galleries; just install your show in one of Gagosian’s massive caverns. If you’re good, people will be able to figure it out. If you’re lousy, you’ll still probably get rich — which is probably what you wanted in the first place. For you, it’s a win-win.

But watch out now, take care, beware of soft-shoe shufflers …

Dear Jerry,

Here’s my question: Should an art critic post a disclaimer if they write about an artist whose work they own?

Museum Nerd

Dear Mr. or Ms. Museum Nerd,

I don’t make rules for other people, but my policy is to not write about artists whose work I own or I know well. When I’ve done so, I try to disclose my association. The last column I wrote for the Village Voice was on Barbara Gladstone’s show by the painter Carroll Dunham. The first lines of that review are: “By now I no longer know if I like Carroll Dunham’s paintings because we’re friends or if we’re friends because I like his paintings. So anything I say about his work is biased — although over the years I have relentlessly ribbed Dunham about how limiting and wrong it might be that he seems to paint the same male character over and over again.” I’ve written about my friend, the curator Francesco Bonami, calling one of his shows great and another, organized for French luxury-goods magnate billionaire art collector Francois Pinault, “truly horrendous.” But to each his own; I’m with Whitman who wrote, “It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall.”

Still, something caught my attention in the current issue of Frieze. Robert Storr gives a rave review to Sarah Lewis’s “Site Santa Fe” show in the September–October issue of the magazine. The review is subtitled: “Site Santa Fe’s Eighth International Biennial is as inspiring as it is original.” (Actually, the magazine misspells the name of the city as “Sante Fe.”) The first line of Mr. Storr’s review is, “Sometimes someone gets it right.” The last lines of Mr. Storr’s review are, “If I were young, how would I want to begin my curatorial life? With an exhibition like this — because there’s never been one like it before.”

It’s absolutely fine that Mr. Storr loves Ms. Lewis and this show so much (while in the same review lambasting previous “Site” curator Dave Hickey as a “Michel Foucault–quoting … all-around all-American Tea Party aesthete, Slim Pickens impersonator … “). Storr neglects to mention, however, that Ms. Lewis was his student at Harvard. Ms. Lewis worked with him at the Museum of Modern Art. Ms. Lewis is now employed with him at Yale University, where she is a PhD student, and listed as a “critic of painting and printmaking” in the School of Art, where Storr is dean and also a professor of painting and printmaking.

The four questions I would ask are:
1. Why would Frieze ask this person to review this show?
2. Why would Frieze publish this without mentioning the writer’s special long-term relationship with the curator?
3. If Frieze was unaware of these facts, why?
4. How did this come to pass?

I’m sure all critics have done some of these things. I am sure that I have written on former students. I’m not sure, however, that all of these unstated overlaps have appeared at the same time in the same review about such a high-profile biennial in such a high-profile magazine by such a high-profile critic/curator/art-school dean/former curator of a “Site Santa Fe Biennial.”

Update: Frieze co-editor Jennifer Higgie responds to Saltz’s comments on Robert Storr:

Dear Jerry,

I hope this finds you well.

We would like to respond to the allegations of cronyism in your column, which we take very seriously: I can assure you that Frieze is scrupulous about impartiality in regards to reviews. Which gets to the crux of the matter. You ask: “Why would Frieze ask this person to review this show?” There’s a simple answer. Rob Storr’s piece on Site Santa Fe (which you can read here) isn’t a review, in the conventional sense — it’s part of his regular column, ‘View from the Bridge,’ in which he has carte blanche to express his enthusiasms and bug-bears about shows/writers/artists/ideas that are engaging him at this point in time. (Our extensive international review section is to be found at the back of the magazine.) In retrospect, however, we agree it was an oversight not to mention Storr’s personal relationship with the curators, although it must be stressed that there is absolutely nothing self-serving in the piece. If Storr has committed a crime, it’s simply to be enthusiastic and supportive of the work of upcoming curators he knows professionally and whose work he admires.

With best wishes,
Jennifer Higgie
Co-editor, Frieze magazine

Jerry Saltz Answers Your Questions on Elitism, Careerism, and Cronyism