Can You Tell Anyone How to Be an Artist?

Photo: Vulture

Jerry Saltz and I first met the third week of May 1986. He came with his new girlfriend — my best friend, Roberta Smith — to meet our newborn daughter, balancing a bright-orange vintage Eames rocker on his head. While I was thrilled to receive our first piece of mid-century furniture, I was not so thrilled with Roberta’s choice of boyfriend, and I’d let her know my reservations. She was the newly appointed art critic at the New York Times. He was a lapsed artist, current long-distance truck driver, and hadn’t yet written a word about art, though he seemed obsessed with the subject.

His main talents appeared to be memorizing long passages from Dante’s Inferno as well as reciting accent-appropriate dialogue from Apocalypse Now. He was also known for visiting hundreds of artists’ studios while cobbling together part-time jobs to stay alive. He was just about to publish a compilation of ’80s art, called Beyond Boundaries, in which, when it came out, he reproduced one of my husband Carroll Dunham’s paintings upside down.

Eventually, Jerry and Roberta became the godparents of our two children, Lena and Cyrus, and were married in our backyard in 1992. Obviously, much has happened over the course of our 34-year friendship. But despite his outsize presence as a critic and on social media, he remains one of the most bashful people I’ve ever known.

Laurie Simmons

Laurie Simmons: So, Jerry Saltz, what gives you the right to tell anyone how to be an artist?

Jerry Saltz: Well, I’m a failed artist. I started as an artist, and it’s agonizing to me that I stopped, but I still feel it in my body. I’ve had a life lived in art. I’ve spent my whole life looking at art, wanting to be around it — around art and around artists. Stop.

LS: [Pauses.]

JS: This is the hardest thing for me to answer. Let me try to answer a little bit differently. A lot of people think, How can a critic write How to Be An Artist? And I think that you don’t have to make wine to be able to write about wine. A sportswriter doesn’t have to play football to write about it.

LS: Critics traditionally make aesthetic judgments based on an ideological framework, like Clement Greenberg, or something less tangible like taste. Having written this book, having done the kind of writing you’re known for, having the kind of presence on social media that you do, where do you see yourself in relation to those kinds of writers? What are you?

JS: Well, I think I’m more of a Sister Wendy–Bob Ross folk critic. I never went to school; I have no degrees. I taught myself to write and didn’t begin till I was in my 40s. For me, Clement Greenberg is a big bully. Telling everybody else that this was the good art, and the other art was not good, and why this was the good art, and even the good art had to meet that criteria — I don’t believe in that. All art is subjective. No one can prove Vermeer is better than Norman Rockwell. We’ve surrounded art with this magic-potion language that is written by 55 people for an audience of about 155. I think that art is complex, has to do with history, context, originality, materiality, and is hard to talk about. But a lot of that talk I call bullshit. I want directness, clarity, and judgment.

LS: Chapter one, page three, titled “Don’t Be Embarrassed.”

JS: We’re all pretty weird, pretty wild, and I just want you to go and do whatever you need to do. Of course you’re going to embarrass yourself. I want you to be radically vulnerable. We’re all afraid. That’s the price of admittance into the House of Creativity.

LS: There is one moment in the book, in chapter 62, “Be Delusional,” where you advise artists to tell themselves, “Yeah, but I’m a fucking genius.” And that was the big tip-off to me. That was proof that you used to be an artist, or that you are an artist. Is that where you go every week when you write?

JS: I’m terrified whenever I have to write. I sit down, look at the screen, and think, I hate this. I have nothing to say. I mean, how can I have anything to say at all? Or, I don’t get it. Or, I’m an impostor. And when that happens, somehow, somewhere in you, you still have to find that place at three o’clock in the morning, and just say, Yeah, but I’m a fucking genius. And then the spiritual-suicide meter drops back down, just enough to get working.

LS: I found myself thinking about how much advice was out there for art-worlders, off-worlders, for anybody who’s trying to achieve something, or make something, or do anything personal in their work lives … There’s a point for everyone where crippling self-doubt meets unbounded ambition.

JS: Yeah, the raging-bull, wild animal inside. Feed it!

LS: And I think that your book really speaks to a kind of general fear we all have about putting one foot in front of the other.

JS: Everybody begins with or has a certain amount of doubt, and I think that the doubt is really useful. I think the fear is useful. This is the dark energy that just keeps the engine churning. I became a long-distance truck driver for ten years. I self-exiled after I stopped making art, and I grew more and more and more unhappy. And that’s what procrastination will do. It’s easier to not work than it is to work, but it’s more fun to work than it is to not work. Forget about the idea of being good. That’s an idiotic idea, and this book has nothing to do with success. That’s one percent of one percent of one percent of all artists, about 55, mostly white males, who, for some reason, are collector catnip. Everybody obsesses over them, and I would say, “Good for them; I want everyone to make money,” but I’m trying to talk to the 99.9 percent of the rest of us who are trying to have a life lived in art.

LS: You stay far away from talk about the art economy in the book, which I love.

JS: The market, as you know, is just numbers. The market only buys what other people in the market have already bought. It’s a great delivery vehicle for a lot of people to make a little money and a few people to make a lot. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to define success through the market, through prices, well, that’s an absurdity. That has nothing to do with what I’m trying to write about. My book is trying to let you have one thing: yourself and the time to make the things you want to make.

LS: I’d love to hear your take on your own Instagram. It used to be lewd, crude, sexist, and quite repugnant, but you seem to be in a very different place now, mixing art and politics.

JS: I have about a million followers cross-platforms. I happened to start posting at a time when tens of thousands of new images were coming to light from the ancient world, from medieval manuscripts that had been newly digitized. And these are people that lived through the collapses of civilizations, plague, persecution, enormous instability, hardship, slavery, everything. And I started posting these images, which are extremely violent, in many cases, but they’re masterpieces. They’re gorgeous, and they’re sexual. They have bodies compromised in every way, sexually, bestially—every way—but they’re actual masterpieces. I rarely posted photographs of naked people; I posted paintings and mosaics, and the art world went nuts, and I fought back, and I was wrong.

LS: Oh.

JS: I was wrong. I did not shut up and listen, and—

LS: Listen to what?

JS: To the criticism that people felt that it was sexist, lewd, and crude. I saw it only as art. I was completely divorced, really, from those charges, and I was wrong. And I’m afraid it took until 2015, when Donald Trump came down that escalator, and started spewing that kind of foul hatred, laced with sexism, and then finally, the …

LS: Pussy grabbing.

JS: … The pussy grabbing. It was right around then that I thought, Oh my God, I do not want to be that. We’re all in equal amounts of pain, and I don’t want to be an agent of that. I love art. I’d like to think I’ve evolved away from it; however, I still will post saucy images, because, all around the world, except in the West, these images are really valued. We’re just a little bit … we have a hard time with naughty things; I do, too. I post more men than women because I think, Okay, at least I put my body as a subject, and not the female body. But I understand that causes problems too.

LS: The very last chapter of your book is one sentence: “Oh, and Once a Year, Go Dancing.” What a lovely thought, but when was the last time you went dancing?

JS: Busted. I dance naked at home. It’s a horrific sight, but I want to dance barefoot before the world. No one knows this, but I do it when I walk. When I’m walking, not talking. At the end, I take off my shoes and dance in a few circles in gratefulness.

LS: Well, at least you practice what you preach.

*This article appears in the March 16, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Can You Tell Anyone How to Be an Artist?