Art World Life: Learning from Jerry Saltz’s Art is life

A century ago, thanks to Bernard Berenson there were some important American old master collectors, Albert Barnes had started to assemble his modernist collection, and already the cubists, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian were painting their mid-career masterpieces. But there was no well-developed market in this country for contemporary art. And so there was, as yet, no one at all like the art critic Jerry Saltz. Saltz is the writer who best reveals the aesthetic values and ultimate limitations of our present day visual culture. His book title thus is perfect: For him, art is life.

Historians call ‘presentism’ the importation of present ways of thinking into the interpretation of artifacts and events from the past. Highly controversial, presentism is an especial temptation for an art historian because visual works, even if made long ago, are immediately present here and now. As Saltz says about a Roman sculpture he admires, “Time and distance collapse when you stand before it” (p. 195). The power of presentism, with its focus on the here-and-now, is amplified nowadays because frequently many of the highest market prices and much public attention goes to contemporary art. And Saltz’s focus is on this contemporary work. Sometimes, it is true, he looks at older art with passionate interest. The first artwork that attracted him was a Giovanni di Paolo in Chicago. He became a critic, he explains, thanks in part to seeing Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). And allowing that he has no training in connoisseurship, he offers an amazingly confident judgment about the painting attributed to Leonardo that was recently sold at auction for a very high price. He looks at these older works as if they were just made, seeing them in relation to contemporary experience. Who else would compare one of Caravaggio’s saints to Sonny Liston when he was decked by Muhammed Ali or suggest that a saint-by that painter looks just like Saltz himself does when he feels inspired to write?

In the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Baudelaire played his fascination with the painting of modern life against a sense that the old masters had quite different standards of beauty. And so the role of Manet and the Impressionists was to create a synthesis, bridging the gap between tradition and contemporaneity. In Saltz’s thinking this aesthetic dualism has effectively disappeared. Now, it might be said, all art is contemporary art. When most people go to the movies, they don’t feel the need for bookish analysis- they just respond. And that’s what Saltz does in most of his accounts of gallery and museum works. The title of his short essay “The Tyranny of Art History in Contemporary Art” says it all. We don’t need historical interpretation to respond to contemporary art, he implies, any more than we need to read musicologists to enjoy pop music. Totally uninterested in academic theorizing, he is a well read autodidact. If a philistine is someone who denies the importance of visual art, Saltz is the polar opposite. For him, art is extremely powerful. When he compares seeing the paintings of Cy Twombly to “reading Virgil, Homer, Sappho, Keats, and others” (p. 239) you sense his overwhelming enthusiasm.

Like his great precursors, Clement Greenberg and Peter Schjeldhal, Saltz does short, punchy reviews. Developed narrative isn’t his forte. That he has no capacity for developing a sustained narrative makes him an ideal commentator on the present, because it’s unclear whether such an account is desirable or even possible. Extravagance is his middle name.“I’m no radical,” he says: “I have no desire to see MoMA or other museums of Modernism destroyed” (p. 283). Thank God! Saltz has earned a right to be foolish- and sometimes he takes it. But you would have to have a heart of stone to not respond to his best writing. “If seen in the right way, everything already is art” (p. 134. I wish that I had written that.

The present art world, Saltz correctly notes, is very much under the domination of the superrich, who patronage the auction houses, endow the museums and as collectors make possible the prosperity of a few superstar artists. Saltz has leftist critical politics, which I share. His views of gender and race in the art world are admirably progressive. And so, not surprisingly, he is highly critical of this market system. But at the same time, he is in love with the upscale world which makes possible his life. This economic system makes the display of such artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, Chris Ofili, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman, Kehinde Wiley and others whom he admires. And because he knows this, there is a curious tension in Saltz’s writing, which involves admiring the art while condemning its support system in which he has a modest place. In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that Saltz is a hypocrite. Rather Art is Life reflects deep ambivalence, which I share entirely, about the contemporary art world. When, for example, it describes a film about money in the art world, he explains how much he hated that theme- -and then how much he enjoyed taking part, which made him proud. Without this amazing financial support, much ambitious contemporary art simply wouldn’t exist. And neither, of course, would Saltz’s book. Art is Life, which more than any other account that I know, it brings the terms of this conflict to the surface.

Art, Saltz says has the “power to change the conditions of our life” (p. 7). I hope that he is right. But because he lacks an historical perspective, he isn’t able or prepared to look truly critically at the present, or tell how it might change. And so far as I can see, he doesn’t have any historical perspective on his own role in this market system. Saltz has no sense of how to understand this business which looks to me (ignorant as I am of economics) like upscale unregulated capitalism. Earlier I said that there was no precedent for Saltz, but that is not entirely correct. The first great art critic was Denis Diderot, who reported on the Parisian Salons of the 1760s in terms recognizable like those of we contemporary critics. And he also wrote an amazing book, Rameau’s Nephew, a dialogue about political conflicts and social life. Unpublishable in his lifetime, this book became posthumously famous thanks to the responses of Hegel, Marx and Freud. Saltz’s rap performance in an art gallery with Jay-Z and the display on twitter of his bank statement to show how poor he is, reveals that he, too, is an enviably fearless performer, very much in the style of Rameau’s nephew.


On Saltz’s rap performance see For his bank statement, see

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.