Destabilising the Art Criticism Pyramid: An Interview with Jerry Saltz

The famous American critic on why resorting to shock tactics on Facebook is the best way to get people talking about art.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Source: Art and Culture Center of Hollywood

As part of “Influence Now”, a series exploring the role of the “influencer” on contemporary culture, we interviewed five people whose work has shaped and influenced their fields in various ways. “Influence Now” will appear in SLEEK 57; subscribe to Sleek here.

Explore the rest of the “Influence Now” series: Goth Shakira / Kimberly Drew / Emily Segal / Gabriel Held

Jerry Saltz sits in his office at New York Magazine talking on the phone. “You can change anything I say to make it work for you,” says the world-famous art critic. “I trust the writer. Even if I have to sound stupid or dumb, it’s your work.” Given his notoriously brash online persona, it’s a remarkably meek sentiment. In 2010, for instance, Saltz caused a digital storm with his very first Facebook post.

“[T]he recent show of Marlene Dumas at David Zwirner really looks like remaking her old work and settling into photo realism,” he wrote. Within minutes, the writer received hundreds of comments criticizing his remark. And it was this moment, Saltz claims, that galvanised his decision to de-stabilise the art criticism pyramid, not climb to the top of it.

Soon after he began posting images from Medieval illuminated manuscripts depicting gruesome scenes of raucous devils slicing testicles and angels being devoured and hacked to pieces by axes. Safeguarded from the public in institutions and private collections, many of
these documents have never been widely circulated, but Saltz brought them to his followers – he currently has over 249,000 on Instagram alone. Not that everyone was pleased.

Since then has been accused of being an outdated white male aesthetician. In 2014, he posted on Facebook what appeared to be a smartphone pic of a woman’s ass, red with spank marks, captioned “This is what your critic does to artists who have been very very bad.” Later, he revealed the image was by a woman who publishes weekly images of this kind on Twitter. However, the damage had already been done: by that point Facebook had already banned him, and hashtags such as #rascist, #sexist, #whitemaleprivilege and #sexcrazed had emerged condemning him. The critic remains unrepentant. “[They’d say] ‘Oh Jerry you want to stick a sword in young students’ asses.’ And [I’d reply] ‘this is a work of art, you idiot.’”

Saltz considers these stunts to be strategic. He contends that by staging arguments via Instagram comments for months on end, he’s injecting old masterpieces back into mainstream discourse.

“Art is like tuberculosis,” he says. “Once it comes it never goes away.” This is a recurrent analogy in the Chicagoan’s imagination, and he genuinely believes his often crude provocations have the potential to change culture or at least open up new ways of talking about it, critics be damned.

Despite the denunciations levelled at these interventions, Saltz’s bludgeoning manner is at least direct. “Now is not the time to only show good little humanist art,” he proffers with an aside upbraiding the quality of Seventies Kosovan minimalism. “Instead, we should start looking at ourselves. In fact, we should ban males from exhibiting for the next two years. Let’s say no man can show, we will only show women, b a d w o m e n , terrible women, great women, and if the art world dies in those two years, we can kick them out again. But my guess is nothing bad will happen. The art world needs to get out of its own ass, frankly.”

A post shared by Jerry Saltz (@jerrysaltz) on

But what if Saltz stopped reviewing or posting male artists for two years, would that change anything? “I migrated to Instagram and Twitter for politics after being banned from Facebook, I’m happy with speaking with pictures, that’s my first language,” he replies. And maybe he has a point.

After I hang up, I see the potentially ageist, sexist harm in policing every image as if it was a dormant terror cell, cleansing the world of nasty images would be the same as cleansing the world of “nasty women”, an authoritarian populism that in fact rejects the rupture of the screen, rather than leaving it grease-free.

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