The art critic Jerry Saltz wrote an article earlier this year about his having been an artist when he was younger – and his decision to no longer be an artist. I´ve found myself discussing the article with friends, now and then, and see references to it pop up again and again on Twitter. I suppose you´d say the piece hit a collective nerve. Perhaps we artists are like the married, who when they encounter a single person, are hell-bent on making sure that the solo becomes a duo post haste. When we see one of our tribe has given into the relentless oppression of life; throw in the palette; we want to say, “be strong, hang in there!”
And why not? We need good critics – critics who are sensitive to the vagaries of the art life, as Saltz certainly does.
I didn’t have the ability and fortitude. That’s why I always look for it in others — root for it in others — even when the work is ugly or idiotic. I want every artist, good and bad, to clear away the demons that stopped me, feel empowered, and be able to make their own work so we can see the “real” them.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people in all walks of life had a deep rich background in the art – visual, literary, or otherwise? So, for me, it’s OK that Saltz went on to something else. Only, something doesn´t quite sit right with his piece. He asks at one point, “How deep is my lack of artistic character? Pretty deep, it turns out.” And the evidence for this?
Saltz´s critic-in-residence, his wife, Roberta Smith, said, “They’re generic. And impersonal. No one would know what these are about.”
Saltz himself goes on to say, “[Wilde] wrote that art that’s too obvious, that we ‘know too quickly,’ that is ‘too intelligible,’ fails. “The one thing not worth looking at is the obvious.’ This sort of art tells you everything in an instant and can only tell you the same thing forever. My work had the opposite problem. It was vague, arcane, and therefore obsolete. Only I could decipher it.” He continued, “my art might be able to produce flashes of beauty but couldn’t gain emotional traction; create depth, mystery; impart its secrets, ironies, drama, or cross the threshold of history. I was blinded by the rules I made.”
And maybe those works those portfolios of work that Saltz and Smith looked at were obvious. Maybe they stank to high heaven. But that still doesn´t mean that Saltz himself was a failure at art. That idea of someone having it or not just doesn’t square with what artist after artist – and mind you, artists that have come to be considered the definitions of success! – has said.
“To be an artist is not about making individual works. To be an artist is to do your work and let your work express the evolution of a vision. It’s a continuous process for which there is never any full, unqualified reward. You don’t get something done and say, ‘oh, that’s it.’ You get something done and it’s part of a living situation. It isn’t a matter of getting something done, and then getting a number of somethings done, and then making an exhibition and selling the somethings. That’s what happens outside the studio (…)” – Brice Marden, Cold Mountain
And this from Sally Mann:
“Art is seldom the result of true genius, rather it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people.”
So, in the end, I´m not saying it´s either bad or good that Saltz’s life changed course and he’s a critic instead of an artist. I´ve got a good hunch he lives an artful life; and I sure appreciate what he puts out there. But the myth that some people “have it” and others don´t is dangerous. Perhaps that’s the fault of Wilde’s witticisms. Instead, I might point to Georg Buchner,
“What I demand in all things is life, the potentiality of existence, and that’s that; we need not then ask whether it be beautiful or ugly, the feeling that whatever’s been created possesses life outweighs these two and should be the sole criterion in matters of art.”
Scott Wagner says
To be a bit cosmic and impertinent, people do art without realizing it, pretty much constantly. Even a conservative household is doing it preparing for church on a Sunday morning; some days, their efforts seem particularly artful. So the notion of having or ‘not having art ability’ is a kind of red herring, depending on a lexical hole to appear explanatory. The notion of the urge to do explicit works of art seems more enlightening for me than art ability.
Doing art in your sense, we make explicit art works; a subset of this is art works that I couple with a typically quite separate attempt at passing my art works around in some way; call this latter the artwork that’s saddled with communicative and, more pointedly, non-art things. With regard to doing explicit art works, it seems driven simply by urge: one is an artist empirically, or one doesn’t do art. Simple. I mean, there are issues of cost, educations, etc., but let’s agree that these scarcity components are secondary.
With regard to the follow-on, narrow, communicative aspect of doing art, one has entered deeply into matters that have little to do with the foundational “urge to make explicit art works outside our normal artistic actions” stuff, so often at its center: now there’s image projection, interpretive concerns, the spice of poverty, a typically quavery/sensitive set of personality traits that come rushing in to have their day– and so on. Which is why it’s especially annoying to have a critic so unaware of his internal rationales for doing art: along with everyone else, he either does what he sees as art or not; then, he either passes it on or not.
But my biggest annoyance here is any critic who doesn’t proclaim what they do as art pretty early on, so the conversation about the other art form he’s apparently talking about has a hope of being accurate. I want to sit them down, hand them a comic book and a Voltaire essay, tell them they’re somewhere in between, and go Socratic awhile.