Jerry Saltz’s “This is the End; The Rising Tide that Floated All Boats has Gone Out and All Boats are in Danger of Sinking”
New York Studio School, April 22, 2009
If the art world had a Department of Art Criticism, Jerry Saltz would be its acting secretary. A veteran New York art observer whose career at the Village Voice from 1998 to 2007 solidified his role as a leading critic, he joined New York Magazine in 2007 and has held court there ever since. A sign of his influence—and also, perhaps, of the anxiety that has plagued the art world in this new economy—were the more than 160 people who had lined up out the door at the New York Studio School for his fancifully titled lecture, “This is the End; The Rising Tide that Floated All Boats has Gone Out and All Boats are in Danger of Sinking.”
In this sometimes tongue-in-cheek but always riveting multimedia presentation, Saltz mused about the last 15-year cycle of the art world, threading his talk with clips from Hollywood epics that contain apocalyptic overtones of destruction and collapse (Apocalypse Now, Star Wars, and most notably Titanic), as he ruminated on where we stand today. The verdict: who knows, and anyone that tells you otherwise is lying.
One problem with the art world, according to Saltz, is the plethora of over-academicized curators and critics that favors “late late late late conceptualism” and has taken the fun out of looking at art. He traced the problems of our contemporary art world to the Oedipal struggle between Clement Greenberg, Rosalind Krauss, and the October school of criticism. "In the art world," he explained "the pleasure police came in," and sterility reigned. He lamented that curators have become a major part of the problem since academia has wrung the joy out of art. "I'm not against the camera," he said, referring to the preponderance of appropriation and photography-based art that are powerful, if overused, strategies, "but do something original with it." Curators, too, are guilty of unoriginality. Worse yet, they are immune to its repercussions. "If curators do ten bad shows in a row,” Saltz asks, “what happens? Nothing,” hinting that perhaps there should be some form of penalty for curators who chronically fail.
|The pleasure police: Rosalind Krauss (left) and Clement Greenberg
He joked that he'd be happy to play the role of the man with the gun in Titanic, who, standing by the life boats, ensured that an orderly evacuation took place. All artists, he began, get a life jacket, next would be dealers, but curators need to show their credentials before they were allowed safe passage. Critics? Well, older critics should perhaps not be on the life boat. "The hardest thing for a critic to do is to keep your eye alive," he said.
Another major problem facing the art world, Saltz explained, was the overheated market; dominating all discussions of art for the last decade, it tended to choke out styles that didn’t fit into the commercial gallery system. Saltz is a longtime critic of art-world economics, in particular the odd ritual known as the art fair. In a 2005 Village Voice essay titled “Feeding Frenzy,” he wrote "...art fairs are perfect storms of money, marketability and instant gratification—tent-city casinos where art is shipped in and parked for five days while spectators gawk as comped V.I.P.s and shoppers roll the dice for all to see." As anthropologically fascinating as art fairs are (he cited the art-world “codes of consumption...in clear sight”), they are ill-suited for viewing art.
The art world's previous great contraction, according to Saltz, was in the early 1990s. Reflecting on the last hurrah of the 1980s establishment, he discussed the 1993 "Twilight of the Gods" banquet by Marianne Goodman Gallery for Anselm Kiefer’s show of the same name, a symbol of the ridiculous decadence at which the art world had arrived. Awaiting the start of the banquet with a host of artists, critics, and dealers, Saltz remembers the artist David Salle turning to him and exclaiming "They're going to kill us all!" before darting away. Against his better judgment, Saltz remained at the event and feasted with the other guests on raw pig and swine testicles. The insinuation was that we are now at a similarly unkosher moment in our artistic culture.
A Damien Hirst, Saltz said, “looked good with people around it. In an empty gallery, not so much.”
This overfed, over-monied art world, Saltz explained, was a self-replicating machine: people think that "the art market is so smart that it only buys the best work...[but in reality]...the art market is so dumb that it buys anything other people are buying." This has led to the dominance of very few styles and of four artists in particular: Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince, of whom Saltz proceeded to offer up his frank opinions. "Hirst’s art," he said, "looked good with people around it. In an empty gallery, not so much." "Surface is what Jeff [Koons] is about," he said, and surface has never looked so deep. He admitted to loving Murakami's early paintings, but is less enamored of his later creations. Prince, he suggested, "invented a dangerous idea and packaged himself for the corporate boardroom." He posited that the major premise of Prince's art was appropriation, and that it was "the idea that ate the art world."
But not all was doom and gloom during Saltz’s lecture, and he suggested there may be a silver lining and blue skies ahead. If the old rules are falling apart, maybe this is the time to challenge the status quo and make a change. He called young artists of today "lucky bastards" since the contraction of the art world is allowing new ideas to seep in.
"We need you in New York," Saltz said in what sounded like a challenge to the artist-heavy audience. "Without money as the frame you can do anything," he explained. "The dream of art can be now." Apparently no one doubted Saltz's optimism; it seemed a given that New York will emerge from the ashes, and the critic’s outlook appeared to assuage the fears of many who continue to worry about the future.
Doing things differently, of course, is not easy. The proposition can be paralyzing. Can you imagine the dread former Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston felt, Saltz challenged his audience, when he awoke one morning and realized he needed to abandon his famous style in order to paint guys in KKK hoods? He continued to provoke the audience, asking "Can you find your inner [Phillip] Guston…can you be open to this crack in the mainstream?"
The new art world, he conjectured, will be something we won't recognize, and will be dominated by names that we don’t know today. This transformation may require new styles, approaches, and people rewriting the rules of art and how it is consumed. If the old art world order was controlled by the academy of insular curators and the decadent market hunger for polished trinkets, this brave new world is probably going to be something else entirely. Saltz, in his best American democratic rhetoric, seemed to advocate for an art world that embraces the plurality of the world and recognizes the importance of art beyond a financial investment. “The problem with the art market,” Saltz said returning to the Titanic metaphor “was that we were all in the same boat.” We can only hope that this future art world would probably look like a massive fleet of modest-sized ships, rather than one ill-fated luxury ocean liner.
Hrag Vartanian is a New York-based critic, writer and cultural worker. In addition to NYFA Current, he contributes to the Art21 blog, ArtCat Zine and The Brooklyn Rail. He is also a board member of the DUMBO-based Triangle Arts Association and blogs daily at hragvartanian.com.