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by Miles Mathis

Jerry Saltz with unknown man

Call me what instrument you will,
though you can fret me,
yet you cannot play upon me.—Shakespeare

One of my regular readers recently sent me an email and asked me to counter-critique Jerry Saltz. I don't know why, exactly, but it doesn't really matter: I am at that point in my life where I am basically up for anything, as long it involves making another enemy in the art world.

My first question, truth be told, was, "Who the hell is Jerry Saltz?" I had to be reminded that he was the art critic for the Village Voice for years—where he was twice nominated for a Pulitzer—and that he had recently moved to New York magazine. That explained my gap in name recognition. Once upon a time I had looked occasionally at some of the left-leaning publications in the US, journals like Atlantic or Harper's or The Nation. I had done so out of some nebulous belief that these were my people, politically if not artistically. And that is how I had run across Arthur Danto. But I have never read the Village Voice, beyond a few initial scannings back in the 80's. I pegged the Voice early on as just a bunch of posing counter-culture non-entities trying to impress eachother with their relevance, and none of my subsequent scans in the 90's changed that opinion. Possibly I had read something by Saltz in one of my scans, something that had solidified this opinion, but I can't say for sure. My re-readings of Saltz for this counter-critique only confirmed that his writing was the sort of thing that utterly fails to gain any traction in my mind, oozing out of my short term memory like badminton box scores or telephone numbers for the Home Shopping Network.

I have to be honest here: it is increasingly difficult for me to take the whole mountain of status-quo culture seriously enough to even comment on it, from Lindsay Lohan's latest car crash to the current Congressional record, a Nobel-prize winning physics paper, or the most serious and scholarly discussion of contemporary art or literature. All have become so dominated by lies, mis- and disinformation, and transparent careerism, that it is difficult to collect any real data, whatever the subject. Both the left and the right are corrupt beyond all correction, and I can no longer imagine why anyone reads anything popular enough to justify advertising. Anything in print that sells is not worth buying. The fact that other people are looking at something has become reason enough not to look at it.

Which is just a long and intentionally offensive way of saying that I can't imagine why anyone reads art criticism, in the Village Voice or anywhere else. My counter-critique here assumes that the reader is familiar with Jerry Saltz, but a reader who is familiar with Jerry Saltz has already committed the cardinal error. He has made the mistake of letting the seller set the table. The editor or owner of the Village Voice hired Saltz, god knows why—possibly someone was sleeping with someone or had the goods on someone—and all the readers who wanted to be cool and in the know had to read the stuff. These days that is about all it takes to get nominated for a big prize. If you want a prize, you move to New York City and wiggle into some crevice, no one needs to know how. No one asks for qualifications or good writing or an interesting idea every five years or so. No, you just have to be working at the right place, with the right people. The right people have friends who nominate for the big prizes, so getting hired is the whole game. You buff someone's butt and they buff yours. If you keep buffing the right butts, there is no end to your upward mobility.

Reading Saltz's papers just reminded me once again how irrational and mysterious the current hierarchy is, in every known field. The artist who requested this counter-critique from me implied that Saltz was powerful in some way, that he was someone to be feared for some reason. I think the artist came to me because I was considered to be a bit mad: I would charge without weighing the odds, with no concern for my own safety. But it seems to me that I weigh the odds better than anyone else. I can see that Saltz's reputation is based on absolutely nothing. He is not famous because he has written a lot of magnificent or even memorable critiques, or because he is so qualified for the position he fills; he is famous simply because he fills the position. He was the critic for the Village Voice, and that is the whole extent of his power. Anyone else who had been hired to fill that position would now have at least equal power. They could have published random syllables, sentences typed by porpoises in underwater internet cafes, and they would now have equal power. I know this is true because the critiques published by contemporary critics in all the magazines put together never reach the level of interest that porpoises would achieve, given the opportunity. Porpoises just haven't mastered the preferment game yet.

I have no fear of Saltz or anyone like him, simply because I don't want any of the party favors he can pass out. There are no bridges in any of the big cities I am interested in crossing over. He will never be ahead of me on any road I will take, so I will not have to ask him to pass. I am therefore free to read him with my eyes open—the ultimate danger for such a writer. He needs us to be cowed by his elevation, otherwise we will surely notice his lack of it.

Saltz occasionally makes some weak feints at well-known artists, but this is only to keep up the show. The audience has to believe that some criticizing is going on, if only to continue to justify the title. But anyone from the past—any of the real art critics of history—would be astonished at the levels of chumminess involved here. The critiques read like glorified advertisements. The Voice, like all the other journals hiring art critics, wants "editorial" mentions of a wide range of exhibitions, to pull in ad money. A critic who waltzed in and told the truth—that almost all the art in New York City and the world was a waste of supplies and an insult to the Muses—would have a hard time becoming part of the scene. The museums and magazines and other institutions exist as tools of the market, and a critic with any real opinions would be a nuisance at best.

The rule is, a critic may attack only the firmly established artist. This artist is beyond the reach of the critic. Because this artist is protected by the gallery—which is already more powerful than the critic—he can only benefit from an attack. Much of the art is already about creating a scandal, and if a given critic helps create one, so much the better. In fact, all the risk goes to the critic, who may look bad in the exchange. This is why critics don't attack artists much any more, even when they are allowed to. Attacking emerging artists is bad for the art and publishing business. Attacking established artists is bad for the criticism business. So what you see is occasional half-hearted attacks on big names, attacks that can usually be laughed off later as good for the scandal business. Saltz's critiques fit this pattern precisely, and he even confirms the rule explicitly—stating that he goes easy on young artists.

The only artists that are fair game for all-out attacks are artists that have no market protection. Artists that are not represented by major galleries—galleries that advertise and are part of the institutional scene—they are the ones that used to get savaged, and that sometimes still do. But even this sort of attack has become rare, since for publicity hounds it is silence that cuts the deepest.

I read about thirty of Saltz's critiques before I found one with an attackable idea. Saltz tries pretty hard to like everything he sees, but he tries less hard to say anything substantial. His writing is dominated by a blubbering-about in the leftist way, patting himself and everyone else on the back for being brilliant and tolerant and multi-dimensional, while displaying no talent at all for making distinctions or differentiations or—least of all—judgments. Saltz is so careful to avoid any appearance of absolutism that he ends up in a pluralistic wasteland of nebbish non-statements—squishy demi-opinions that do no one any good, him least of all. The reader is taken on a vegetarian tour of oversteamed delights, where he wilts in a forest of wordy lettuces and cabbages. Saltz tries to make up for this lack of steak with good cheer and short, crisp sentences, but it is feckless and bootless as well as hopeless. The tour guide comes off as flabby from the first utterance, and he does not exercise anyone's anything thereafter.

This sort of criticism preens itself on being broadminded, but it does nothing to educate, neither politically nor aesthetically. Even progressive politics must take a position, must hold some ground. A constant compromise cannot progress. Progress requires a series of steps, and each step inhabits an absolute position, if only for the moment. The left thinks it is preparing its members to be part of a new community, but community is not built on floppy foundations. Art and writing of non-distinction and non-judgment cannot underwrite any future, left or right. This is the hole in contemporary dialectic.

Let us look at a specific example of this. In his review of John Currin from 2004, Saltz says,

Writers gush that Currin is "sincere." Yet most artists are sincere these days. Praising sincerity is like praising beauty or truth: It sounds good but doesn't say much. It's also a sneaky way of saying, "Irony is dead"—let's hope no form of humor ever dies. In truth, Currin's paintings are nothing if not double-edged. What distinguishes his work is not its sincerity but how twistedly and wickedly insincere it is. Currin is sincere the way pornography is sincere: The line between what's feigned and unfeigned is blurred. When he's on, Currin opens a fascinatingly disquieting psycho-visual space. As with pornography, when he's off, his work turns unintentionally silly.

That whole paragraph is a weird mixture of disinformation and gibberish, hidden under a cloak of grinning broadmindedness. First of all, no critics that I know of gushed that Currin was sincere. When I wrote my articles on Currin I read quite a few critiques, and most praised Currin for his insincerity—as Saltz does here. Secondly, most artists in New York City pride themselves on this same insincerity. Sincerity, like truth and beauty, is and has been for a long time passe. For Saltz to say these things in this way is just incredible: he is either displaying extreme naivete or is practicing some new form of mind control. Since he cannot be so transparently stupid, he must be hypnotizing his reader with fantastic falsehoods in full view, like a Native American hunting pronghorns with mirrors and magic wands.

A contemporary critic honestly praising sincerity—supposing it ever happened, which I doubt—would be saying a lot, since it would be the end of Modernism. But this is just Saltz's strawman. It allows him to defend irony and humor—as if they were in need of defense. And what sort of lame assertion is, "Let's hope no form of humor ever dies"? It sounds like something Ms. Universe would say in answer to a question from special guest juror Billy Crystal. Exactly how intellectually debased has the readership of the Village Voice become? Are they really impressed by sentences like that?

Then Saltz tells us that "Currin is sincere like pornography is sincere." He means to imply that Currin is ambiguous or "double-edged," but porn is not ambiguous. Nor is it sincere, not even a little bit. Porn is an act for the camera, and like any acting is 100% insincere. It doesn't matter, since no one expects acting or porn to be sincere, but it makes Saltz's simile false. It makes Saltz's entire point here a big garbled mess. Saltz desperately wants to link Currin to porn, since that is what everyone else has done and since porn is automatically sexy. The whole paragraph scores on the mention of porn, no matter what else is said or how it is said. Which is just as well, since it qualifies only as jactation otherwise.

Saltz can't decide what he thinks of Currin, so he just says everything he can think of, and some things he can't really think of properly. He tells us that he likes some of Currin's work and doesn't like others, but he doesn't bother to tell us which ones are which, or why. Any rigor has been left out. We find out that sometimes Currin is on and sometimes he's off: wow, we are really out on a limb there. In the last paragraph, Saltz says this:

Currin's paintings can come on strong and strange. However, I was surprised at how familiar, unweird, overly jokey and not "inexhaustible" many of the pictures at the Whitney looked. On the good side, several recent paintings suggest he's no longer just mellowing, but ripening.

Again, if Saltz doesn't bother to inform us which paintings are strong and strange, or which ones are ripening, and why, we leave with no real information about his opinions, much less Currin's art. Some are strange, some are "unweird": This article is just a long globby way of saying "I liked some more and some less, but I won't tell you why." Who could be enlightened by this? And who could be enlightened by a sentence that asserts that Currin is not "inexhaustible"? What human has ever been inexhaustible? What sort of writer uses such a poor adjective, much less puts it in quotes that refer to nothing and no one?

Finally, Saltz tells us that his favorite thing about Currin is the "high level of specificity in his work." Being generous and supposing that has some meaning, I still say that is a cloudy way of writing. Is Saltz talking about the detail in the painting, or the precision in paint handling, or the specific moment in time Currin has chosen to depict, or the exact emotion he has tried to portray? "Specificity" is a lousy modern word, one I hope I have never used. If I have used it, I hope I was creative enough to do something with it. Saltz has done nothing with it except further decrease his levels of specificity.

Here's an example from a different review: one straddled the cosmic divide between innocence and cunning, hilarity and insidiousness, as effectively as Koons.

The question begged: is there a divide between hilarity and insidiousness, and if there is, in what way is it cosmic? The logical divide is between hilarity and seriousness, or between insidiousness and goodwill. Hilarity can and often does have an ill intent—some have claimed that it must. It is certain that insidious humor has a category all to itself: dark or black humor. The dictionary itself even tells us of "insidious pleasures." So there is no divide, cosmic or otherwise. "Cosmic" does not apply to any known divide, much less the divide between badly used nouns.

Soon afterwards in this article on Koons, Saltz calls fellow critic Clarissa Dalrymple an "esthetic clairvoyant." Saltz is always kissing up to other critics. In the Currin article he called Peter Schjeldahl "mi amigo." This sort of thing is an instant turn-off, since it smacks of PR. Art criticism is not about PR, it is about cogent analysis. And no one is an esthetic clairvoyant, especially not an art critic. Contemporary art critics are possibly the least clairvoyant people in the history of civilization, since they are not only blind to the invisible, they are also blind to the visible. They cannot see what is right before their eyes. Before they can comprehend it, they have to rebuild it with a pile of exclamatory and imprecise words, filling it with social bombast and fluffing it with political relevance. An esthetic clairvoyant would know firsthand that art does not need a verbal retelling of any kind, that it only suffers from such blather. Only non-art is in need of a wordy propping, which explains why Currin and Koons are here.

This, though, is the best quote I found from Saltz. This is the last sentence of his Koons article:

Koons is rediscovering the thing that turned explicit in his work in the early 1990s, then sadly disappeared from it in 1995: the mystery.

The mystery turned explicit in the early 90's. What? Did Saltz intend to end his critique with another bold contradiction, or has he just forgotten what most words mean?

To show that Saltz has not ripened in recent years, let us take a final quote from his current review of Takashi Murakami in New York magazine. Saltz lobs some pretty tame words at Murakami, topping out by calling him commercial. In the modern world, this is hardly a cut. It is the highest goal of all these artists and galleries to make a lot of money, so calling them commercial doesn't sting much. It is like critiquing supermodels for being tall and skinny. It is what they most want, and get paid very well for. But the quote that cuts back at Saltz is this one:

Without the markets, the art world would be a pretty boring place.

If that isn't the dumbest thing I have ever seen in print, it is right up there. Saltz is obviously throwing a bone to the galleries, tempering his earlier opinions. "What would we do without the lovely markets, who excite us and give us all we have and could want?" But it does prove a point I have made elsewhere, which is that for all these critics and phony art mavens the primary draw of the scene is the glitter and money and fame and parties and reviews. The art itself is really beside the point: it is just wallpaper at the opening party, where the business is the real draw. Notice that this is just the opposite of Thoreau's view that "trade curses everything it touches." For the moderns, trade sanctifies everything it touches. "Art" and the "art market" are interchangeable. Art without a price tag on it is almost inconceivable, a great yawn.

This is the desert we find ourselves in: a blasted land where writers who can't write are nominated for Pulitzer prizes. When I was told that Saltz was a nominee, I imagined that even if I disagreed with him on every single thing about art, at least I could stomach his prose. Damn my overactive imagination, which had imagined the same thing about Arthur Danto and John Carey. But why should writers be expected to write, when painters can't paint, representatives can't represent, newspeople can't tell you the news, mathematicians can't calculate, and physicists can't get enough of magic?

When I began this, I thought I was just being invited to analyze a predictable set of opinions; I did not realize that I was discovering another extravagant example of incompetence. The critics have devolved in precisely the same way that the artists they analyze have devolved. Neither retain a basic knowledge of their tools and conventions. The artists are masters of nothing, neither of craft nor expression; and the writers are likewise deficient in both form and content. And neither has any shame. They publicly and gleefully exhibit their nescience and get paid well for doing so. They can do this, presumably, because no one who reads them or edits them has any idea what art or writing has been, can be, or should be. All are equally clueless, adrift in a market without standards or expectations. The only expectation that remains is an expectation of advancement—that is, an economic expectation. As long as the economy of what they call art holds together in some form, they can claim success. As long as there are readers and buyers and editors who prefer to see sentences that don't make sense, words that have no meaning, and art that shows no skill or emotion, they are free to do anything they want. The museums and prize committees are presided over by other illiterates and inaesthetes, and the circle is closed. The slug can aspire to flight and the fool will be king.

But I will be asked again why I bother. Why would an artist attack someone he doesn't even read, in a city where he has no gallery? Why would anyone go so far out of his way to make a vicious and unprovoked attack on someone he has never met and likely never will meet, especially when that attack can only further marginalize him? The answer is in that one adjective: unprovoked. Unprovoked? My career, one might say my whole life, has been one long provocation. I wake each morning to a high tide of swirling provocation, whether I choose to swim it or not on that day. The entire last century has been a wall of explicit and nasty provocation, against me and any like me. Jerry Saltz's very existence is a provocation, whether he mentions me by name or not. The current market—all of it in all its forms—is a constant and aggressive provocation against any real art and any real artist.

I am obliged to respond, if not on all days then at least on some, and I am obliged in both the egoistic and altruistic sense. If I do not defend myself, then I cannot expect anyone else to do so. If I do not defend the Muse wherever she is attacked, I cannot defend myself. I may be marginalized for my resistance, but right action is not judged by potential outcome; it is judged by its intrinsic quality. Besides, right action occasionally wins out, but only when it is both right and action. You cannot win if you do not play, no matter how admirable your thoughts may be. Saltz's closed circle of illiterati is currently in power, but it is not all the world. It is not even a very big circle. If I can blow enough holes in it, it may eventually deflate. The whole balloon is filled with air from the buyers, and buyers do not like to look stupid. These buyers have been made to feel smart by a constant stroking from the market, but the therapeutic effect of this massage is a placebo. A psychic mirage. And the placebo effect is notoriously unstable. The slightest hint of doubt, inserted from anywhere, can be fatal to it. All I need is the smallest opening—the width through which a pin will pass—and the balloon will be gone. It will be nought but a flabby rubber wrapper, another piece of circus refuse, clogging the mud of history.

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.