We have come to the last podcast of 2022, and our annual roundup of the year’s 10 best. We could reprise our unique takes on economics, homelessness, war, politics, democracy, even crypto and AI — but all of those things will still be with us, only more so, next year.
Instead, I thought we might end this year by taking a look at the role and power of art today. Joining me is bestselling author and senior New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, whose recent book, Art Is Life, looks at some of these issues.
Saltz talks about how contemporary art reflects our tumultuous times, what influences the direction of art today, and whether art can still be a force of resistance and cultural rebirth in a market dominated as never before by investors looking for the “next big thing.”
Saltz encourages artists to tell their own story through their art, as he highlights the significance of diversity in our current climate. Ultimately, he emphasizes the power of art to drive change and urges us to explore our own understanding of why art endures.
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(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. When freedom is threatened, when liberty is under siege, artists around the globe rise to the challenge by speaking truth to power. With their art and creative prowess, they remind us why freedom is paramount and inspire us to collectively fight to preserve what matters. By changing minds, attitudes, and perspectives, artists can, in fact, bring about real and much-needed change in the world.
In a new book entitled Art Is Life, senior New York magazine art critic and best-selling author Jerry Saltz looks into the role of art and artists today and reminds us why art endures long after. Things like politics and economics and cultural battles simply fade away. It is my pleasure to welcome Jerry Saltz here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about Art Is Life: Icons and Iconoclasts, Visionaries and Vigilantes, and Flashes of Hope in the Night. Jerry, thanks so much for joining us.
Jerry Saltz: Hi, Jeff. It’s great to be here.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about how important art is in the world today. It seems that we have lost some of the focus on how important art and artists are.
Jerry: Well, it’s a real fair question for me, Jeff. And it’s come to the fore even more with the climate protests of throwing soup and mashed potatoes and glue at paintings. I understand that it’s a very contested space, that we’re living in an inflection moment. But for me, Jeff, art is still oddly enough around the sacred. It’s been here as long as we’ve been here. It’s never not been here.
A species that existed before us, Neanderthals, for a million years and who had fire and the material culture and made hand axes out of stone, they painted them. So art may be this fragile, useless thing, but yet it’s a cosmic force that keeps appearing and never doesn’t appear. And, in fact, I think that art is one of the most advanced operating systems our species has ever devised to explore consciousness, the seen and the unseen world. And the world we live in, you’re asking about art today?
Jerry: We’re seeing it through so many filters. The world we live in is absolutely a contested area, where every single thing that’s happened virtually in the 21st century has forced whatever side of the political aisle you’re on. We live in a continuous state of PTSD where everyone is in shock at all times, so the art made in our century, Jeff, has been made under anything but normal conditions and that shows in the art we’ve seen now. And I can only tell your listeners to really pay attention because right now is one of the most extraordinary moments in art that has ever existed. And we can get into that and why and how art is changing finally now.
Jeff: Talk about how it’s changing, how it is being reflective of really different times that we live in today.
Jerry: Well, that’s really a fair question. Again, since none of the art made in the century that we’re in now has been made under normal circumstances from the contested election of 2020. 2000, Bush v. Gore and then the Bush-Cheney war machine and the feeling that the arc of history was finally maybe turning towards justice under Obama, and then the onset and the “we” onset of the long American night in 2016, something happened in that period.
On the one hand, you have more money rushing into the art world than has ever been here in the history of the world. But on the other hand, the gates of art history finally fell. We lived through the collapse of the etiology at least of modernism, of one movement logically following on another. And first of all, we saw more women, artists of color, disabled, underrepresented artists show than ever before in the history of art. That means, Jeff, that more than 51% of the story that had been left out was finally making it to the public eyes.
And that in just sheer fact and force and number has forced art to change and it is rejiggering our history in real-time. And people listening to this that are younger than I am are being tasked with the most thrilling task of all, which is to rewrite our history. I’m a former long-distance truck driver with no degree, who didn’t start writing until he was 40. And then the huge loser like anybody who’s listening to us right now, and yet even I am part of this incredible rewriting.
Jeff: Has all of this money that you’ve talked about that has come into the art world has had a positive or a negative influence? Has it shaped how we perceive it? Has it corrupted it or has it enhanced it?
Jerry: Well, I think the answer to all your great questions, and I see why you have a good show and I’m just a visitor, the answer to all your questions, Jeff, is yes. Yes, it has corrupted it. Yes, it has made more good things happen. Yes, it has made us cynical. Yes, it has allowed more artists to show. Here’s what I think. I think that, first of all, money has made us cynical.
There’s no question that 99% of our audiences now look at art as this elite, pointy-headed, obscenely, over-inflated, pricey field of exclusivity. When you just peel back the onion layer, you realize that only 1% of 1% of 1% of all artists make any money, yet 99% of our coverage goes to that 1%. So we only seem to see art when it’s too expensive, glitzy, idiotic, stupid, awful, sensationalistic.
So that’s really unfortunately made people get a false negative on what the art world is. It’s just like the news reporting only what other people in the news have already reported that other people like you have reported because you heard it on the news. These cycles actually are all self-replicating illusions. If you peel back the cynical layer, Jeff, you realize that art, 99% of artists don’t make any money, and also that– Well, the point being, actually, I want to say, I want all artists to make money.
The good, the bad, and the very bad, because, Jeff, now, we’re living in a time when we get to see what every crap all artists have to say and we’ll sort it out in time. And in a way, that’s a great thing because like I said before, it’s caused walls to finally come down. And art has to take this money even though it’s coming from people who are probably ideologically, diametrically opposed to the people making the art, but we all live in the time of paradox. There’s no doubt.
Jeff: And I guess the other part of it is that proverbial chicken-or-the-egg question. For so long, it seemed that the culture was shaped by art, that artists shaped the culture. Now, it seems that the culture is shaping the artists. Talk about that.
Jerry: Well, I think, really, a great observation. However, I think it may have always been this way. It was always thus. It’s just more than ever now. In other words, the art you were seeing in the Renaissance was being shaped by that time. That wealth, that form of government, those wars, those ideologies and aspirations. The same way we have that now. Art is a kind of self-replicating organism, I think.
It almost seems to use us to reproduce itself. It’s like Bob Dylan said, “It’s like a ghost is writing the song and the ghost chose me to make it.” However, whatever ghost is making it has already been shaped by the organism that we call “culture.” That is history. That’s your biography, your delusions, your fears. And because, Jeff, we live in such a contested, speeded-up moment, this book, Art Is Life, happens to track the art of the 21st century as more of that life God embedded in more of that art.
And if you look for it, you will find it. It is there and it doesn’t always have to be idiotically obvious and didactic and finger-pointing. In fact, going back to Dylan. In 1964 when he really started to find his art, he said, “I’m done with writing finger-pointing songs.” In a way, he got out of his own way and started making his own ever-changing art. And that’s what’s happening now and it’s really thrilling.
Jeff: There is certainly greater access to art it seems today and it’s become more democratized in some respects. Is that a good or a bad thing?
Jerry: Well, on the good side of the fence, because you can see, I’m a Pollyanna. Like I said, I’m such a late bloomer. I’m such a late bloomer and, like I said, uneducated, I taught myself everything like most people are self-taught, that I always try to look first on the optimistic side. So, again, greater access means we’re going to see more artists having a shot. Look, Instagram was a game-changer.
Instead of having pointy-headed art critics be the person that was always telling everybody else what to look at, everybody could look at each other. Now, you can hear just the way I yammer on that I don’t wear authority well. So if anybody wants to go to my Instagram and follow it, you’ll see that every day or so, I’ll post artists who are completely unknown. I don’t necessarily like them all, but I think that there’s something in their work that’s convincing.
And many of these artists who I’ve never met, I don’t know them, have gone on to become famous. Most have not. So that access is a good thing. The bad thing about it is it just lets in tons, boatloads of mediocrity. But what I would tell everybody that worries about all the mediocre, bad TV shows and movies and novels and music getting through in the name of this or that, what I would say to you is that if 85% of the art being shown or seen or heard or read is mediocre, the truth is 85% of the art made in the Renaissance was mediocre.
We just never see it that all of this, Jeff, will be washed out in time, that we will be able to sort it out, that we don’t have to get our shorts in a wad just because a mediocre Ecuadorian female artist is having her show. We’ve had 200 years of mediocre white male artists having shows. We will sort this out. So I come down resolutely on the democratization of art, which you so beautifully put it, is a good thing in the end because it takes the doors of apartheid. One more screw off that hinge.
Jeff: The difference, I suppose, is that time, that events, and that artists and awareness of artists move so much faster today. I mean, yes, there were lots of mediocre artists during the Renaissance, but it took years and years and years for the best to emerge necessarily and gain in reputation. Whereas today, events move so quickly that even artists come and go before anybody is aware of them.
Jerry: That’s really true. What I always tell artists is, “I want you to have a really sexy, high-powered, 30-month career where you become rich and famous and you can have sex with people and you can get into restaurants and you’re in lifestyle Instagram feeds. I’m not against that for any artist that says, “Should I show with this huge, mega gallery, Jerry?” I go, “You can if you want to.” There’s nothing wrong with it.
But what I say to them, Jeff, is that, “As much as I like the 30-month career, I want you to have a 30-year career. I want you to have a life lived in art where you witness your own work changing, going through, evolving, becoming what it will, having some tough times and some great times, and also having that life lived in art.” So I guess, again, I’m a terrible judge of this. I want everybody to take the field. “Let me see what you got. Bring it,” I say. And the main lesson I have for artists, work, work, work, work, work.
I don’t want to hear about how hard it is because it is hard. That’s the price of admission to everything we do. When Jeff woke up this morning, when I woke up this morning, we had demons living in our mouths that said, “I can’t do this anymore. How am I going to fake people out? I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not sure if this is new. Am I too young? Am I too old? Do I have anything new to say? Are my ankles too fat?”
All of these things are at play, but I’m sorry. That’s part of the organism, that is you’re diluted but real genius. One other thing I have to tell you, make an enemy of envy today. If you’re only looking out at what other people are doing and how much money this one has and how much attention that one is getting and how beautiful that one’s husband is or whatever, really, you’re dying inside.
And that’s the easy way out to see what other people are doing. So if I could get out of a damn long-distance truck and teach myself to be a writer at the age of 40, having never written a word in my life, surely, you can make bad squiggles and squares and landscapes and still live for me. Is it that hard to just be a bad critic like me? If you build it, they might come. That’s all I can say. If you just get to work.
Jeff: What difference has it made even in the art world as we have seen in virtually every segment of society, greater diversity today?
Jerry: Well, that’s the game-changer because we’re seeing like artists of color are painting a dead genre called portraiture and figurative painting. We closed the door. We would say the author is dead, the novel is dead, painting is dead, figuration is dead. It’s like we’re a bunch of morticians, Jeff, in all these different fields. So if you’re an artist of color and you go, “Well, you may say figuration is dead, but I have figures that have never been painted before in the history of art, let alone seen.”
And these are narratives not of continuity but discontinuity, narratives of other cultures, biographies, histories, mythologies, dreams, aspirations, and trauma. The same things all art is made of and has embedded in it, Jeff. So the change that’s having is, like I said, you are finally seeing, even if you don’t like it, 51% of the story that had been completely left out for only the last 50,000 years. And I just want to tell listeners that it wasn’t always so, that 51% of the hand prints and caves, they’ve all been examined by computers and that 51% of those hands are women’s hands.
So once upon a time, it wasn’t an open and shut door to the art world, where women especially are artists of color or disabled or underrepresented or whatever. I’m an illegal Estonian immigrant, need not apply. So come on in. The weather’s insane here. It’s a beautiful, fantastic, dysfunctional family. The art world is an all-volunteer army. Anybody that wants to come here can come. If you get very quiet inside and listen to your own voice, you will tell yourself an incredible story. And that story is reflected in my book, Art Is Life, because that’s what’s happened.
Jeff: Because of the way the world has gotten smaller, has art been able to resist becoming overly homogenized?
Jerry: No, because art is also a virus. Other people make what other people have already made. I always say to artists, “There’s nothing wrong if you too want to paint stripes or squares, and do 10,000 of those and see if you can do it.” On the 10,000th one, that’s different where I’m not thinking of all the other stripe or square or figurative or landscape artists. If it’s been done before, I say do it again. But do it 10,000 times and then have your best friend go, “No, it still looks like Andy Warhol or something.”
The other thing I would say is, do you really want to be a lesser example of somebody else’s great idea? If you tell your own story, the artist Louise Bourgeois said, you will be interesting. All of us come here from some trauma that becomes our normal. All you have to do is tell your own story. Be radically vulnerable. Tell your secrets without giving them away. And I promise you, if you do this and do it in a somewhat teeny bit original way, they may come to you.
You don’t need a gigantic audience, Jeff. Sometimes an audience of very small numbers will bring you to the mountaintop. 15 people can sustain a career that becomes world famous if they have faith in you, but you above all must be deluded enough to make your own work through your own dark nights in the soul, which will come every night at 3:15 in the morning. That’s the price of admission to the house of heart.
Jeff: Is it harder to make those stories stand out today? In a world in which there is so much noise in which everybody is trying to tell their story on social media and in all the other noisy outlets, does it make it harder for the artist today?
Jerry: I actually think, Jeff, it makes it easier because we’re all listening not at the whole bandwidth because that would be impossible. In the same way, our bodies are not conscious of breathing and heart rate and temperature and balance and forming vision inside of the retina of the rods and cones. You are looking at a certain wavelength and you’ll see more of it in more color and more heretofore unseen colors than have ever been seen before.
And every bit of that becomes part of your organism. Something for the artist to use, to steal, to put, and embed in their own work. Just remember, pleasure is an important form of knowledge. If you like this sweater or color or painting or person, follow that. It’s telling you something. Honor your taste and your taste will help make you what you really are and let you fly and spread your wings. It isn’t that hard to make bad criticism or bad art. Just do it for me. Try it for a year or so. See what happens. It can’t hurt.
Jeff: To what extent do you think technology will have an impact on 21st-century art?
Jerry: Absolutely. Now, we have to remember that when oil paint was first invented, people had never seen it before and that was a new technology, or a pencil or lithography or printing or etching. When the camera was invented, everybody said, “Oh, it’ll never be art.” That’s happening around us at all times. Now, we’ve seen NFTs. Well, that’s a mainly male field right now, unfortunately, but someday there will be a Leonardo da Vinci of NFTs.
It’s simply a medium or a tool or a material. Artists use materials. They embed their thoughts in those materials. And a digital file. In other words, every photograph that every listener here has ever seen doesn’t exist. Digital files are only electrons moving inside of your phone and the photograph doesn’t exist. It only exists as a digital file. Therefore, I claim that a digital file is material and that you should use it, whether it’s an AI program or an NFT.
Forget the money. The money’s always ridiculous and the money will be gone someday. This is very temporary, that the art world is so flush. So if you find a tool, use it. Even if it’s cardboard, plaster, NFTs, AI, just make your work out of whatever is at hand. If you can’t afford it, you have to find a cheaper way to make it. Let’s see you make your work. That’s all I’m asking, people.
Jeff: Jerry Saltz. Art Is Life is his recent book. Jerry, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Jerry: You’re really great at what you do. It’s a huge honor. Thank you.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.