Man of the People: Jerry Saltz's Art is Life: Icons and Iconoclasts, Visionaries and Vigilantes, and Flashes of Hope in the Night

Review / November 2022
Man of the People: Jerry Saltz's Art is Life: Icons and Iconoclasts, Visionaries and Vigilantes, and Flashes of Hope in the Night
By Ella Fox-Martens
Jerry Saltz is, perhaps, the most well-known contemporary working art critic. With half a million followers on Instagram, a Pulitzer Prize (received in 2018 for “conveying a canny and often daring perspective on visual art”) and a thriving online presence, he embodies commercial criticism—for better or worse.

Despite being seventy-one, Saltz thrives online, in forums that cater to young adults and millennials. His prose is informal, engaging, and ironic; miles away from more academic critics like Lucy Lippard or Ben Davis. Eschewing more serious outlets for punchier publications like Vulture and New York Magazine, Saltz has cultivated a dedicated following, posting pictures of Manet’s paintings captioned with “fucking bring it,” interspersed with pro-BLM cartoons and anti-capitalism memes. His Instagram account can post over fifteen times a week. It’s a kind of impressive crossgenerational fluency that comes off, at times, as unavoidably self-interested. If you can’t speak the language of the new age, nobody is going to listen to what you have to say, let alone pay for it.

To that end, his latest book, Art Is Life: Icons and Iconoclasts, Visionaries and Vigilantes, and Flashes of Hope in the Nightis an episodic highlight reel of two decades of Saltz’s work, from 1999 to 2021. In over eighty essays, he charts important biographical moments, reflects on seminal artists (Koons, Hilma af Klimt, Pollock) and touches on key events in contemporary art history—most notably the Ankara gallery assassination. It’s a collage of everything that makes Jerry Saltz who he is, written in his trademark dry, irreverent style. It’s also immensely readable, despite coming in at 368 pages.

Taken all together, it’s easy to see the pitfalls of modern criticism, however. Produced to account for dwindling attention spans and rising ad revenue, word counts have grown shorter and shorter, with less time for writers to indulge in complexity. Art Is Life is less a collection of bespoke essays, like Laing’s Funny Weather, and more of an album of snapshots. Saltz is reliably witty—“Two weeks ago, the Death Star that has hovered over the art world for the last two years finally fired its lasers” begins a 2008 essay on Frieze Art Fair—but these are essentially online clips pasted together into a book. If somebody is going to tell me that Edward Hopper is the “Leonard Cohen, Roy Orbison, and Bruce Springsteen of painting,” I’m going to need to know why, however stylish the paragraph that surrounds it. Saltz is fond of tossing off grand statements like that without ever examining the logic behind it, with the Hopper quote originating from a 2015 interview with David Wallace-Wells that reads like a dizzying, name-dropping speedrun of art theory.

Another odd realisation is that most of these essays are still accessible online, in their original formats. Chronologically, it’s interesting to chart the rapid development of online criticism—its format and direction—over the last twenty years, watching Saltz incorporate more and more “internettalk.” Yet, if you can read over half of a book without buying it, you do end up wondering whether it’s worth it in the first place. The appeal of Art is Life seems to centre on Saltz himself—hinging on whether the reader finds him a bold, intriguing critic, or a repetitive, hacky columnist.

If, like me, you find Saltz more of the former than the latter, Art Is Life will be enjoyable. As always, Saltz’s great strength is his willingness to incorporate vulnerability; the core human element that makes most formal art-criticism off-putting to a general public who function on oversharing. The book’s opener “My Life as a Failed Artist,” is a painful reflection on Saltz’ past ambitions to be a great visual artist himself, and a humbling recognition of what it feels like to fail. For once, Saltz is dissecting himself, and the effect is emotional, empathetic. “I miss art terribly,” he admits. “I wanted what others had, hated anyone who had more space, time, money, education, a better career.” Saltz painstakingly examines his past processes and influences (Dante, mostly)—something he clearly once treasured—and talks about his obsessive, “delusional” attitude towards his work on paper. There is something deeply engaging in Saltz’s recounting of his selfconscious regionality, his desperation to be somebody. “I wanted to be an outsider worm in the bowels of the insider hyena.” It’s embarrassing, brave, sad, wonderful.

As Saltz himself notes, he “wasn’t built for the type of loneliness that comes from art.” He “thrives on public performance”—the kind of performance that criticism demands. Saltz’s written bravado, his tireless online presence, his hot takes, are all designed to put on a show. Art Is Life is a highlight reel of the author at his best, working to keep you entertained. If it’s a gimmick, it’s a good one.

Image Credits:
Image 1: Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Image 2: Photo by Carol Diehl; Courtesy of Penguin Random House