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When Art Becomes Self-Help

Jerry Saltz’s new book markets an instagram-friendly version of creativity.

In a moment perhaps better consigned to the mists of television history, Bravo once produced a reality TV show called Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, which had its two seasons in 2010 and 2011. It came between the decline of cable and the rise of streaming, when niche shows were only found on channels like Bravo instead of straight-to-Netflix, where they are now more easily ignored. Work of Art was a visual-art version of Project Runway, in which contestants vied to produce the best portraits, collages, and installations instead of dresses. Fourteen artists competed for a prize of $100,000 and an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

HOW TO BE AN ARTIST by Jerry Saltz
Riverhead Books, 144 pp., $22.00

Contestants ranged from a guy named the Sucklord, who made satirical custom-designed toys, to Judith Braun, an older painter who already had some success in the formal gallery ecosystem. The works produced on assignment—create a piece of Pop art, turn part of a Fiat 500 car into a sculpture (get that sponsorship money)—were mediocre at best. The one memorable part of the show was the participation of Jerry Saltz, New York magazine’s longtime art critic, as a judge. Saltz, fatherly and charismatically unpretentious, doled out both tough advice and encouragement. His message seemed to be that, with the right guidance, anyone could make a piece of art worthy of a theoretical museum show.

Saltz later disavowed Work of Art: “I failed at practicing criticism on TV,” he wrote, though he would gladly try again. Still, the show gave him a new visibility not just as a magazine critic but a translator of the fine art world to the public and, to a lesser extent, vice versa. In 2018, he received a Pulitzer Prize for his reviews. Saltz’s new book, How to Be an Artist, his first original after previous collections of criticism, follows the principle of the TV show. It gives a series of short instructions or prompts, some banal and others provocative, on both looking at and making art, for audiences of any level of art fluency.

The appetite for this kind of advice has only increased in the past decade, as the art world (and market) has become more visible to the wider public. With social media, we’re hyperaware of the kind of daily aesthetic decision-making that was once the province of people in the art industry—creating a tasteful image and broadcasting it to a set of followers. Now anyone with an iPhone has the tools to create and publish a soft-focus portrait photo or frenetically cut video clip; TikTok posts recall nothing more than Ryan Trecartin’s video art circa 2006. Saltz participates in this culture himself, posting a high volume of hand-scrawled notes and anti-Trump memes on his Facebook page, which has become a kind of digital salon.

His book evokes this general aura of visual literacy and creativity—we’re all artists now! Or are we? The problem is that art-making is about much more than just the image, and it’s never quite possible for everyone.

A 144-page volume that deserves the cliché appellation of slim, How to Be an Artist exists at the intersection of a tiny corpus of art-criticism books and the booming genre of self-help-meets-lifestyle-inspiration. The pithy guide format is having a bestselling renaissance, including Marie Kondo’s cleaning manuals; Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and its various follow-ups; and the productivity porn of volumes collecting the morning routines of various artists and thinkers, as if we could write In Search of Lost Time by breakfasting like Proust. (Eat, Pray, Love might be the ancestor of the species.) Like others in its cohort, Saltz’s book is visually appealing, with plentiful color reproductions of artwork and portraits of artists. In the introduction, Saltz describes his goal as leading the reader “from wondering and worrying to making real art, even great art.” Then he adjusts expectations: The book can “at least help you live life a little more creatively.”

Saltz was a painter before he became a critic. He has cultivated a relatable backstory that he repeats often: a stalled art career, a stint as a truck driver, writing his first piece for The Village Voice when he was in his forties. Leaning on the story, Saltz usually positions himself as a populist. If he can make a life in art, you can, too. The book charts a rough linear progression through the course of a career, from thinking like an artist, to maintaining a studio routine, to entering and then surviving the art world. (“Learn to deal with rejection.”) The studio is vital: Whether it’s a cleared-off kitchen table or white-walled warehouse, it’s a personal space in which to experiment, take chances, and create things that don’t exist. Saltz embraces the difficult, Bruce Nauman-esque idea that anything that happens in the studio (or the headspace of the studio) should be considered valid as art. You need to look at as much art as possible, follow your inclinations wherever they go, and be patient.

Interspersed are short exercises or assignments that double as art therapy, like making a “memory tree” that represents your life and showing it to someone else who then analyzes it; trying to copy the styles of different artists or movements; and making a drawing using only erasure. This final suggestion does not come with an explanation that Robert Rauschenberg once famously asked Willem de Kooning for a drawing of his and then laboriously erased it using any means necessary in a 1953 piece that presaged elements of Minimalist art. Though the book presents plenty of threads to follow if the reader wants to go deeper, it doesn’t fully connect the activities of the artist with their roots in art history or conceptual innovation.

This version of living like an artist evokes something closer to corporatized mindfulness, a heightened attentiveness to the world for the sake of problem-solving (and maybe renting a loft). Art here suggests self-discovery and self-expression without risk; creativity means things you can Instagram. Throughout the book, Saltz presents an uneven mix of pat statements on the nature of art, overenthusiastic self-help (“your talent is like a wild animal that must be fed”), and a handful of hard-earned critical insights. Aphoristic quotes are sprinkled in from the likes of Albert Einstein, Jay-Z, and Louise Bourgeois as well as Saltz’s famous-artist friends and his wife, the legendary New York Times art critic Roberta Smith. (Smith’s contributions are among the more intellectually grounded: “Artists do not own the meaning of their work.”)

The book is better as a guide to looking at and cultivating your own taste in art than actually making it. There are helpful musings on form versus content—“Style is the unstable essence an artist brings to a genre”—and the challenge of engaging with contemporary art without dismissing it out of hand: “Don’t think good or bad. Think useful, pleasurable, strange, lucky.” There are flashes of Saltz the breezy critic, drawing on lifelong knowledge to sketch an artist’s work in a few evocative words: “Matisse’s idea of composition and space is like a wildflower garden, a long gaze at the night sky, a changing cloud.” The best parts of this book could have appeared under the title How to Be an Art Critic, but that lifestyle is much less aspirational.

Other statements in Saltz’s guide might leave the reader confused or depressed. “Art isn’t about playing games with aesthetics,” Saltz writes. Isn’t that exactly what it is? It depends on what you mean by aesthetics, which he never quite defines. “Accept that you’ll likely be poor.” It is indeed difficult to make money by selling artwork through traditional galleries, but an acceptance of poverty shouldn’t be part of anyone’s working life, let alone the default condition of an artist (or writer).

The glamorization of Bohemian poverty is an ongoing issue for Saltz, who has turned his lack of wealth into a refrain and trumpets his frugal habit of buying giant bodega coffees to chill overnight, instead of paying a premium for iced coffee. Not to begrudge anyone a long-standing position within an institution, but I’d rather hear about money from the bevy of younger art writers who can only dream of a staff title or column when a few New York City staff critics have reigned for so long. Recall the joke: What makes a media power couple? Two jobs.

What does it mean to be an artist in an economy that actually doesn’t allow many people to make their living as artists? The art world is in the midst of a larger inflection point at the moment, as it increasingly recognizes itself as yet another industry built on hoarded capital and exploited labor. The art economy has metastasized over the past few decades. Auction houses can sell nearly a billion dollars of art in a weekend; a few mega-galleries are taking over as global franchises, supplanting more independent alternatives; and a few superstar artists face pressure to expand their studios as quickly as possible to meet collector demand, turning into mini-corporations. “Flippers” look to resell hot artists at auction whenever their prices blow up, often damaging their long-term career prospects (since the inflated numbers often set expectations too high, like an explosive start-up). Meanwhile, art workers face the same hardships as everyone else in the cultural economy, competing ferociously for scarce gigs that tend to be temporary.

There’s a movement against these conditions. Museum staffs are unionizing, as at the New Museum. Trustees whose source of wealth appears more than usually morally compromised are being forced out, like the Whitney’s Warren Kanders, whose company Safariland sells tear-gas grenades. Artists are developing other means of support, selling directly to collectors, using crowdfunding, or launching podcasts. This backdrop goes largely unaddressed in How to Be an Artist. The book is more concerned with the lifestyle or symbols of art-making than with its current reality. It’s fine to have a family, Saltz tells us, pointing out that the famous artist Laurel Nakadate has a two-year-old son who loves to paint. Nakadate is unfortunately very much the exception.

The purpose of art here seems to be as entertainment or luxury, a passionate hobby, not a force that actively shapes the way we see our society, what we expect from our lives, and thus the world itself. There’s a difference between creative self-expression and actually being an artist, who investigates long-term aesthetic and cultural problems. We can encourage personal creativity while still preserving the importance and difficulty of that latter path. By limiting himself for the most part to art’s formal qualities, Saltz also downplays its utility and complexity. “Seeing comes before words,” as John Berger wrote in his 1972 landmark Ways of Seeing, which demonstrated that neither making nor consuming art is a politically neutral act. We see first, instantaneously, but we still need strong writing in order to form our understanding of art’s enduring purpose and effects.

Pushing more people to think more about art is an unalloyed good, whatever form it takes. But is it too much to ask for this instructional book, aimed at future art school students and Sunday painters, to put forth a holistic theory of art? Maybe it’s the paucity of art publishing and the lack of stand-alone books by our few mainstream art critics that make me want more. Or it’s that Saltz makes his politics clearer in his criticism. In his New York magazine column, he has written on overlooked queer artists and artists of color and the overwhelming influence of money in the art world. He supports projects like the photographer Nan Goldin’s anti-opioid addiction activism on social media. But here he shies away.

Writing can build sympathy for working artists without encouraging the my-kid-could-do-that delusion that art is a simple job, or that its private capacity outweighs its public role. That involves a certain amount of education not just on the importance of a studio practice, but the hierarchy of galleries, dealers, collectors, curators, and museums; the ways in which the economy of the art world extends far beyond the artist’s grasp; the structural funding of art in some nations and not in others. This information is timely and important. Albert Camus gave a speech in 1957 called “The Artist in His Times” that was recently republished by Vintage in an Eat, Pray, Love-ish paperback edition retitled Create Dangerously. It’s a polemic about the necessity of art in a trying political moment. “Our sole justification, if one exists, is to speak out, as best we can, for those who cannot,” he writes of artists. “We must all run every risk and work to create freedom.”

In chaotic moments, art can sometimes serve as a buffer between the self and the world or a method of escapism: “living creatively” as an excuse for disengagement. Posting photos of your in-progress sketches or ceramics is satisfying. A little analog distraction is necessary, a small rebellion against the relentlessly commodified spaces in which we live our lives. Yet we still rely on artists for that larger, more dangerous goal of creating freedom that’s not just aesthetic but social and political as well. Camus writes: “Freedom in art is worth very little when it has no meaning other than assuring that the artist has an easy life.” That process of creation may not look good on television or on Instagram. It’s not supposed to.