Artists Don’t Get No Respect


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Helen A. Harrison

Artists need to get over themselves. That was the blunt message from Jerry Saltz, New York magazine’s senior art critic, to his artist-dominated audience at Guild Hall on July 18th, when he delivered the Annual Pollock-Krasner Lecture. Funny, irreverent, self-deprecating and voluble, Jerry is the art world’s answer to Rodney Dangerfield. His monologue, provocatively titled “The Good, The Bad and the Very Bad: An art critic talks about art, demons, and other things that have to do with making art today,” focused on how artists’ expectations often outstrip achievement. And he was just as frank about unrealistic notions of the critic’s power and influence as he was about the artist’s misguided visions of fame and fortune.

Having been a journalistic art critic for more than 30 years, first for The New York Times’ now-defunct Long Island section and then for WLIU radio, I was delighted to hear Jerry discredit the image of the critic as a tastemaker whose judgments can make or break an artist’s career. On the contrary, he maintained, critics play a limited role in the rise and fall of artists’ reputations, and virtually none in determining the market for their work. It’s only natural to want a rave review, but I agree with Jerry’s contention that it has very little influence on an artist’s ultimate success.

“Artists want everyone to love them,” Jerry declared. That’s an overstatement for effect, but it does highlight some of the demons that haunt the studio, where the artist labors in isolation and struggles to give tangible form to intangible concepts or feelings. Having the idea is one thing, finding a way to express it so others can get the message is something else again. Remember Edison’s assertion that genius is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration? Well, it may be a cliché, but it’s true. Then, having expended all that energy on an artistic labor of love, the demon of self-doubt pokes you with its pitchfork. Is my work good enough? Will anyone else get it? Then another demon takes a stab. What if no gallery will show it? Suppose it does get shown, but no one buys it? And even worse, what if it gets a bad review?

As far as Jerry is concerned, that should be the least of an artist’s worries, and I concur. Andy Warhol, the world’s most famous and successful modern artist, never got a favorable review in his life. Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Julian Schnabel and other contemporary art stars do have their critical champions, but they’re regularly pilloried by others. What makes the market, according to Jerry, is marketing.

Before he spoke, Jerry mentioned to me that a poll by Art Review magazine had named him the fifty-fifth most important person in the art world—hardly a top draft pick. When I introduced him I included that statistic, which got a hearty laugh from the audience. Who was number one, they wanted to know. The answer: the art dealer Larry Gagosian. If what you want is commercial success, Jerry told them, find a dealer who will promote your work, an enthusiast to write about it and a few collectors who will invest in it, and don’t worry about whether critics or the general public love you or what you do.

If you think that sounds cynical, Jerry would be the first to agree with you. He has a pretty jaundiced view of the high-powered contemporary art scene. But even as he admonished artists to stop complaining that they don’t get enough recognition and to scale back their expectations of stardom, he encouraged them to remain true to themselves and to follow their inner necessity. Far from suggesting that they compromise themselves or just give up, he advised them to stay with it and keep it authentic. That’s the only way to be credible, and it holds true for art criticism as well. Both processes, he believes, should be intuitive, not calculated or formulaic, or they become mannered, shallow and pretentious.

In the end, credibility is the defining factor that both artists and critics need to embrace. Although they speak different languages — as Jerry put it, critics are dog-like in their direct communication with their audience, while artists are like cats, which express themselves indirectly — if they aren’t honest, they aren’t worth paying attention to. Authenticity, he insisted, is the true measure of success.

Helen A. Harrison is the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs