Books

How Do You Make Art During a Pandemic? Jerry Saltz Has a Few Suggestions.

Jerry Saltz and the cover for How To Be An Artist.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via John Sciulli/Getty Images for Vulture Festival and Penguin Random House.

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If this were a typical, pre-pandemic week, Jerry Saltz would be busy attending somewhere between 30 and 40 gallery and museum shows across New York City. As the art critic for New York magazine, his life from morning to night usually revolves around the consumption of extraordinary quantities of artwork. But like the rest of us, Saltz—whose new book, How to Be an Artist, hit the New York Times bestseller list at around the same time that COVID-19 hit New York City—has had to change his routine, confining himself to the country house he shares with wife Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic for the New York Times, in “a groomed poodle of a town” in northwest Connecticut. He’s spending this time thinking about Bruegel paintings, gazing at cows out his bedroom window, enjoying videoconferences with his New York magazine colleagues, and contemplating the post-COVID-19 future of the art world. “Art is helping everyone get through this, and through everything,” he told Slate in a phone interview.

Saltz’s unpretentious and irreverent writing style has earned him a reputation as an everyman of art criticism, writing for the common reader, not an elite audience. He never went to college, refers to himself frequently in conversation as a “failure,” and resents opaque academic jargon. “All of the bullshit gobbledygook that you read in fancy art magazines that have sentences like the late commodified object of post-marxist capitalist simulacra finds itself in a dialectic looking for a dichotomy to interrogate the other … is all designed to make normal people feel stupid and left out, to make it seem like art is this great, intimidating, impossible thing,” he said.

His new book is just the opposite. The slim, brightly colored volume features dozens of “rules” for living a fulfilling creative life, ranging from “have courage” to “start working first thing in the morning.” Written in bite-size chapters, How to Be an Artist offers practical inspiration, motivational tips, prompts, exercises, and anecdotes designed to help demystify the art-making process and encourage people to overcome their fears. Its heartening, feel-good thesis is simple: Make art. Do it now. Are you intimidated? Do it anyway! While others have written about the fear of failure that lies at the heart of any creative pursuit—Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett come to mind—few have offered such concrete advice for overcoming it.

The idea for How to Be an Artist grew out of a much-lauded essay Saltz wrote for New York magazine in 2017 titled “My Life as a Failed Artist,” which details the years Saltz spent in Chicago and New York in the 1970s trying to make it as a visual artist. He enjoyed some early success and even founded his own artist-run gallery, but after suffering a crisis of confidence and what he describes as “a one-year walking nervous breakdown,” Saltz left the city and became a long-distance truck driver. For years, consumed by resentment toward the art world he felt had rejected him, he crisscrossed the country at the helm of a 10-wheeler. (His CB radio handle was “The Jewish Cowboy.”) Saltz describes these years as some of the loneliest and most difficult of his life. The depression he felt, as well the mounting realization that “the only thing worse than living in the art world was not living in the art world,” inspired him, eventually, to get back in the saddle.

After returning to New York, Saltz began writing criticism for the Village Voice, and in 2006, he was hired by Adam Moss as a senior art critic for New York magazine. Saltz’s claims to failure have grown tenuous over the past decade as his influence and reputation have grown. In 2003, a collection of his Village Voice columns was published as a book titled Seeing Out Loud. In 2018, he won a Pulitzer for his work; the committee lauding his “canny and often daring perspective on visual art in America, encompassing the personal, the political, the pure and the profane.” Still, despite his successes, Saltz says the self-doubt always remains. “It doesn’t matter how successful you are. You never overcome it,” he said. “I have it today bad. I’m on two cups of coffee and I still can’t blast quite through.”

Saltz has a rare ability, useful for a critic, to speak declaratively without coming off as pushy or didactic. How to Be an Artist, which is organized as a numbered list of 63 rules, includes edicts like “accept that you’ll likely be poor,” “be delusional,” and “once a year, go dancing.” He says he wrote the book “as a note to my younger self, and every other self that is out there, fighting the same demons I lost to.” The overwhelming impression is one of urgent generosity, as though he were your own future self, returned via time machine to tell you that the only regret you will have is not having danced more. “Let’s be clear. This is not a book about how to be rich and famous and successful as an artist,” Saltz says. “If anyone writes that book, I would like to read it.”

What it does offer, as Saltz puts it, is a guide for those who wish to “live a life in art.” Like many of us, Saltz has been comforted in recent weeks by his online community, who do just that. Saltz maintains an engaged and exuberant digital persona, posting photos of gallery shows, political memes, and blurry selfies with Oprah to his more than 1 million followers across platforms—though not all of his missives have been well received. In 2015, he was temporarily suspended from Facebook after followers reported images of artwork containing nude figures, and a few other posts have been criticized as sexist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive, prompting Saltz to apologize but also to push back against the “decency police.”

Saltz claims that he has since stopped going “quite so rogue on social media,” but few critics can be said to engage with the messy cultural compost of the internet as enthusiastically as he does. To give you a taste of his Twitter account, in the past two weeks alone he’s posted images of penis-shaped water fountains, an antique photo of a Nazi soldier performing a rectal exam, and a snap of 18 to-go cups of gas station coffee, bought for quarantine, that perplexed many. “I couldn’t believe the reaction to that photo,” Saltz said. “I stocked up on coffee at a deli for the quarantine and the entire internet decided that I had to be destroyed.” (The explanation turned out to be quite simple: Neither he nor his wife makes coffee at home.)

But for all his shenanigans, Saltz is not a troll. He isn’t mocking or derisive (except, perhaps, in tweets about the president of the United States, whom he refers to exclusively as “Lumpy”). He spends the majority of his time online promoting artists whose work he admires. “If you do one good thing, I will follow you for a long, long time,” he said. “Maybe 10 or 15 years. And If you make two good things,” he added, blowing out a stream of air from between his lips, “Boom! I’ll chisel your name into the face of my temple.” There’s a reason Saltz has built this community largely on social media. “I find it astonishing how many people have great ideas,” he said earnestly. “Next time you go to a museum, turn to your left and ask the person standing there what they think of a particular painting. I promise, it’ll blow your mind. I get to have that feeling all day every day online.”

Despite our new means of connection, Saltz is aware of the existential threat the pandemic poses to the art world, though he takes a long-term view. “Viruses come and viruses go, but art will survive,” he says. “Art has been with us since the caves. It is in every bone in our bodies.” He has tried to remain optimistic that the art world could, and would, survive anything. But recently, that optimism has faltered somewhat. In a recent article in New York, Saltz predicted that this moment might spell the end for the modern art market as we know it. Specifically, it might kill festival culture—the global circuit of expensive annual art fairs, which has already proved financially unsustainable for many institutions. “There will be galleries on the other side of this chasm, and museums, and artists making work, of course,” but he worries that this moment “may exacerbate the inequalities that already exist in the industry.”

There have been signs that even more stable institutions are facing existential threat. In March, the 150-year-old San Francisco Art Institute announced that there’d be no incoming fall class. The mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art has estimated its losses will be somewhere around $100 million.* “It is scary to imagine that a few months of lockdown would be enough to decimate a century’s worth of infrastructure,” he said. When I responded that this all sounded quite Darwinian, Saltz agreed. “Darwin spent most of his life trying to clear up one bad tweet,” he said. “When he said survival of the fittest he meant survival was for those who can adapt to change. And, as you know, change has been forced on us overnight. And this turns out to be the very conditions that art and creativity thrive under.”

Art-making will go on, though it may not look the way it did before. “Right now we are in smaller rooms and much more intimate settings. It means you’re making something next to kids who are wrecking the kitchen table and Nana is in the back cooking and somebody else is in another part of the house making noise on a Zoom meeting. But, as it turns out, these are the exact conditions in which our species has been making things for 50,000 years,” he said. “That idiot song lyric you wanted to write? That stupid poem? That funny dance? That drawing of Nana? Do it now. Don’t do it in the perfect way Leonardo did it. Do it like the idiot you that we all are.”

Correction, April 16, 2020: This post originally misstated that the Metropolitan Museum of Art laid off thousands of staff and performers.