Opinion  January 25, 2024  Cynthia Close

Art Critic Jerry Saltz Doesn’t Care That He’s Controversial

Via Youtube Video

Jerry Saltz with Sharon Stone during their talk during the Vulture Festival in November 2023.

In 2021, art critic Jerry Saltz (1951-) stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy when he declared critics worked harder and were more important than the artists whose work they critiqued. To put this in perspective, I covered the 2021 brouhaha, as well as some history of other high profile artist/critic conflicts, for Art & Object.

In statements made earlier in his career, Saltz appears to present a different version of himself. Back then, he took a more modest stance, implying that critics had little ultimate impact on the success or failure of an artist’s career. In a New York Magazine article from 2012, he downplayed the importance of controversy stating, “In art, scandal is a false narrative, a smoke screen that camouflages rather than reveals. When we don’t know what we’re seeing, we overreact.” In his current embrace of social media, Saltz revels in his bad-boy persona, and in his ability to stir-up controversy. So, the question becomes, who is the ‘real’ Jerry Saltz and what does he think?

Via Penguin Random House

The cover of Jerry Saltz's best-selling book, How to Be an Artist.

Saltz touts his early credentials that include failed artist, college drop-out, and long-distance truck driver, and that has helped cement his image as an approachable “everyman.” This accessibility inevitably leads to more clicks and eyeballs on every pronouncement. But as Senior Art Critic of New York Magazine, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism and author of The New York Times best-seller How To Be an Artist, his stature has grown, giving his declarations more weight and a certain gravitas. The fact that his wife, Roberta Smith, has been the co-chief art critic of The New York Times since the beginning of his rise in the world of art criticism cannot be ignored. If their genders were switched, would Saltz even have the platform he does?

An active early adopter of Facebook and Twitter (now X), Saltz has upended the usual aloof persona of the critic. His 646,000 followers on Instagram are now added to the mix. In order to maintain a certain balance and objectivity, art critics, like restaurant critics, are supposed to keep their identities and social interactions separate from the people and work that they write about. Saltz has not only disrupted that balance, he has toppled it.

His online phenomenon has been the subject of numerous newspaper profiles and art projects like Jennifer Dalton’s 2010 artwork, What Are We Not Shutting Up About?, a fifteen-foot-wide data chart that visualizes five months of Saltz’s Facebook-page activity and was included in her 2010 exhibition at the Flag Art Foundation called “Making Sense.”

Via Wikimedia Commons

Jerry Saltz

Taking a brief look at some past skirmishes barely scratches the surface. But just for the sake of proving a point, in July, 2019 Arizona architect Ryan Scavnicky, the founder of Extra Office, took umbrage at some comments Saltz made on Instagram directed at architects who design museums. Saltz had said they should make them “usable for art” and not “trustee cocktails, stupid staircases, fundraising spaces, etc.” Scavnicky, responding in a piece on Archinect, defined his assailant like this: “Saltz is a Baby Boomer who makes money by picking fights online in an attention economy.” Well, no argument there.

In late 2023, Saltz managed to put himself in the center of a maelstrom about the value of the Musuem of Modern Art's much-hyped acquisition of the massive installation by Turkish-American AI artist Refik Anadol (1985-). Their battle was fought in public on X and widely covered in the arts media, including on Art & Object

All this controversy, however, does not seem to add or detract from the reputation of the artists and institutions who are the targets of Saltz’s, often ill-considered, remarks. Though it was over a decade ago, James Panero, executive editor of The New Criterion got it right when he wrote about Saltz’s addiction to social media. In 2010, Panero reflected, “On Facebook and now elsewhere online, Saltz regularly mixes portentous metaphysical questions with internet messianism, unctuous flattery of his followers, treacly self-doubt, and gaseous emissions of political cant. The ultimate topic of discussion is not art or even his devoted followers but Jerry Saltz himself.” This statement still stands as an accurate description of Saltz’s approach today.

This is not to say that Saltz isn’t admired. His encounter with actress, and now painter, Sharon Stone (1958-) for an event sponsored by Vulture was a highlight on his Facebook and Instagram in November 2023. Saltz interviewed Stone for the event, posting images to social media, and enveloping the whole affair in the aura of nepotism. One month later, in a discussion with Stone at the 92NY Center for Culture & Arts in New York, he called her work “epic.”

Ultimately, Saltz tells us that he doesn’t really care one way or the other what people think or say about him and his addiction to social media. He made that clear in an Instagram post on December 23, 2023 to usher in the New Year, in which he stated, “I used to be on ArtWorld Power 100 Lists until around 2012 when Art Review’s description said, ‘Saltz is in danger of being taken off these lists if he continues to try to practice art-criticism on Social Media.’ I thought; ‘Well, kiss my ass goodbye.’ Never looked back.” I guess that answers our original question.

Featured Image: The featured image was taken from a video on Youtube of the talk between Jerry Saltz and Sharon Stone at the Vulture Festival in November 2023. You can see the full video HERE.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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