Jerry Saltz challenges elitism in the art world

“Eighty-five per cent of the art made during the Renaissance was crap, it’s just all gone,” Jerry Saltz said to a Montreal crowd at Theatre Outremont on Apr. 3. “Eighty-five per cent of the art made during Impressionism—bleh.”

These are not words typically uttered by esteemed art critics, but Saltz has always relished in shocking his audience. Known to his followers as the ‘people’s art critic,’ the artist and 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winner for art criticism spoke with unexpected candour and levity about the stuffiness of the contemporary art world.

Saltz addressed a crowd of artists and art enthusiasts in his talk titled “Art First; All Else Follows,” hosted by Art Speaks, an organization that stages biannual lecture series aimed to facilitate discussions about contemporary art between experts and members of the public.

Saltz, the current senior art critic for New York Magazine, is one of the most celebrated contemporary art critics. However, he had an unorthodox entry into the field. Unsure of his qualifications, Saltz explained that he was initially hesitant to pursue a career in the arts, and instead worked as a long-distance truck driver.

“Finally, in the trucks, by the time I was about 40, I was in agony, really […and] I decided to become an art critic,” Saltz said. “[At the time], I had never written a word in my life […] I won the Pulitzer Prize and I don’t consider myself a writer, I think of myself as someone who just tries to write down what I am thinking. I think of myself as a folk critic.”

Among the crowd were several young hopefuls seeking advice on starting a successful career in art and criticism. Reflecting on his own professional journey, Saltz encouraged members of the audience to prioritize collaborative work.

“You must form a gang […], and you will take over the world together,” Saltz said. “That’s how it’s been done, and that’s how it will continue to be.”

Saltz suggested that Montreal was an ideal setting for artists to plant their roots. In recent years, the city’s artist communities have flourished. Yet, more importantly, according to Saltz, the city is teeming with diversity and talent.

“You have a cosmopolitan city,” Saltz said, “There are not many of them. In my opinion, only cosmopolitan cities with mixed, warring […] populations can become great centres for the arts [… I] went around to the galleries [in Montreal] today, and what I saw was good.”

Despite the city’s bountiful opportunities for artists, Saltz reiterated that, for many aspiring artists, a career in the creative disciplines is inaccessible. He was particularly vocal about the systemic barriers women and artists of colour encounter during their careers. According to a 2019 study of the art displayed in major U.S. museums, only 13 per cent of the work is by artists of colour and 20 percent by femme-identifying artists, an issue which many activist groups, such as the Guerrilla Girls, have sought to address. In response to this systemic discrimination, Saltz advocated for radical institutional reform within the art world that would broaden the scope of high culture. Nonetheless, Saltz optimistically pointed out that artists are producing work that challenges traditional sources of authority.

“The canon walls are down […], and we can already see that change is beginning,” Saltz said. “What I hope is that a mediocre woman artist could have as powerful of a career as all the mediocre white men who have had careers all of these centuries. ”

Despite the art world’s continued inaccessibility, Saltz nonetheless encouraged the audience, regardless of their background, to participate in Montreal’s artistic community.

“I’m lucky to be in [the art world]. I worked my whole life to be in it,” Saltz said. “Whether you make art or just love it like I do […], I want you to have a life lived in art because if you have that life, you will never be bored.”

 

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