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Guest Blog: Jerry Saltz’ Pop-Up Art Magazine
by Anne Bothwell 18 Dec 2014

Guest blogger Harmony Witte talks to one of her favorite art critics about SEEN.

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Guest blogger Harmony Witte lives in Dallas with her husband and menagerie. She works as an artist focusing on watercolors, digital illustration, photography, and painting murals. She is art director at a summer camp, teaches workshops, organizes art events, and curates shows.  This is her first post for Art&Seek.

Chances are that if you have read an art article from New York Magazine, you have read the work of Jerry Saltz. His contribution to the American art scene along with his masterful social media presence have made him a figure nearly bigger than life. Jerry is a self-taught critic who rose from long-haul trucking  to the role of head art critic and columnist for New York Magazine. Jerry’s most recent project is incredibly ambitious; it’s SEEN,  a thirty-three day pop-up art magazine  for New York magazine and Vulture that incorporates the work of dozens of bloggers and artists “exploring the arts full-time.” He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about this project.

jerry saltz2

Jerry Saltz

How did SEEN begin and whose idea was it?I’ve been begging New York magazine to do an art blog since about 2009 — just looking for a way to get all those people on my Facebook, Twitter, and then later Instagram sort of channeled into one place; but, I never wanted to run this art zine, or art blog, or art magazine. Finally New York magazine somehow found funding for it and its now up and running and I don’t have to be the editor, so I’m really happy. Now I will get to use it for putting as much of my stuff as I might want to write up there, and it’s really thrilling to me.

That’s great. Why the blog format?It just seemed to me that I was seeing more shows than I could write about, I was thinking about more art than I had a chance to address, more issues than I could get into the magazine and I wanted to be able to have a place to write all of that. I’m just starting to do that now. It also occurred to me that it would be a place to put other writers to work since there are going to be fewer and fewer print publications for critics. It seemed to me to try to create more and more platforms for younger critics to write. There’s no money in it — it’s very, very little money. But there’s very little money in print criticism as it is. So its a wash in a way, its break even. You make the same, no money, for writing online or for print. I don’t have a contract. New York Magazine could fire me any time they want, there’s no pension, no nothing like that. I’m not complaining. It seemed to me that since critics are not being paid very much, they are totally free to say whatever they want. They are in a no-lose situation. There’s nothing to lose. So if they don’t like this show or that show, they can write it and they are safe. It seemed to me that an online magazine was an idea worth trying. If it fails that’s fine too.
If it is successful enough, might they extend it beyond the 33 days?Yes. I think that is their hope. Right now, honestly, it’s my hope. When I got into this, it really didn’t occur to me if it should go on and on because they are the ones who have to make it either make money or they will kill it. But now that its up and running I feel already addicted, so I hope that they get addicted too and if they can figure out a way to make themselves money on it, good. I do not get paid one more dime for writing for SEEN, but again, that’s just the way criticism is, and my feeling is, I want readers.Your first post for SEEN was about how the art world has become more conservative. When did you begin to suspect that things are trending more conservatively?

Its been going on, I would say, the last year or so. When I did not like Oscar Murillo’s chocolate factory at David Turner Gallery I was called racist. When I loved Kara Walker’s sugar sculpture in Brooklyn and said it should be pulled across the United States on a huge float as a reminder of America’s original sin of slavery, people came on and said I’m disrespecting Kara Walker, my former student. Luckily, she came online and said “I like what Jerry Saltz wrote.”  That did not stop all the attacks of racism. It goes on and on. I think that with more money in the art world and with fewer people getting that money, its made people cynical. That cynicism has helped create a situation where people are returning to a more politically stringent way of thinking that was common in the early 1990’s. I think people are returning almost in a nostalgic way to a kind of thinking they were used to 20 years ago. I’ve decided if people want to criticize me, they can. At first I was a little shocked at being called a “racist, a sexist, a bigot.” I’m always called “old and bald.” It’s the last one that hurts the most because I don’t see myself as bald. I always want to tell people “I have hair!” I’m just going to go for it. I don’t want to lose readers, but I don’t mind losing so-called friends.

harmony witte

Harmony Witte

What has been the response to that post?

SEEN told me that over 150,000 people read it, that’s a lot for an art post. It has been circulated, there’s been articles written about it, I think we are all experiencing it, aren’t you? How does it manifest in your world? You’ve had me do all the talking, I would love to ask you a few questions.

It feels like in Dallas people aren’t really willing to question things. It’s all straight-up either “oh that’s pretty” or “it’s not because it doesn’t match the couch”,or its purely for shock value. There is no middle ground, people aren’t really trying to explore ideas with their art, they are just saying “look at that, oh isn’t that shocking” or “isn’t that pretty”.

Good point. I get it. I think its a phase that we are all in because the art world has gotten so big. Its a system that has gotten too big not to fail. It’s too big not to fail and people sense that and with social media there is much more opportunity to police other people’s energy. I’m always amazed that people will spend their own energy to attack the energy of others.

You often respond to posts on your articles and to your followers on social media. It makes the conversation very inclusive to people who would otherwise not have a voice in the art world. Have you noticed this inclusion changing the tone of conversations around art? For a long time I loved being in communication with all readers. My fantasy was that instead of the pyramid with the critic at the top writing down, instead of the one writing to the many, my fantasy was that the many could speak to one another, coherently. I think that really mushroomed around this experiment that I was conducting as well as other writers. It made for an extraordinary, almost international conversation. I do think that with this encroaching conservatism and cynicism that this conversation has turned a little darker. I hope that it passes. In the meantime, it’s just a phase, and if that’s what it is, that’s what it is. Or maybe people are just sick of me, which is fair too. I get sick of me.

You are an art critic, but with projects like SEEN and your role as judge on the contest/reality show Work of Art you have increasingly become part of the conversation around art. Does that surprise you?

Eh. No. I understand. I would get pissed off too at some art critic dancing with Jay Z. I would get pissed off seeing an art critic on a reality TV/game show about art. I get that. I totally understand it. And yet, there was never any question in my mind when I was asked to do this TV show. It paid $900 an episode for a 9 week season, we ran 2 seasons so you can do the Math.I did not do this for money. I did it for something much more craven, pathetic, dark. I must have wanted to do this. Again it’s in a volunteer position. No one forced me. I understand how it makes some people creeped out.

Do you have any advice for artists in Dallas?

Stay up late every single night with other artists. Vampires must be with other vampires or else they will die. That’s my advice to artists in Dallas, in New York, everywhere. If you are with others of your own kind you will be fine. That goes for you too!

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  • Harmony Witte

    If you want to listen to the audio of the interview, it starts around the 3 minute mark. Be warned there is some “blue language!”

    http://tapeacall.com/d4279umfup

  • Harmony Witte

    If you want to listen to the audio of the interview, it starts around the 3 minute mark. Be warned there is some “blue language!”

    http://tapeacall.com/d4279umfup