Books

Reading Jerry Saltz’ Seeing Out Louder

by Kyle Chayka on December 1, 2010

Jerry Saltz, Seeing Out Louder, 2009 (Hard Press Editions)

Jerry Saltz' Seeing Out Louder (image from amazon.com)

Though the art world seems to have recovered from crisis mode with the enthusiastic approach to (and beginning) of Art Basel Miami Beach 2010, the remnants of our previous recession-driven apocalypse are still close at hand. Auction successes are blazing beacons of money, but seem shaky and could prove to be singular. Museum administrations have become dangerously insular, commercially driven and intermixed with business and political influences. In comes Jerry Saltz’s Cassandra paean Seeing Out Louder, a collection of the critic’s writing from 2003 to 2009.

Why this archive of criticism is relevant now is because of Jerry’s relentless railing against what he sees as the “Babylon” of the art world, the 2006-2007 peak bubble era of inflated prices and quick-burn fame, and the high-spirited society game that came with it. Now that we’ve dove into the recession valley and are hopefully coming out of it, it’s worth remembering what kind of environment caused the price inflation and questionable politics we’re dealing with now, from falsified auction prices to museum censorship.

In a suite of sections (chapters) called Art in Babylon, Institutional Babylon and Back to Babylon, Saltz goes through his conception of the art world as a vaguely immoral but eternally exciting and sexy Sodom that has its own ever-shifting rules and codes. In 2007 in the Village Voice, Saltz writes of the crisis zeitgeist, “the current moment is marked by a schizoid disconnect… the outer world seems staggeringly messed-up. Yet… our inner worlds can be strangely okay and productive.” We are stuck in the same cultural moment as the catastrophic (Saltz’s view) Bush presidency in an art world that is spiraling out of bounds, obsessed with Richard Prince’s “make it again” instead of Ezra Pound’s “making it new.” Are you scared yet?

Portrait of Jerry Saltz by Phong Bui (image from brooklynrail.org)

Saltz makes me take every proclamation of present market recovery with a heaping handful of salt. Sure, things look alright, but money is just money. The real problems embedded in the art world aren’t related to making money, they’re about curatorial infrastructure, how art and artists are supported and shown. And yet, Saltz says, despite these tumultuous times, we are still making stuff. Art always persists, it’s just how we think about it and how we look at it that changes. The critic takes care to put the art first.

As always, Saltz writes like a firecracker in the midst of going off. Bombastic prose and a constant threat to go off the chain (as he does in his unedited Facebook posts) send sparks and make his writing fun to read, gossip-y and intimate. Yet though Saltz is a great talker, he doesn’t always back up his verbal grasping with detailed thinking. Sometimes the reaching means that the critic confronts us with ideas we’re not always prepared to think about, stretching our minds in a good way. Saltz’ suggestion of a “75 year” retrospective exhibition encompassing all of MoMA that would last for 18 months straight is one way to shake up a conservative institution, but it’s a dauntingly difficult, grand gesture of a solution. MoMA’s director shoots Saltz down, of course, but by then it’s too late: the critic has already implanted a viral idea into our minds.

Though reading retrospective accounts of random Chelsea solo shows is interesting, the later half of Saltz’ critical archive is less interesting than the first. Exhibition reviews age much worse than manifestos and art world criticism. What’s valuable here is the sense of recent-history building, the documentation of the art world’s palpitations.

Jerry Saltz’s Seeing Out Louder is available through Amazon.

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