The Blank Generation (image via

Jerry Saltz is like the art world’s hip uncle. But is he getting too curmudgeonly to hang with the kids? In the critic’s recent New York Magazine essay, Saltz calls young artists “Generation Blank” for being not original enough and too digestible by critics — cliche. Meanwhile, other art youth compare GIF size.

Saltz “went to Venice and came back worried” because of what he witnessed in that sunken port city. Too many artists’ bodies of work were dominated by “a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style” made up of a string of contemporary art stereotypes:

Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction.

With all these cliches in evidence, what is an art critic to do? Oh yeah, write a reactionary article about how young artists can’t be original any more. Saltz suggests that we’re coming to another Mannerist era of art, in which the tenets of the academy are the only way to go, and the academy is boring. “Artists are too much in thrall to their elders, excessively satisfied with an insider’s game of art, not really making their own work … they are becoming a Lost Generation.”

Yale University, home to a well-regarded MFA program (image via

Art schools exist, for Saltz, only to teach artists how to appropriate other artists’ work and then re-digest it. Onoes! Is meme culture making contemporary art into lolcats!? Art historian Mira Schor responds with a post entitled “Should we trust anyone under 30?” The post, with some well-placed art historical mumbo-jumbo, underlines Schor’s observation that many younger artists are apolitical, unwilling to take a critical stand, not wanting to fight the feedback loop of history.

“The MFA generation of artists,” Schor writes, are a group “who have learned all the rules of the art market, are incredibly professional and well-behaved, and would never dream of questioning the status quo of the art market beyond a certain point of academic correctness.” Saltz and Schor both seem to exhort artists to be original! Stand up! Don’t capitulate to dominant trends! It strikes me that they might be looking for young, original art in the wrong places.

If these older critics aren’t finding anything that doesn’t look like it was mass-produced out of some prestigious MFA program (which can, and often do, become echo chambers), then they’re not doing their job. One only has to take a step outside the pre-approved, pre-commercialized art scene to see stuff that might not be great, but is certainly different. Both critics are largely aloof from street art and graffiti, as they are from the new media and internet art communities. These are bodies of contemporary art that are still developing, still fighting fresh battles and having arguments over what works and what doesn’t.

In fact, Schor and Saltz both seem to only be looking at work that is pre-commercialized, already adopted into the ebb and flow of the art world. Again, the Venice Biennale and MFA thesis shows aren’t exactly hotbeds of insurrection. Schor goes at lengths to point out that we can find overtly political and rebellious, living art made by artists other than those youths fresh out of school, but she doesn’t suggest any alternative places to look.

Image via

Over at Art Fag City, there is a 70+ comment thread about GIF size, file structure and possible obsolescence; an argument over an obscure artistic tidbit that I daresay neither Saltz nor Schor are really aware of, and even less aware of the possibility that the topic could cause heated controversy. The discussion is a microcosm of the relatively young new media and internet art scene, complete with Tom Moody accents to spice it up. Street art is only just starting to establish itself in the museum world: Art in the Streets presented what was probably the most controversial museum exhibition of the spring. There are so many questions left to ask, so many conflicts to resolve and new vocabularies to define. This seems to run exactly counter to Saltz’s claims.

Dear established critics: if you’re thinking that all is a little too smooth and easy in this young art world, it would behoove you to dig a little deeper for the movers and shakers. The Venice Biennale and the critical echo chamber probably isn’t the place to find something new and different. Schor writes that “a general atmosphere of a new conservatism among twenty and thirty somethings is evident on all societal registers.” I think if Schor and Saltz could look around a little more, they would find the liberal dialogue that they’re missing.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

34 replies on “The Art Kids Are Not Alright”

  1. Good read thanks!  The thing that got me going most in the article, “Generation Blank” was the continued never ending endorsement of “art corporation” Christian Marclay and his “Clock.”  Talking about intimidation!  I guess if an artist working today can’t raise at minimum $100,000 for a grant to make a work of art, then one can’t participate in the cutting edge global art forum which Venice portends to be.

  2. Mira Schor’s writing should not be considered mumbo-jumbo, and perhaps that kind of flippancy is precisely the reason why so much criticisms is being hurled upon our generation.

    1. “I want to address artists who are encouraged on many fronts to operate
      in a limited field of new cookies by exploring instead the potential of
      a critical but productive temporal counterpoint, a constant movement
      between the undertow of the past beneath the wave of the present, and
      the powerful counterflow of the present over reiterations of the past in
      contemporary art works and ideologies. Contested histories, networks
      of influence, and feedback loops of recurrent tropes emerge as major themes.” In a blog post is never going to convince me of anything, sorry. 

      1. Then pretty much everything written about art over the last 4 decades qualifies as mumbo jumbo.

          1. And if we should be unconvinced of this type of rhetoric in a blog, or in any online forum, then how can we advance the conversation about the net and it’s influences into/around art?

            Also, if this is never to be taken seriously, how can journalism like Hyperalergic hope to maintain a sense of criticality without acknowledging the importance of critical literature online?

            Not meant as a slam, just honestly curious how one can reconcile that stance.

          2. We should first and foremost be unconvinced because that passage is so poorly written. I thought it was an interesting inclusion for that reason, actually; in the middle of a bunch of forthright bloggy writing, there’s this knot of BOOK WRITING that’s really terrible, and doesn’t tell us anything about anything. I could compare Facebook to the ocean, too, but it wouldn’t help anybody (there’s stuff going up and down, there’s a lot of blue and white…).

            In this essay, as in nearly all essays, there are portions which are bullshit. That’s all Kyle implied, and it’s true. To accuse the guy of not respecting critical discussion online – when the entire post is about how there’s lots of critical discussion online – is absurd.

          3. Thx will!

            Maybe I’m misreading, or misinterpreting, but I think the lyricism that can in occur in Book Qriting is a worthwhile literary pursuit. I agree that those moments can be lacking specific informative content, but I like to be able to imagine the context of criticism occurring side by side more “literary/poetic” written material. In other words, I can still glean information from those cryptic phrases…
            Accusing one of accusations… idk, not a very interesting conversation for me. I think the critical writing that Kyle discusses above -which I appreciate very much!  🙂 – is equally worth while to other “mumbo-jumbo” and both should be considered in tandem, as opposed to one being forsaken for the other. I think that much can be “said and done” in FB threads, as much as it can on e-flux. But BOTH, IMHO, should be considered of value, and neither should be predicated over the other to maintain well-rounded criticism.

            My question of how to accomplish this still remains.

  3. I dont know. I thought both articles were good and I was pleasantly surprised to see Mr. Saltz say such things. I do think, on the large, our generation is not so original, content with making things that get them famous as fast as possible rather than really care about what they are doing. Oh and the profesionalization comes predominantly from art schools and the idea that “everyone needs to go to school” (even if you never considered yourself an artist before hand) What I disagree upon strongly though, is the assertion that artists are stuck re hashing the past. I think one of the biggest problems is the profound dearth in art history knowledge and caring about what has come before. There seems to be an overwhelming attitude of “im sick of those old guys” this generation is about US! Or, more aptly, ME!

  4. Although the Saltz piece suffers from some mild ageism and a strange confusion between artists and curators and which are more responsible for any conformity of aesthetic that exists at events like Venice, the Schor piece gave me a rather creeping feeling, beginning and ending as it does with one person’s prescription for what art should be. Schor complains that her student complained about watching an MLK speech in her art class, unable to comprehend that the student wouldn’t find the speech relevant to her art. But why should it? Even if we assume that MLK’s politics are untouchable and cosmically given, why should it? Seems to me what a teacher would learn in her classroom is that every student starts from a different place, needing different forces and influences to open up the space in her head from which art comes. I think we could rather be happy the student rejected the speech as important to her art (even if it might be important to her world) or else we really might end up with the conformity Saltz complains about.
    [So too Schor’s “cookie” incident. Students apparently become Ambien robots should they find cookies more interesting than Proust.]

    1. Somebody asked her what kind of cookie she was eating and she started talking about In Search of Lost Time. Who DOES that?

  5. Thanks, Kyle. From what I’ve seen younger artists are generally sussing out what matters from prior generations (e.g., a YouTube of the Stooges’ “1969” that I just saw on lolumad’s tumblr) and I welcome the extension of art beyond the elegant, hallowed, miserable spaces of ancient plutocrats (which Saltz is professionally forced to cover) into cyberspace and associated makeshift venues. The problem isn’t younger artists but it might be the selections of younger artists’ work made by seasoned players picking what they already know for an environment that is too expensive for many trial balloons.

    1. ” and I welcome the extension of art beyond the elegant, hallowed, miserable spaces of ancient plutocrats”

      Congratulations.  You’ve managed to be up to date with…. the early 20th century.

  6. Can anyone actually deny the cliched, shallow, and trite nature of much of the art of the last couple decades?  Sure, there are plenty of little enclaves of non-mainstream non-gallery art, but having seen a bit of that it suffers from the same problem.  Even in those you can catch the trends as they move through the art scene… from installations that are just huge piles of various garbage to “living in the gallery” to reprogramming and circuit bending old video games.

    Its not that there isn’t good art out there.. its that most of it really is pretty terrible and doesn’t really say anything much less ask any important or moving questions.

    1. The last decade and a half has largely been about rejecting many of the “important or moving questions” because they tend to be as cliched, and in the end, as shallow, as reality tv or instant gratification culture.  50 years of politically motivated war and injustice of every type with their respective protests have put these arguments and their obfuscation squarely in the mainstream. Name your topic. Not that these arguments aren’t important, just the ways of addressing them have, in my opinion, been more about a more fundamental questioning of our connection to the global reach of every aspect of our lives. So, Yes, I do deny describing the art en masse of the last couple of decades as cliched, shallow, and trite in nature.
      Sure, there is some generational-ism that doesn’t quite grasp the difference between those born before 1981 and those born after.  And curatorial safety in an economy that furthers the divide between rich and poor public and artists alike, putting the greatest exposure in the hands of those most effective at grasping attention and have the most professional behavior and online appearance, instead of the most moving or challenging work. The money involved with these things makes it obvious that this is big business and the big business shows that tend to dominate the magazines and discussion.  How do you expect the grad students to react when Chuck Close tells them that, “there are no undiscovered geniuses”. It sounds like, in the insular environment of these fancy MFA programs, you should be just like them right out of the gate.
      All this aside though, you have to recognize that to reject two decades of art leaves you extremely vulnerable to looking like a jack-ass.

  7. In my not so humble opinion Saltz and Schor are looking for what does not exist. They are using their own prescribed notions of what good art is, but those notions are already outdated, and dying.

    The Generation blank lives a very privileged life so what do they have to complain about, protest, or politically align themselves with? Attempting to do so would appear fake and vapid. The art world (the celebrity status- Flash Art, Art Forum, etc. one) is too separated from working class society. Granted there are many underpayed art workers within it, but few if any of them live in low-income housing or outside of gentrifying art enclaves and raising complaints by those who feel ignored are quickly quieted for being whiners or downers.
    The art community is now about each artist individually “making it” as an artist and not speaking to everyone through the art but only speaking to a handful of critics, curators and collectors.

    The term “young” is overused and really getting annoying, there is an assumption that the best art comes quick, and not through living and wisdom.

  8. 1) “Blank?”….Geez!….It seems to me there’s a tremendous vitality and independence and intelligence in the art community these days.  
    2) People who disparage the art/art approach they’re seeing, should try making the vague, better version of art they long for.  This is a complex project on the edges of the universe, ok?

  9. You’ve hit a nerve Kyle – if art mimics life then the current scene reads much like the present Dow Jones, a system driven by fear more than original exploration. It’s fine to “package” art but such packaging does not a great work make — some great stuff slips through the cracks occasionally these days (like William Kentridge – who says you don’t know art or beauty when you see it? It may vary a bit, but people know, which is why so many people are struck by this man’s work. It hits the truth chord and for all the conceptualist jargon that goes into our current dialogue, art’s potent mix is that of a visual language, one that is making a huge leap in the digital age —

    I say if you’re outside of the current art box, dare to keep reaching out and touch (digit) – load that brush with beauty (which always requires more than mere decor or take that decor into the sublime until it hurts – there’s nothing reasonable about art that knocks your socks off) and yes, know your art history. Raise the bar. Screw the resume, dare to live, mix art with design and get into the world with it. Bring your heart with it. yours in rozolution

  10. About the great art out there Saltz is missing, please be specific! Who? Where? As for Street Art which, according to the above, “is just beginning to establish itself in the museum world” — it had its heyday in the late 70s and early 80s when it got plenty of institutional support. “New media and Internet art communities”? Share! Share!

    1. Street Art’s heyday wasn’t in the late 70s and 80s, that was just the beginning, when it was born. Today’s global movement is very different from that early provincial school of street art.

  11. And so it should be! It’s definitely the most interesting thing going on right now and hasn’t exactly been shunned by the institutions and critics, any more than it was back in the day, when street artists were celebrities. EVERYONE knows who Banksy and Shepard Fairey are, and they should be celebrated rather than put down, because–like Haring and Basquiat–they’re bringing a lot of other artists along with them. But it’s certainly fair to comment, as Saltz is doing, that the bulk of museum and gallery art is boring and silly. Hey, he’s on YOUR side.

    1. I don’t have a problem with what Jerry is saying. I think for Kyle the point of contention is the idea that it’s a generational divide. He doesn’t believe it is.


    I feel that Schor/Saltz’s argument is tiring, but I agreed with her for the most part as she’s explained that regressive condition and lack of radical politics… but offers no recourse. 

    What now: quit school or just don’t play by the rules and fail? Critics/curators/artsts complain that young “contemporary” art is complacent but anything too resistant is seen as archaic and embarrassing. Are curators/critics aware they’re perhaps constantly in search for something fancifully outrageous? (In May Diederichsen wrote something about the “fetishism” for radicalism at Biennale’s… )In the past month I’ve gone through grad shows in NY, Toronto and London and everything is very well spelled out. I find MFA work habituated to be extremely tight and logical. (How can we not?How dare you not reference Duchamp/Geert Lovink?!) Yes, (self-)reference, formal inquiry and irony as primary symptoms of academic art syndrome; that seems to be something internet art is “suffering” from too.We shouldn’t feel guilty about it. The MFA is geared towards making work that channels your (hopefully very critical) intention most appropriately; networked art is allows you to reach an audience that understands whatever you’re jamming together already.

    I’m a MFA student and I am 22 years old. From talking to another 25 year old who had just graduated from her MA in NY and we feel we have received some pretty ageist crits in our graduate education. Ageism is ageism. You’re always too young or too old. It’s not because you’re only ignorant but you’re too young or too old.

  13. I teach experimental art (whatever that means) at a college without
    majors, using non-authoritarian pedagogies, and asking students to show
    me what art can be. I read Saltz critique and found that what he sees reflects his desire for art that is based on experience, not a “thinky”art. He makes a valid point, if you consider experience to be at the core of the artistic experience, rather than conceptual ruminations. IS he up to date? He says: “Instead of enlarging our view of being human, it contains safe rehashing
    of received ideas about received ideas. This is a melancholy romance
    with artistic ruins, homesickness for a bygone era. This yearning may be
    earnest, but it stunts their work, and by turn the broader culture.” This is basically Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” in a nutshell. He misses the point by a long shot.

    He is stuck in his Jurassic fossilized layer of rock. This generation is not about being “Blank” is about being “Instant”.  Most artistic products I see are about ephemerality, about “recycollage/recyclage” (collage made with recycling media) and about creating and re-creating art that references this generation’s fascination with social connections in cyber-space. Yes, it looks trite or over intellectualized at a superficial level if I look at it with my generational filter, but if i exercise curiosity, invite the artists in a dialogue with me as equals and ask them what they are doing and why, I find that the art I see is a decoy. It is basically an instantaneous and calculated obsolete contribution to a continuously obsolescing sea of social networking blips. The “art” itslef is worth nothing, since it is no longer the medium. The social millieu is now the medium, as performance, presence and discourse. The “art” is but another excuse for creating and re-creating personages, stories, glimmers of presence, and possibilities, meant to last only until the next spark. Galleries and institutions are slowly trying to figure out how to monetize this, until then, critics are not going to get it.

  14. Saltz went to Venice…

    Should be the entire criticism of Saltz”s piece. Equating the people under 30 who show at Venice with everyone who’s under 30? Fail.  End of story. Of course you’ve matched the various dominant historical constructs that are part of school and curation if you are invited to show at the Biennale at a young age. Is that really a question?

    The real question we should be asking why the Biennale is so easily compared to being in grad school?

  15. Saltz does bring up some good points.  The problem is when someone writes something like that, the good points get drowned out with the generational brow beating as they apply a broad brush to a whole group of people. 

Comments are closed.