One of the most famous American art critics Jerry Saltz is a stand-alone brand of affirmation of life, entertainment and humorous honesty. His newest book “Art is Life” (published by Penguing Randome House), is anything less than that. The author shared with me ready-to-use tips for how to engage with art without the fear of feeling… whatever it is that you want to feel.  

They say New York never sleeps, but they do not say why. The 2023 answer to this phenomenon is simple to the point of being disappointing: New Yorkers never fall asleep because they drink billions of gallons of coffee. So does Jerry Saltz.

Senior art critic of the New York Magazine, author of two books about the dynamics of the art world and a Pulitzer prize winner, injects himself with at least 150 oz of coffee a day. The investment pays off. When he is not drinking black magic, he is roaming the country visiting art exhibitions, writing or posting on instagram profile (he has 603K of followers). He jokes about his coffee addiction, he kneels in front of favorite paintings, takes a lot of selfies and encourages artists to believe in the power of their creativity by posting compelling DIY mindset tips. He is as approachable as it gets.

His digital presence almost identically matches his real life appearance. The difference is, he is much more funny in person.  

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J.S.: Ania, remember, never ask – just do! 

A.D.: Yes, sir! But I do need to ask you…

Oh, here we go… 

I wanted to ask you about the healing and transformative power of art. After all, it is thanks to art that you found a drive and purpose after years of struggling as a painter and as a truck driver. 

Art changed my life a few times. First of them was in Paris, in the 70s. I was 19 years old, my first time in Europe. I laid eyes on a painting that seemed the sum of all things. It was a cosmograph perpetual motion machine. I was standing in front of The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault. Something like Krakatoa went off within me, I felt the gravitational field of my life shifting forever. A portal opened. A month later, my mother committed suicide. The portal slammed shut. I never looked at art again. Until I did. 

That is the story you write about in the first chapter of your latest book “Art is Life”. You were traveling through Europe to Poland with your Polish girlfriend to sell jeans on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Did you end up actually selling anything? 

I did, I sold them in Warsaw. We got there – me and Basia – on a train. There were open squares in the city where a tiny little capitalist’s stoles were installed. One sold pants, another one t-shirts and so on. We ended up selling Levi’s jeans. I should add there was no real profit involved but it was fun. 

So getting back to the healing powers of art. 

Well, in the last 170 years we have treated art as a noun. As a thing being hung at the center of a white wall at an exact, curated height above the floor level, in a space called a gallery or a museum. While in reality for 5500 years art was a verb: it was an event that was doing something to people. It could cast spells, stop you from getting pregnant, it could protect your army, curse somebody. Art was a way to communicate with the ancestors or gods or be a passage to the afterlife. The paintings inside of Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus were never meant to be seen by human eyes – they were painted either for the dead or for the gods of the afterlife.

So if you are asking if art can heal you, I would answer that art can produce real vibrations that give you agency, bliss, joy, pleasure. All those things can make you stop and make you experience the density and poetry of being alive. For what is more, I believe that pleasure is an important form of knowledge. Contemporary we discount that in the Western civilization. If something is fun or pleasurable – it is bad. 

Pleasure is misunderstood as superficial. 

Yes, because it is connected to the bodily experience, while knowledge is supposedly exclusively a feature of the mind. To me, art puts the mind and the body back together. 

There are scientific findings that support the idea that interconnection of mind and body is much more complex than we ever considered. Our cells are listening to our thoughts and vice versa. 

Exactly. I don’t think you can have a thought without having a feeling and I don’t think you can have a feeling without having a thought. I am also a believer of an unpopular and colloquially speaking “mumbo-jumbo” idea, that art is a part of a cosmic force and that it is a force that uses us-humans to reproduce itself by engaging our thoughts and influencing our actions. Art was here from the beginning, it was never not here. 

Is this controversial theory part of the reason you never host dinner parties at your home? 

No, that is just part of being an American. We have millions of friends, we talk a lot usually to make some money or to laugh, but we don’t share an intimate meal together. Coffee – yes – if you are lucky. I actually have another unpopular theory: I believe that the first sculpture – the Venus of Villendorf – was made by a woman. There is something about the softness of how the stone was manipulated and the scale of it, that inspires me to think that. But also the statistics from the prehistoric period might support my standing. We now know that 51% of the handprints in all the caves are women’s hands. 

If art is such a spiritual entity, is the institution of the art market and history of art killing its essence? 

Art and money have slept together since forever, it is nothing new. What is new is that we became cynical about it because we see art more and more through the lens of obscene amounts of money. That prevents people from seeing the primal qualities of art that I have mentioned plus the other features too, like the ugliness of it. 95% of the art that is made and seen – is just bad. And there is nothing wrong with that. 85% of the art made in the Renaissance was crap. There’s more. When you walk through the best museums and you see the 15% of the best works that were made in history, you dismiss the majority of it. The paintings or the sculptures are just not resonating with you. It is normal. 

So no one is killing anyone – the art needs the art market. 

In my opinion most of the collectors today are buying things that collectors in their nearest surroundings, collectors like them, already bought. That is how trends are made and it has little to do with what personal experience of art is for the general public. 

Does it mean that by copying other collector’s decisions, people are moving away from their real experiences? 

No, I believe they have very real experiences within the realm of following the trends. It is a little bit like me and my Gerhard Richter painting. 

You have a Richter at your home? I am so jealous! 

Oh, absolutely. It is a 100% fake. I cannot afford to buy the original Richter’s work so I paid another artist to make an identical copy of the piece that I like. And then I get to live with this painting and it makes me really happy. It does not depress me at all that someone else is owning a 100 millions dollars version of my painting. 

So it also doesn’t bother you that the famous artist did not leave a trace of him in the brush stroke that you are living with? 

If you insist on art history terms then, yes, I have everything but the aura (a concept of aura of a piece of art was introduced by famous theorist Walter Benjamin). The copies of some of the famous paintings that I own are however possessing some of the qualities of the original work. For example, every time I walk by Damien Hirst’s dots painting in my apartment, I feel cheerful and light. That is a value. Getting back to your previous question: the problem is that people walk into a contemporary art gallery and all they see is monetary value. That creates hierarchy, inequality. 

And it alternates the production of the art. Like the statue of a dead Picasso that was made this year at ARCO, Madrid’s contemporary art fair. It was a real-life size sculpture of Pablo Picasso lying on a stone pedestal. It was supposed to criticize the death of the art as an independent discipline. A joke inside of the art market. 

It is a gimmick, I laugh at it. Now the real deal with art is what happens when we both look at one of the most famous of Picasso’s paintings, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: we are looking at the same piece but we see two different paintings. That is beautiful and powerful. 

I agree. Art works as the ultimate, outside of our bodies, proof that people are different one to another and that it is a strength. It is a sphere in which we can see our differences.

That is because art is subjective. Your Picasso might be better for you than my Picasso is for me. Or your Hamlet is different for you every time you hear it. Or sometimes you go on for years, when Hamlet just does not sit well with you. Subjectivity gives agency, agency gives choice, freedom and confidence.

I believe people need to stay very open inside to all art. It is useful to keep in mind that every time you are looking at a work of art or reading a play or a book, you are experiencing something that has never been seen or experienced before in the history of the world. It is beyond the qualification if it is good or bad. 

Therefore if someone feels intimidated by art, because they think they don’t understand it, what are the steps they could take to approach culture and experience the joy that it embodies?   

First of all, art is not about understanding. When you hear Chopin or Mozart, you do not say “I don’t understand”, you simply experience the music. So we have to ask ourselves: “how am I experiencing this work of art?”. And this perspective takes us back to the art as a verb. What art is doing to me? Art should never intimidate you, it is just a piece of a cloth with 17 colorful stripes on it. You may not like it – and this is it.

Once you move away from the need of understanding you ask yourself a bunch of questions. For example: what would I like about this painting or a photograph or a sculpture if I was the kind of person who liked it? This mental exercise creates a situation in which you take an attempt to expand your subjective sensitivity. Why would someone like Matisse? He was one of the most hated artists of his generation. Why? Because he changed the colors of the basic elements of the world. ‘How could the sky be green?’, people would ask. The amazing thing is, till today, we still don’t know!

Now, forgive me for the harsh change of subject: when we talk about the Holocaust, we need to have the respect of the attempt to never understand it – that it is beyond us. In the same way, some great art is beyond us. I am not comparing Matisse to Holocaust but embracing the limits of our perception and understanding, is one of the goals of being intimate with art. 

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It is then about embracing the mystery too.

A paradox. Therefore other questions and mental exercises I would recommend is to let go of control, consider that you may be wrong about someone’s intentions and see, see, see as much art as humanly possible. You can never see too much! Reading helps too but nothing beats listening to your experiences. The last but not least action I know to be helpful is to speak to a person next to you – without being an asshole. Saying something like: “I enjoy these orange stripes even though they are boring to me. What are you seeing?”. Whatever I would say to you and you to me, it would eventually blow out our minds. That is the power of subjectivity. 

So art is an open ended question. 

It takes courage and guts to stay open. You may experience something – see, hear, talk about – and then forget about it. After two weeks or two years, it may come back to you and change your life. People think of art as a religion-like entity, a sphere that poses answers. Art poses questions. And what is even more intriguing is that you cannot prove that Vermeer is better than George W. Bush’s paintings. It is impossible to prove it. And I find Bush’s paintings quite interesting.  

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Words: Ania Diduch

Polish version of the interview has been published here.