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May 22, 2020

Book Review: How To Be An Artist, by Jerry Saltz

About the Author
Deborah Kostianovsky

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Contributing writer Deborah Kostianovksy shares with InLiquid her book review of the new book How To Be An Artist, by Jerry Saltz.
Are you feeling stuck, like your creative juices lie stagnant in some murky swamp, or are you overwhelmed by the news and can’t muster that creative spirit right now? Well if that’s the case (and even if it isn’t), then maybe you should grab a glass of wine, your favorite couch, and start reading art critic Jerry Saltz’ book, How To Be An Artist. For those of you unfamiliar with Jerry Saltz, he is an American art critic who has been the senior art critic and columnist for the New York magazine since 2006. He received the Pulitzer prize for criticism in 2018 and was also nominated for the award in 2001 and 2006. This book is a delightful, short, witty read full of illuminating quotes from literature, photographs of artwork, and eloquent, perceptive writing that is bound to jumpstart those sluggish creative juices. Though it contains a set of rules that are written specifically for visual artists, he notes that people in multiple specialties have shared with him how they have learned to see their disciplines differently as a result of these ideas. The list has included writers, musicians, performers, as well those in many other creative fields. It’s a valuable book for both emerging artists as well as very experienced creative types. It’s definitely worth a read, as it could stoke some fires of inspiration and imagination which might help produce fresh new work; it could also provide an additional perspective on many aspects of art and creativity.
Saltz gives his thoughts and advice on various aspects of creating art, from conception, to thinking like an artist, to execution, to the surviving the art world; each of these are laid out in steps and are packaged in an insightful, at times comic, easily relatable way. The book also includes useful exercises. Though there are hundreds of pearls of wisdom in this book, a few will be highlighted below. Early in the book he discusses artistic content: “A work of art cannot depend on explanation. The meaning has got to be there in the work. As Frank Stella said, ‘There are no good ideas for paintings, there are only good paintings.’ The painting becomes the idea.” (p.58) It’s important for the work to be able to express ideas on its own, without an explanatory label. Though this certainly makes sense, it seems that reading labels may sometimes help explain the context of the work, helping to better elucidate the underlying ideas and meanings embedded within it (but that’s just my opinion, as someone who meticulously reads labels and explanations). He gives an example of a simple, uninteresting photograph of a cloud, which on its own had little merit, yet the art gallery owner insisted that it is about protest and political violence, which was occurring at the location where they were taken. He reiterates that it’s just a simple photo of a cloud, and that to have true meaning it needs to express an idea on its own, untethered to other details.
He later elaborates on how the meaning embedded in the work can be experienced differently than what was originally intended by the artist, and that this should be seen as positive, not negative. Anyone can experience art in a highly personal, idiosyncratic way, perhaps in a manner that diverges from the initial artistic intention. He quotes his wife, renowned art critic Roberta Smith: “ ‘This is something you want…This means that your work is alive, that it has more than just you in it…If you’re lucky, it will remain alive long after you’re gone…’ ”(p.137) The fact that an artwork could live on and continue to evolve, and that the ideas and meanings embedded into the work will continue to change over time, implies that it will continue to have relevance despite a changing world and despite different viewers’ own biased perceptions.
He later eloquently embraces the idea of utilizing chance, as well as one’s own vulnerabilities when creating art. He used the example that Leo Tolstoy’s local station was by chance the same one where a woman threw herself under a train in 1872 following the ending to a love affair; after seeing her autopsy, this incident sparked Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. Saltz poetically states: “Chance is the stunning aurora borealis of creativity- a flickering instantaneity that sweeps across the skies of your work, leaving a trail that can make your work richer and stranger and better.” (p.97) By paying attention to unrelated events or sensations, such as songs, sights, or news stories, he states, it may be possible to serendipitously find an unrelated thought that may make the work deeper and may even spark new angles and ideas. In addition, he discusses the need to be honest with oneself and vulnerable in creating art: “You must prize radical vulnerability. What’s that? It’s following your work into the darkest or most dangerous corners of your psyche, revealing things about yourself that you don’t want to reveal but that your work requires you to do…” (p.142) Good advice, if potentially difficult to follow.
This little book is a must read for anyone in the art world, or in any creative field, for that matter. It’s sort of a how to book, rolled into a juicy fusion of elegant poetic musings, art photographs, and relevant quotes from literature. I love his plug to just get working near the end of the book. Maybe we could all use that now. It reminds us to forget about all of our ridiculous excuses and just get on with it, create! His list of self-doubts and excuses seems familiar to many of us. As a writer who can relate to some points on his list of self-bashing rituals, I find this a refreshing, positive, down-to-earth message. This book is chockfull of sage advice from an experienced player in the artworld. Some of his ideas may be new, some may perhaps be disputed, and some you may have heard before. Regardless, it’s thought-provoking, fun, and so eloquently written that it just might get your creative juices out of that stagnant swamp and at least into a flowing river. And, to carry that metaphor further, you might just find your imaginative powers heading straight for those rapids, without life vest or oar. And that’s exactly where you need to be.
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