Midway through our interview, Jerry Saltz suddenly asks, “Am I worse than most people at these things?” It’s an endearing, telling moment from one of the most powerful art critics today. The New York Magazine columnist joins the judges’ panel on Bravo’s newest reality show, Work of Art, which takes visual art as its medium. (“I love reality TV,” Saltz tells us.) The native Chicagoan and adjunct faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago called from the Manhattan apartment-office he shares with his wife, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith.
Why’d you want to be a judge on Work of Art?
It isn’t for the money. I won’t tell you what I make, but it’s really not much. I wanted to perform criticism in public to show that it’s not an elitist practice but specialist and subjective—and more thrilling than people imagine.
So you think the show will help make visual art more accessible?
I do. People are frightened of looking at and making judgments about art, and they don’t need to be. They just need to look longer, see harder, listen to themselves, and they’ll hear voices they didn’t know they had in their heads, voices of real discernment.
It helps that, unlike with Top Chef, viewers experience the products themselves, so they form their own opinions as the judges form theirs.
Yes. I think the act of making art is not inherently sexy to most people. With food, that’s implied penetration and sexual. Sometimes watching somebody saw a piece of wood—not so interesting. To me, however, it’s metaphysically sensual—watching somebody try to imbed thought in material.
More than any other art form, visual art seems off-putting to people.
Why do you think that is?
We are not sure as a culture what art is to us. So when people are presented with stuff that is called art, nobody knows what to do with it. And that’s sad to me because people make visual judgments every single day: what color are you wearing, what material is it.
Has the art world itself contributed to that sense of inaccessibility?
It takes a lifetime sometimes to understand why an all-white painting is art. It’s hard for me sometimes to remember, to relive why a bicycle wheel mounted upside down on a stool is art.
Why is that art?
Because the artist says it’s art.
Is that all it takes?
What I say: Don’t ask if it’s art; ask what might make it good or bad art. It’s like looking at Avatar and saying, “This isn’t a movie.” You’re gonna get into some sicko ontological conversation—and art criticism has done that. It speaks in a jargon that only hip metaphysicians can understand. And I feel like a dope when I’m reading it.
You write about the importance of a critic’s credibility. Were you concerned that being on a reality show might harm your own?
I do—I did. I must say I so had a blast doing this. Credibility is something one earns. Will I lose it for being on this show? I think the art world is not that conservative, but I could be wrong. “How could you be on a reality TV show?” people have asked. And I said, “Why would I not? This seems completely legitimate to me.”
What was your formative aesthetic experience growing up in Chicago?
I walked past six or seven Frank Lloyd Wright houses every single day on the way to high school in Oak Park. When I was cutting through backyards, I knew there was something really special about these houses. I was becoming an artist or an art critic while I was cutting home from school.
Your family have an interest in art?
Absolutely none. I’m first-generation American; my parents were born in Estonia. They had $35 paintings bought at art fairs that were supposedly from Paris. And my training in art is none. I would look at nudies in art-history books when I was young. I noticed the people having sex in high school seemed to be either in theater or art, and the theater department seemed a little demonstrative for me. And then I was an artist—but the truth is I was not an artist. So I moved to New York, and I became a long-distance truck driver.
And drove for how long?
Four or five years. It was beautiful for the first six months, and then it was nightmarishly lonely.
Do you feel a loss, not making art?
Every day. It’s very painful to me. But I never think I made the wrong choice. Ever. People who are artists are the people who have to make art and they make art, and I didn’t have to.
One author called you a “critic-boxer.” An accurate description?
Well, I never hit anybody, and I’ve never been hit. I am Jewish, you know.
Bravo’s Work of Art premieres June 9 at 10pm.