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Art Critic Jerry Saltz and the Challenge Facing the Mainstream Art World

by Brian Sherwin on 4/4/2012 4:43:22 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY and Art Fag City. If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 18,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Art critic Jerry Saltz recently lashed out at Morley Safer of 60 Minutes over Safer's criticism of the mainstream art world / art market. The lengthy lecture by Saltz ended in an open challenge for Safer. Saltz stated, "I challenge you to curate a public New York show of 25 to 35 contemporary artists — those who have emerged since, say, 1985 — whose work you really approve of, plus a few examples of your own art. I promise to review it, fair and square. Deal?". Safer declined the offer. Fair enough. However, I don't think art critic Jerry Saltz would have lived up to his challenge had Morley Safer agreed. After all, Saltz has a history of making challenges on a whim only to back out when the challenge is in motion. I know this from firsthand experience.


Long story short, Jerry Saltz challenged me to find a specific number of artists (working today) exploring conservative themes (For example, art work that explores pro-life in a supportive way OR criticizes abortion -- OR artwork that criticizes far-left politicians... or specific laws they have helped pass) -- and offered to review the work, publish an article about it, AND find an exhibit space for it. The challenge came into being due to his denial that liberal political/social bias exists within the mainstream art world. I accepted his challenge -- and started gathering names.


Saltz backed out of the challenge (perhaps because he knew I was serious about it?) after less than a week. Unfortunately, he twisted the truth by stating that I had backed out of the challenge on his Facebook Wall (others, including Andrew Breitbart -- whom I had contacted about the challenge, knew the truth). That was not the end of it. Saltz opened his challenge a second time during the course of another debate with me on his Facebook Wall. However, that time he only offered to review the work. I thought, "Fair enough". -- and started gathering names. Shortly after that he backed out of the challenge again. By that point I figured it was a waste of time.


Eventually Saltz stated on his Facebook wall, yet again, that I had backed out of his challenge -- and asked for my list of conservative-minded artists (he brought it up during a debate that had nothing to do with the challenge he had made). I reminded Saltz that I had saved our conversations and could easily show that he was the one not up for the challenge. I asked him if he was serious about it -- unfortunately, he only agreed to 'look' at the images in private. Basically he was implying that I should do his research for him. I mean, the whole idea was to show that conservative themed art is 'out there' -- not just prove to him personally that 'it' exists. It went from being a 'real' review and exhibit scenario, to 'I just want to see it'.


Saltz had flip-flopped so many times that the reward was simply no longer acceptable -- not for me or the artists involved. Point blank -- it would have been a waste of my time... and the artists time. By that point I felt that he is more than capable of researching this kind of art on his own. After all, he has the resources and the influence (far more than I) -- if he really wanted to know if conservative themed art is 'out there' he could simply write about it... offer an open request for those artists to come forward. In fact, I challenged him to do just that. He did not comment.


As for his challenge, my gut told me he would not have looked at the images even if I had sent him my completed list. You could say -- due to his constant flip-flopping -- that he proved my point about some elements of the mainstream art world. That being... liberal political/social bias does exist within those circles -- the artist focusing on conservative themes / ideas stands little chance of being acknowledged based solely on the expression of those ideas. Art critic Ken Johnson has acknowledged that -- going as far as to suggest that the mainstream art world is a 'liberal festival' -- a place where only specific political/social ideas are accepted (which Saltz denies). As for Saltz, what can you expect from an art critic who, on his Facebook wall, calls conservatives "maniacs" or worse on an almost daily basis.


Jerry Saltz clearly does not want 'that kind of art' in his 'world'. He is afraid of it -- afraid of conservative themes in current art -- and afraid that YOU might come to your own opinion about it (going against his opinion). I'd suggest that Saltz wants specific ideas to be contained -- to have little, or no, presence within the mainstream art world that he is familiar with... because he thrives in an art world that he can be comfortable with -- politically, socially and professionally. He does not want that 'world' to be challenged. To be fair, Jerry is not the only art 'professional' clinging to comfort. That said, Saltz has proven my point about the mainstream art world while also proving that he is not a man of his word. If I'm wrong... he will have to prove it.


The challenges proposed by art critic Jerry Saltz, challenges that he fails to stand by when people DO accept them, are starting to chip away at his credibility. Art critic Justin Town recently turned the tables on Saltz by 'hitting' him with the same challenge he had offered to Morley Safer (which Saltz had offered to Glenn Beck in the past). Town stated, "As was expected Mr. Saltz declined to step up to the plate and accept my very real curatorial challenge; The very same challenge he used against Morley Safer and Glenn Beck. What gives? Well, what gives is that this is yet another example of good old fashioned lip service and double standard from a well-healed bully and I'm willing to bet we will not be hearing any of Saltz's cronies calling him a coward anytime soon either.". Once again, the hypocrisy of Jerry Saltz is revealed.


Town used the experience to bring up other issues concerning the 'Saltz brand' of art criticism -- and to point out a few contradictions concerning Saltz in general. Point blank -- Saltz deleted some of the Facebook exchange that he had with Town. Concerning that experience, Town stated, "Why would this proponent of transparency and democracy selectively hide seemingly harmless content from his followers? Your guess is as good as mine...Talk about self-editing.". Town went on to say, "But all jokes aside, the implications of this little act are actually quite disturbing; those two little deletes that in essence admit to the decline of a challenge speaks volumes. If a critic is willing to bury content to save face in this small instance... just imagine what that same critic might do within the larger picture...the devil is always in the details.". Justin Town is spot on in his criticism of Saltz. I've offered the same line of critical opinion concerning Jerry Saltz in the past. His flip-flopping can no longer be denied.


In closing, we all know that Jerry Saltz -- and other mainstream art professionals -- will continue doing what they have been doing for decades. They thrive on comfort... there is no room for real challenge, political or otherwise, in their 'world'. Their generation is content with the direction of the mainstream art world. They thrive in a 'world' based on exclusion (a 'world' they helped shape). All the same, I want to offer a challenge of my own. I challenge published art critics -- specifically those working for major newspapers or art magazines -- to discover 5 artists online who: 1.) Are not associated with a prestigious art gallery. 2.) Have never exhibited at a museum. 3.) Have never sold a work of art for thousands of dollars. 4.) Are not related to anyone associated with the high profile circles of the museum / gallery world. 5.) Are not related to a celebrity or other influential person. I take that back -- I'll make the challenge easier... so easy, even Jerry Saltz might be able to find time to accept. Just discover one. Do it. Some of you spend hours on Facebook and Twitter each day -- use that time to discover artists online. Prove to us that mainstream art world coverage is not just about dollar signs, name-dropping, and ad sales. Show us that there is more to your brand of art criticism than the factors I've mentioned. I can hear the crickets chirping now.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin

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Topics: art criticism | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews | Twitter 

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Amy Evans
I agree totally with your assessment of the mainstream "contemporary" art world. It is driven by a closed circle, who has blinders on. There are underground art movements ,the "Derriere Guard" has been around for 20 yrs., ateliers that teach art fundamentals,as well as a Realism movement. Art that is art and needs no social statement as its basis is out there too. Museums and art critics ignore this.

kara rane
I love your discover Artists challenge*! The time has come.

Anyone who has attended SAIC, Hunter, Pratt, Columbia or any other major college with big art departments can tell you that far left politics are part of the classroom environment. If you don't fit into that mode of thinking, you don't fit in at those schools. Pratt tried to block a Senior from exhibiting conservative themed art just last year because other Seniors were upset by it. The work was not that controversial. They finally let the Senior have his show but scheduled it when school was not in session. The bias you speak of is cultivated in those schools.

Melinda Cootsona
Best article you have written! Keep it up Brian.

betty pieper
hi, I remember this theme...or part of it because it seemed to change toward the terminal challenge. I had once asked you if it was the conservative v liberal or more the gatekeeper issue. I said that some examples of what you'd like to see would help, Brian. Maybe that would be the same as your hesitance to do Jerry Saltz' research for him, but it would help people like me to understand the conflict. Also, I can't grasp how just having Saltz look for artists with your criteria would assist conservative representation per se. In fact, based upon the Saltz-Safer articles I'm clueless as to what in the hell contemporary is at this point. I'm dead serious. I often do "contemporary classics" to my mind...but not installations, etc. The more I try to educate my isolated "upstate" self, the more confused I get. I do agree there are major gatekeepers and Saltz seems to be one or why the fuss!

Brian Sherwin
Amy Evans -- Good points. Museums and art critics HAVE ignored a lot of directions in art. It will be harder for them to keep a straight face though... the Internet is a game-changer in my opinion. Anyone with initiative and a blog can spread the word about specific artists and movements.

Kara -- Indeed.

Melinda -- Thank you.

Brian Sherwin
Betty -- There is something to be said for giving someone 'enough rope'... and that is what I've done with Saltz. ;p

As I told him recently, I do plan to start a series that details what I'm talking about -- along with examples and opinions from those artists. I also plan to reveal some of the political/social/religious bias that exists within our art schools by gathering information from current and former students. I suppose you could say I'm 'building up' to something...

As for the 'gatekeepers' of the mainstream gallery/museum world... art critic Ken Johnson made the general direction of those professionals clear when he stated that said 'world' has become a 'liberal festival'. He said, point blank, that specific ideas stand no chance of being taken serious no matter how good the art is from a technical standpoint. For example, you won't see any Tea Party influenced art in a major gallery or in a major museum (at least not in a positive way)... even though the art is out there -- and, like it or not, it has historic significance. (commercial galleries have every right to show what they want. That said, museums that receive public funding -- and clearly avoid specific themes -- have failed.)

Saltz is in an extremely powerful position when you consider the following he has online compared to other notable art critics. Those who follow him tend to agree with him 100 percent -- just observe the debates on his wall. If he had lived up to his challenge... review, write-up, exhibit -- it would have potentially spurred enough initiative within some circles to re-think their position... and not just write art involving specific themes off as junk.

Once I nail a few things down I will start the series I mentioned. Hopefully it will shed some light on this problem. As I write this there are people on Jerry's Facebook asking if conservative themed art really exists... it does. The fact that people have to ask if it does shows just how much our museums have failed -- and how one-sided they have been socially and politically.

Brian Sherwin
Chaz -- Many college/university art departments DO have an extremely far-left slant as to what is acceptable within the department art-wise. I've lost count of how many students have mentioned experiences like that to me over the years.

The student going against the grain of that 'environment' often end up shunned by professors and fellow students. It DOES happen. Some students have actually had to transfer to schools that are more open-minded (in other words, schools that truly allow students to grow in the direction they choose). Heck, even at the small college I attended there were professors who blurted out the 'that is not done here' line... just because they did not agree with it socially/politically.

I recently spoke to an art school grad who had a Hell of a time trying to convince the art department at his school to allow him to have a senior exhibit involving crosses (in a positive way). Most of the heads simply did not want him to explore Christianity in a positive way -- even though there had been exhibits at the school exploring the negative side of the religion before that.

In other words, they were not hesitant because it had to do with a specific religion -- they were hesitant because it had to do with Christianity, and in a way that did not mock the religion.


When I graduated high school, I received a scholarship to the Art Institute. I chose NOT to go there. (Went to the U of I instead and got an Industrial Design degree, but I digress) While there is much room in the art world for art that makes statements with liberal, conservative, or shock - I submit that art which does NOT rely upon tenets such as those (and I personally think that most reality TV is based upon those very tenets) is also viable - but you would never know it to read any sort of art critic column - save for yours, of course. Those of us who have chosen to produce work that bypasses all of that controversy, vitriol or high-handedness and do work that affects people on a very basic level of something they choose to live with in their own living circumstances or work environment are also viable contemporary artists.

And as an aside? They oughta pull Saltz off of Work Of Art - replace him with different critics, as that show is a complete joke.

Brian Sherwin
Jan -- You are right. If you think about it... most of the great works, throughout history, touch viewers on a basic level..... not on a political one. I'll add that many art lovers view art as a form of escape -- viewing a politically charged work of art does not offer an escape... at least not in that context.

Betty Pieper
I would look forward to the new series. I think one post should be on a challenge to critics to look at a limited/doable number of images and ask them how they are different from what they ordinarily review. It's kind of chicken and egg. Unless one is famous or infamous, has rich or powerful friends in the right places, one will not get noticed or reviewed. Unless one gets reviewed there is little chance of getting to that level I would think? (Not that we can't have followings and sell.) That would be whether or NOT your ideology and expression is labeled conservative OR liberal.

I love how people demand that you prove these people and directions exist. There are nonprofits devoted to helping people who have been held down because of the bias of the art world. A couple are in NYC. That is very telling. How are you supposed to undue decades of liberal bias in the arts with one article??? Can one man do the job that critics, historians, professors, museum curators should have already been doing??? That you are asked to do that fortifies what you have been saying. You should not have to provide examples. Those examples should already be present. Saltz asking you to teach him is just his way of insulting you. Do these people really think that a conservative minded person has never picked up a brush, camera, clay, pen, to create???

You write that Saltz and "mainstream art professionals...thrive on comfort... there is no room for real challenge, political or otherwise, in their 'world'...They thrive in a 'world' based on exclusion (a 'world' they helped shape)." He's flagrantly elitist, starting his attack on Safer,"Art is for anyone. It just isn't for everyone." In my world, this is conservative. I'd add Saltz to my list of "conservative-minded" art critics, standing for the status quo, plainly elitist, careless of anything outside museums.

Except that he also shares the hyper-individualist, neo-liberal/libertarian, market fundamentalist ideology of modernism. Which makes him an anti-conservative””but not to people who think neo-liberalism is conservatism.

I think it's time to define our terms a little more carefully.

Susan Holland
That there is such emotional "heat" in these debates is, in my opinion, evidence of fanaticism.
Isn't it interesting that debating "good" vs. "junk" in art has supplanted the freedom of expression factor that makes artists of all ilks tick?

Again, the art itself is an outpouring of current cultural mindset, and the so-called "liberal" mindset is not liberal enough to keep an open mind to any concepts not ok'd by the mighty movers and shakers.

Politically, we see how mighty movers and shakers eventually fall (check out Saddam and Gaddafi) and the more bravado they have effected, the more shameful the fall.

I'm fascinated by the sociological aspect of the art world, and quite interested, especially, in a culture that celebrates such things as debasing the Christ image as "good art" while scoffing and rejecting such things as crosses as "bad art."

Of such pomposity was Lucifer made, actually.

Art is just one area in which this phenomenon is outing itself.

Susan Holland
PS: I meant to say: "the theme of debasing the Christ object"(Piss Christ).. hope this is more clear.

Nothing has changed that I can see. The same things were being said in the mid to late 1800's about the art world mainstream. When they start they are fresh and new or "edgy", then, like fashionable clothes, they become more fashionable and entrenched. Then they stultify. At about that time they have made the shift from liberal to true, die-hard conservative. Look at the word "conservative". It's all about getting things the way one likes it, and then making sure things stay that way. Example: Californians who flee to Oregon, then don't want any more awful Californians allowed in.
I paint, but not to prove a point. I paint because I cannot resist it. Some paint to express themselves more politically than me, but that is not the only basis for judging what's "Art."
I have never heard of Saltz and he has never heard of me. I don't mind, and I'm sure he doesn't either.

Amy Evans
I also paint because I love it and I could care less about the "edgy, cutting edge,contemporary" tags that "critics love to use.

Tim Holton

I think you waste your time with people like Saltz. They are part of a world that few people, including artists, give a damn about. Yes, he wields a big megaphone and holds great sway with the lofty and elite world of museums and galleries. But in their loftiness they're utterly disengaged from the daily life of 99 percent of us. Real art exists where we all live, down here on the ground.

Do what most of us do: ignore him. In the big picture, he's irrelevant to the real work of the world.

The good news is that all those deleted Facebook posts are stored away on the Facebook servers and are never truly "deleted", only hidden from sight.

So these posts are always lurking out there should a need arise to "un-delete" them.

They may even be on the "wayback" machine.

I challenge all od use to find 5 of those artist and post them on our blogs. Why let the critics have control.

jo allebach
Wow! Quite a mouth full. I guess I don't even know enough to be ignorant and the importance or unimportance of Saltz. Thanks for the thoughts.

Brian Sherwin
Tim -- Interesting point. I suppose you could say that I'm far more liberal -- when it comes to art -- than Mr. Saltz. I've been debating with other 'insiders' over this post... one, a former art fair director, feels that the art market should dictate what critics write about, what museums acquire, and what ends up in our history books... in other words -- he feels that the market should control art. Focus on that word -- 'market'. That is a very conservative position to take if you think about it. Oddly enough, the individual I speak of considers himself to be further left (politically) than Jerry.

Brian Sherwin
Susan -- I agree. The sociological aspect of the art world is extremely fascinating. Even more so when you consider the contradictions that are made -- by words or actions -- so often by the big players.

As for your comment about Piss Christ... you know that if someone create Piss *any religious figure outside of Christianity* the same people who admire Piss Christ (and defend it hardcore if censored) would call Piss *any religious figure outside of Christianity* "hateful", "ignorant" or worse. (Just to be clear, I don't have a problem with Piss Christ being shown OR for themes of that nature to being explored by artists.)

Example: I can remember a show in Chicago a few years ago... artist Amir Normandi, who happens to be Muslim, decided to visually critique the negative side of his religion. Normandi tends to focus on how some Islamic governments use the religion to oppress women. Muslim students were outraged over the exhibit. Threats were made... bottles and rocks were thrown at the gallery (again, in Chicago). The big time art world was silent.

As far as I know not one big name writer spoke out against the call for censorship. Now if those students had been Christian showing physical anger towards an artist exploring the negative side of Christianity... I promise you the big names would have been gabbing. They would have shown support for the artist and gallery in a heartbeat.

Brian Sherwin
Dianne -- That is one title the big time art world, specifically the Chelsea variety -- does not like to hear... New Academy. ;p

Brian Sherwin
Tim Holton -- Life would be less stressful if I ignored these individuals. However... I want to see us reclaim our museums -- and our history. I think that will happen anyway... it is inevitable due to the way in which people can communicate freely today. At some point museums will have to address these concerns.

Art-wise museums need to preserve our history... NOT the investments of wealthy collectors. As I've long said, museums should not be used as an addition to the big time art market. There are so many directions in art today -- regional forces surround. Sadly, our museums are missing out.

Part of the problem is that we have museum directors and curators who have their faces glued to the glossy pages of influential art magazines (and we all know that ad sales sit on that throne). Most were from that 'world' originally... or have strong connections to it. The elbows are worn to the bone. We should expect more.

Brian Sherwin
Delilah -- You said, "I challenge all of us to find 5 of those artist and post them on our blogs. Why let the critics have control.". Brilliant. I'm a big fan of artists writing about artists. I'll take it further... if they happen to be local -- inform your local museum / newspapers about them. You never know...

Independent art writing coverage needs improved as well. If you have exhibits in your area... write about them. Spread word. Persuade others to do the same. Form a network of art bloggers providing art coverage for your area. If the local press is not interested... keep pressing -- show that people are interested in art in your area.

Susan Holland
Brian, your reply to Delilah is the spark..Delilah's remark is the spark (hey, a rhyme!)

I know of one such blog called the Daily Art Muse -- she is more 3-D oriented, but brings really outstanding things consistently in her blog-- artists from all over the place. Great stuff usually, and I nearly always forward websites from her to my personal art people. The chatter-effect might be one way the internet could really influence the locked minds of the stuck critics.

And I agree with your observation about the inconsistent public reaction to anti-Christian versus anti-other religion art/expressions. But isn't that what we were told to expect? As Christians, I mean? That the heat is very nasty on specifically Christian expression is proof of the things we were told by Christ to expect.

Again, sociologically, it's loud and clear what the art of today is expressing. But the story is not yet over.

PBPWMGINFWMY is a good acronym for the human story.

(please be patient with me,God is not finished with me yet.)

Susan Holland
Another thought about the Delilah/blog spark:
It is not that we should all get bloggy about all our favorite friends' art! This will dilute the effectiveness.

I get lots of art blogs, but it would be destructive of me to pass along everything. Might as well be junk mail!

If we really were picky about who we would praise it could be effective. Maybe we need a Blogger's Choice Endorsement to become a big event on a regular basis...where we vote on blogger favorites over a period of a month, or whatever.

Have to beware of advertisers buying into the mix...that will taint the vote.

Jeff Allen
Brian, just a question that I have had in my mind for quite a while. Are most realist/representational painters conservative? I'm a realist/representational painter yet I'm not conservative or liberal. But I have found that more than 50 percent of the realist/representational painters I have met are conservative. Has that been your finding as well???

Jeff Allen
Brian, just a question that I have had in my mind for quite a while. Are most realist/representational painters conservative? I'm a realist/representational painter yet I'm not conservative or liberal. But I have found that more than 50 percent of the realist/representational painters I have met are conservative. Has that been your finding as well???

Tim Holton

I take your point, but while preserving important and exemplary art is the most important purpose of museums, the greater challenge is to keep art alive lest we have nothing worth preserving in museums.

Bruce Black
Thanks for this great article! While in Graduate school, Jerry Saltz came to visit my studio. He liked was I was doing, but assumed that I was making Ironical work. I was not.

I would love for critics and the art world at large to begin to search out and support those of us who are not in the mainstream.

Great Article.


Not always true, look at the winner of ArtPrize 2011

Of course this is a total people vote.

Marshall K Harris
While I understand Brians point I would contend that he is whaling against an arena, the world of art, that is as subjective and discriminatory as political parties and liberal or conservative view points. Even if a gathering of artists were presented it would be reviewed with a Jerry Saltz bias that is no different than a what we know Saltz and the main stream art world to be. It is elitist. It is discriminatory. It is highly subjective and is run by a very small group of control freaks that until replaced by another group of control freaks, will have the art world podium.
If you feel strongly about mounting a show with whatever theme you believe is relevant, don't do it thinking you are going to persuade Jerry to be anything other than Jerry. It would be as if you were to parade a gay transvestite marching band into the studios of Rush Limbaugh and expect Rush to embrace live theatre, musicals and another life style that he has no intention of acknowledging much less accepting.
Brian is correct in his assessment that such an assault on the status quo is neither recognized or appreciated. But as long as Jerry has the uneducated publics eye he can say anything he wants about art and those same people who tune into the reality TV Art Project program will believe him. So will the collectors and patrons that like in a sports event, you need a program to tell who the players are. Because we as a nation are not interested in education about art, artists or the introduction of culture to the unwashed masses. Nor are the masses interested in learning about what art really is. The art worlds has created this esoteric realm that unless you have an art critic to tell you what is good and bad art you best not thread in a gallery or a museum or any where that there might be creative thinkers. Thar be monsters there. And certainly don't form your own opinons.
So in short I think there is some validity in what Jerry says and Morely says and Brian says. None are definitive. Brian has brought to light is that a Face Book challenge made to Jerry Saltz may not be a valid test as Jerry's convictions and that Jerry isn't all that reliable when it comes to follow through. Not that he is right or wrong. But to suggest that Jerry didn't follow through with the challenge because he was afraid that if a show was mounted and that he were forced to review it that this would threaten Mr. Saltz's convictions causing a paradigmic ripple throughout the art world? Well, I kind of doubt that. Subjective opinions about the contemporary art world are simply that. They are opinions. You can choose to believe them or not. Jerry just has the art floor at the moment. But is is our duty as artists to show the world to the viewer as we see it, not as they do (paraphrased from a quote by Adolph Gotlieb" ) and not to adopt an opinion simply because someone tells us to.

Marshall K Harris
My apologies for spelling and punctuation errors in my post. I'm a picture guy and stream of consciousness writer.


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