How deep is my lack of artistic character? Pretty deep, it turns out.
April 20, 2017 6:39 PM   Subscribe

My Life As a Failed Artist by Jerry Saltz [previously on mefi]. "I miss art terribly. I’ve never really talked about my work to anyone. In my writing, I’ve occasionally mentioned bygone times of once being an artist, usually laughingly. Whenever I think of that time, I feel stabs of regret. But once I quit, I quit; I never made art again and never even looked at the work I had made. Until last month..."
posted by moonmilk (27 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure that under the right circumstances Jerry Saltz couldn't have been a "great" artist. Like many other things, I think there's a randomness factor that tends to rule. His art seems to have everything going for it--complexity, a "story"--the illustration of The Divine Comedy, nice colors....all he was lacking was perhaps the right champion. One of those galleries; there's always an up and coming one, or a writer for Art Forum to explain it all to us. Or Charles Saatchi.
posted by adam hominem at 7:30 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]

I have an affection for Jerry Saltz that I can't quite explain but which is nonetheless very warm and fuzzy. Thanks for this, I hadn't spotted it yet.
posted by PussKillian at 7:35 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

One by one. Drawing by drawing. I studied them all. I knew almost every one by heart; the ones I didn’t remember were revelations to me. I knew what every move and mark meant. My breath was taken away. I fell madly in love with my work. I was astonished at how beautiful much of it was. How it all made sense. I thought, These are fabulous! I was a great artist. I looked and looked. I was stunned. There were tears of joy in my eyes. Relief.

Recently I returned to creating art, music, and writing after some time away from the practice. Over the course of about six months I've dredged up all kinds of interesting ephemera of past lives—things I wrote, things I drew, things I played and recorded, things I believed in strongly, things I didn't believe in all that much at all. It's kind of coincided with some overall life evaluation I've been doing, seeing what shakes out.

But I'm totally in love with a lot of what I've found and even the small new things I've made since, even if they don't merit it—because that feeling of having made something is such a good one. And usually the work is better once I return to it—more complex, a sweeter sound, a sharper line, more clever wording than I remember. Friends who in turn dug up their own works and shared them with me tended to feel the same way.

Anyway, I feel like—yes, exactly, adam hominem. I want to keep the feeling of that paragraph above and never get to the next one, in which his wife, also an art critic, critiques the work.

What this brings to mind for me, in some orthogonal way, is mathowie's thoughts on MeFi as a lifestyle business. Maybe this is because I grew up in St. Louis, with parents for whom art, writing, and music were also a way of life; wrote for local publications for years; and interviewed musicians and artists whose approach to the work was more relaxed, more entwined in the rhythms of day-to-day living than might have been the case for someone with greater recognition. But I so appreciate the people who perhaps don't make their living as artists, writers, or musicians, but who always have a project going. cortex is kind of one of my heroes in that regard, and I can think of a lot of other MeFites off the top of my head who approach things similarly.

This makes me think of why rust-belt cities are often such great environments for art—because as the Fight Club line goes, "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything." Or as my brother put it, captioning a photo of a rather homely LEGO ship we'd built once upon a time, "We were financially disenclined to invest in those solid ship-building pieces coveted by many a true LEGOer. Improvisation comes out in times that seem like the worst but may actually be the best."

Saltz should mount an exhibition of this stuff. I'd love to see it, even in the historical sense as a product of its time. Growing up where and when I did, I was influenced by exactly that kind of Midwestern '70s art, which my parents also made—it was totally DIY, a bit outsider, a bit unpracticed, rough-edged in an endearing way. I see that in my own work now and I like it.
posted by limeonaire at 7:50 PM on April 20 [12 favorites]

Jerry Saltz is an absolute treasure, someone who sacrificed his own success due to youthful insecurity--but gained wisdom from that sacrifice, which he sincerely shares with his students and readers to help nurture their talents and souls. Others would be so embittered by this experience that they might retreat into a Scroogelike mentality, but he really seems to give of himself unselfishly.

His wife's comments seemed really unsupportive, especially in the context of him feeling like a failure and being vulnerable. I mean, this was his younger self's cathexis and life's work! Jeez, at least engage emotionally with how he's feeling looking at it. In any case, I think Jerry was probably in the wrong place (NY) at the wrong time (the '70s) for the type of art he was creating (metaphysical, symbolic, and earnest). And he was, and seems to still be, very hard on himself. I just want to hug that younger Jerry like a son, not browbeat him for "thinking the world owes him a living" or being an "asshole." That's like a normal developmental stage for twentysomething artists as far as I can tell. But from how he describes his childhood, that sort of comfort was never there for him and probably contributed to his feeling like a failure. It seems that he didn't enter the next stage--that of digging deep into one's own pain and taking emotional risks with one's art. But could he have survived that process?

I identify a lot with his story, which is painfully parallel to my own trajectory as a fiction writer, and I'm grateful to him for sharing it. And thanks for posting it, moonmilk.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 8:43 PM on April 20 [9 favorites]

I feel like his wife's response to his work was... not right. Jesus, take your "serious critic" hat off for a minute, lady! This wasn't some young hopeful asking for a portfolio review. This was somebody close to her, somebody who had given up his dreams of making art decades ago and mourned it ever since. He was finally, finally feeling a moment of peace, a moment of joy even, after a lifetime of bitter regret... and she shot his ass down.

Maybe she wasn't quite understanding what that moment meant to him. Maybe he wasn't reporting exactly what she said. But if it went down the way he said it did, she was cold as hell.

And just like that, I was right back to where I was when I quit: crushed, in crisis, frozen, panicky.

I mean, God damn!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:09 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]

I haven't yet read this article. I have a prejudice toward Jerry Saltz. I think he's a bit of a grandstander and in need of attention in a way that turns me off. I'm reminded of a review he once wrote about the work of an acquaintance of mine, in which he said "____'s friends should talk to him to stop him from making this work" or some version of those very words. I think of this whenever I'm made aware of Saltz's own Facebook presence. I just want to shake him and say "You are a grown man of some renown, have some dignity, stay off TV, stay off Facebook especially, and emulate you're brilliant and deeply thoughtful wife" (who is a much better art writer by the way).
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 10:15 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

I'm glad he enjoyed looking through his student work. I have a portfolio in my closet with some of my student work. There's a drawing on it of cartoon-me drinking tea, saying "It's not old art. It's aged. Like fine wine." If you look at it you can see the seeds of the artist I became after twenty or so years of regularly drawing.

I'm not sure I see the seeds of much of anything in his student work, but maybe he'd say the same things about my stuff. Hell, maybe he'd say the same about my current work, it's all full of icky representational stuff and appealing cartoon character designs and narratives. Maybe twenty years of refinement would have seen him grow into an amazing example of Work That Sure Does Make You Ask What Art Is And Why Some Rich Asshole Would Pay That Much For It, God, My Three Year Old Could Make That.

And maybe the drawing on my portfolio of old student work is totally honest and not snarky at all.
posted by egypturnash at 10:41 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Saltz seems pretty clearly to be using his wife's words as a support for his own work as a critic, and rightly so to my mind as a critic has responsibilities to self, profession, and values just as an artist does. Saltz looking for anything less from his wife than he would deem reasonable to offer as a critic would be a kind of dishonesty.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:50 PM on April 20

his wife's response to his work was... not right. Jesus, take your "serious critic" hat off for a minute, lady! This wasn't some young hopeful asking for a portfolio review

I feel like being anything less than honest would be patronising and an insult to him as an artist. It is more important to encourage than to judge, with children. But he was a young man of ambition, burning to be judged. He became a judge. To lie to him because you think he can't take it, in a way it's saying his work is so obviously amateurish that it is undeserving of serious consideration, that how he feels about it is the only thing that counts, and not its merits. There, there. Pat, pat. Everyone gets a sticker.
posted by Diablevert at 3:24 AM on April 21 [6 favorites]

Saltz looking for anything less from his wife than he would deem reasonable to offer as a critic would be a kind of dishonesty.

I didn't see anything positive in her comments. Given that she left him feeling utterly crushed, as if he was indeed just as talentless as he'd always feared, I don't think she did him any favors.

To be honest, his art didn't thrill me too much either. It was OK, but I saw the point of her criticism. But if somebody I love had spent their entire life agonizing over paths not taken, feeling like a failure, and one day they showed me their art and they were like, "My God, maybe I really did have some talent after all," you bet your ass I'd do my best to fan the flickering little embers of their self-esteem. This isn't a review for the freaking Times and you really shouldn't criticize your vulnerable loved ones like Thaddeus Bristol tearing into a kids' Christmas pageant.

I'd agree with her comments, purely as a critic. But for a loved one, in that circumstance, I think it was borderline abusive. There was nothing supportive or loving in it. That line about how some artists never get better than their first work is kind of chilling. She was telling him that he wasn't just deluded about having talent back then, he never could have gotten any better! That is just... mean. Did she think he was about to give up his career as a critic, and spend his dying days in a garret?
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:32 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

It's possible, guys, that one of the things that he loves about his wife is that she is honest about the calibre of his work. He is writing about the moment when she gave him an honest assessment; he doesn't necessarily delve into whether they had any further discussions about it, or whether he gave any more thought to her comments and realized "actually, yeah, she's right".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:29 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

How do you "quit" making art, really, and still make sense of things and cope with life, I wonder? Because I don't think I ever even could. I've tried many times. For me personally, making art seems to be at the core of my personal process for engaging with my own life, coping with stress/emotional pain, and trying to make sense of the rest of the world--half the time, I'm not even sure what's really on my mind until I start trying to write or draw something and start to notice recurrent patterns in what I'm writing or drawing about that help me recognize I'm preoccupied with something on a less conscious level. Then I usually start taking more conscious control and actively trying to craft some kind of more intentional, more self aware and less strictly personal idea out of those initial, highly personal raw materials.

I guess what I'm saying is, if your creative process isn't an affect but just a core part of how you relate to and engage with life and your own experience in it, you might find the idea of "quitting art" because you can't successfully market and monetize it a little offputting and offensive.

On the other hand, if doggedly pursuing a commercial career as an artist is the real issue, and feeling unsupported/like a failure starts to take such a personal toll, the process of making art becomes just another life burden or impediment to balance and well being, that's a different matter, and not really so much about art as about economics and social expectations about efficiency and productivity as the highest purposes of human life.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:49 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

God, the only thing more melodramatic than calling yourself an artist is calling yourself a "failed artist."
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:54 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

I guess what I'm saying is, if your creative process isn't an affect but just a core part of how you relate to and engage with life and your own experience in it, you might find the idea of "quitting art" because you can't successfully market and monetize it a little offputting and offensive.

I "quit art" for some time. The argument whether photography is art aside, at some point I just felt as if the $$$ I was spending in gear, processing and the time commitment was akin to owning a boat. And the time commitment was more than just creating, it was prep, acquisition, idea creation, following up, execution, then the endless marketing, showing to people, worrying, plotting, planning, hoping. And I wasn't even aspiring to be an artist. I think the real goal was to be able to work at it without having to work another job just to be able to do it.

What happened was I took all that time and used it to change my career and work my ass off at that. In the meantime, I felt like some part of me that I loved no longer had focus (mind the pun), and that I had no outlet for dreaming or aspiring. Career success is not something I much care about past wanting a modicum of respect from my peers and enough money to not worry from day to day.

Ultimately I gave it up for 5-10 years. Tried not to think about it. I consoled myself by thinking that the new ways of seeing I had learned enriched my life even without the outlet.

Now I've gone back to it, for the past maybe 5 years. I found the absolute sweet's making just enough to pay for itself, I get to do a fair amount of it at my other career, and I don't have to worry about all the stuff I used to worry about....I'm old enough that I've let it go. Social media and digital makes some of it easier, but I'm also not worried about it at all. If people know they know, if they don't they don't.

The whole hustle can be a grind. Hoping is exhausting. This was a good read. Thanks for posting.
posted by nevercalm at 7:00 AM on April 21 [3 favorites]

That was a poignant read. I very much saw myself in my twenties in this paragraph—
Dante is a paradigmatic figure of the canon — therefore a perfect picture of the dream of artistic canonization — but he’s also a weirdo Boschian fantasist and so satisfied my obsession with hermetic traditions, indexes, myth, archaic cultures, and mystics and visionaries like William Blake. This late-medieval universe freed me from making choices; the story and structure told me exactly what to do, what to draw, where to draw it, what came next, what shape things should be, everything, even sometimes governing colors ...
—and my own obsessions with all of the same ideas. I would fill up blank books with all kinds of Yeatsian-style diagrams and Blakeian-style names, trying to draw connections between mythologies, pop icons, gnostic insights, hermetic codes, everything with corresponding colors and corresponding sounds. When, a bit later, I discovered Darger, I would think "I get it, man; I get it."

If it's any consolation, Jerry, your early work was better than mine.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:18 AM on April 21

I'm always a bit disappointed when I meet someone who, say, used to be a concert pianist and is now a medical librarian. You gave up your dream! But actually it's none o' my business.

Hey alligator, I'm an aspiring failed artist. Is that more melodramatic? If not, I can keep workshopping it.
posted by moonmilk at 7:18 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

You gave up your dream!

Reality bites.

I admire anyone who puts in on the line to open a microbrewery, start a software company, refurbish a delapidated building, join an indie band. But the reality in all cases is, we’re talking a business, most of which fail, and there comes a time when you have to admit it ain’t working. There’s no shame in that. His chosen venue has a severely limited commercial value and way too many would be practitioners. You want aesthetic satisfaction? That’s what nights and weekends are for. Go for it, but don’t get maudlin when it doesn’t work out. Most things in life don’t work out. But hey, it was fun while it lasted.

Final irony - he appears to be making a living as a writer. Nice work if you can get it. I'm guessing there are more would-be writers than would-be artists.

As to his artwork - it doesn't do anything for me. My two cents - if you’re planning on teaming up with Dante, you’d better be at least as great.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:50 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

God, the only thing more melodramatic than calling yourself an artist is calling yourself a "failed artist."

Yeah totally, if the person really means it. It's unhelpful to think of it this way at least in part because then the whole thing's contrived (although no doubt, some historical artistic icons like Dali and Picasso might have challenged you to arm wrestle if you questioned their constant preening about being Real Artists): if your goal is to be an Artist, that changes things.

Most of us learn at a deeper level primarily through imaginative and creative play as kids--writing, drawing, singing made up songs, pretend role play, etc. It seems to me we always still need some version of that in adulthood, just to stay sane. But the title of Artist is something else. If anyone ever needs that title, it's bestowed on them by the estimation of others and accepted only reluctantly, if at all, not pusued as a prize to win, mystical vocation, or position title on a resume.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:00 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

That said, I can't think of a better word for someone whose profession is making visual art in multiple media.
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 8:08 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

LOL. People who describe themselves as artists because they make art strike me as a lot less melodramatic and mystical than people who treat the word like the Voldemort of occupational titles, too powerful, too meaningful to ever be said aloud by mere human beings. I mean, really!
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:14 AM on April 21 [6 favorites]

My two cents - if you’re planning on teaming up with Dante, you’d better be at least as great.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
The drawing was interesting. There's a nice sort of comic-book Kandinsky vibe to it. I'd hang it in my house. But his wife probably gets it right.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:15 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

As a wife of an artist, and a dabbling one myself, I found Saltz' essay very insightful about the struggles of aspiring artists. What he lacked to become an established artist wasn't talent (his work shows he had it), formal schooling (most art school graduates I've known gave up on their art pretty quickly) or enough resources (few artists have them), but the confidence to keep going at it, showing it, promoting it and growing it. His point about banishing envy is especially true. When you're young, it is hard to keep going as an artist when you see friends buying cars, going to nice restaurants, partying, traveling, and doing all the things a salary allows you to do, and when you're an older artist it's hard to keep going when you see fellow artists' work that is no better nor more promoted than yours become successful in the fickle, flavor-of-the-month art world while yours lingers on the fringes.

As for his wife's critique, if she really said that without prompting I agree with some others that it was cold and unwarranted; but I wonder whether his lingering doubt set up her critique. One, to ask someone's opinion of your art is something confident artists don't do and two, I can imagine, like many self-doubting artists, he showed her the work saying something like "looking at this, can you believe I thought I was an artist..." and perhaps sadly, she caught the bait and went along to confirm his doubt and give closure to it. Because her comment about "whats the deal with all the triangles" seems absurd for a critique on a series of symbolic work based on a single source.
posted by SA456 at 8:23 AM on April 21 [3 favorites]

As an off and on artist for 20 years or so- the people who love you tell you what they actually see, not what you want to hear. It's a LOT easier than hearing it from some stranger . And Art is not a noun- it's not a static, "i did a thing" and done. It's an ongoing practice of where you become better or worse as time goes on.

So yes, he is a failure insofar as he stopped trying. He can cease being one if he tries again.He cannot if he ruminates on what other people think about his work.
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 9:25 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

Maybe she didn't want him to regret his career change?

PS Is it OK if I call myself a frustrated artist, or is that melodramatic too?
(Frustrated by my own lack of development, mostly. And yes, I have a day job.)
posted by surplus at 12:43 PM on April 21

to tack onto what others said about the 'melodrama' of the artist label, I consider every piece of art hanging on my walls (and yours most likely) to be made by an artist, from the DIYers on Etsy, who do really nice stuff not just kitsch, to the painter who sells to wealthy people, to the disabled people who do 'outsider' art.

The business of saving the label only for museum-level artists is bullshit; we don't do that with musicians. We wouldn't say that someone that isn't Yo-Yo Ma isn't a musician. Even Sid Vicious is probably labelled as a musician and he was so bad, his bandmate pulled the plug on him during a performance. Yet he got to be in a famous band because he was a friend and because he had the right look.

Some people reserve the title for an elite few. That's why I love the title of this movie: Who does she think she is?

Also, I think you're assuming there's a value judgement implicit in the title; I mean Thomas Kincaid was definitely an artist, but how many of us here would say he was good? Is the criteria how much you sell, then? What about indie bands who sell only to a select subculture and don't hit the mainstream? Are they any less of musicians because they don't sell a lot of products?
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 1:57 PM on April 21 [1 favorite]

I'm always a bit disappointed when I meet someone who, say, used to be a concert pianist and is now a medical librarian. You gave up your dream!

This has been nagging me, and I'll tell you why.

If a concert pianist decides to pack it in and become a medical librarian, or a novelist became a secretary, or a rock star opened a vintage clothing shop, the fact that they stopped doing whatever does not immediately cancel out the fact that they did do it. Which means that they didn't give up their dream - they got their dream, and they had it for a while. They made it. They succeeded.

The thing is, though, you can't stay in dreams forever. You have to wake up into something. Sometimes you're able to wake up into a life as a concert pianist or a novelist or a rock star; and if that life works for you, rather than the dream of it, then great. But sometimes life as a concert pianist or novelist doesn't really work.

Also, we live long lives. we have many dreams. Not all of them are the same. Maybe the concert pianist also was always fascinated with medicine, and medical librarian was their next dream and now they're living that. Or maybe being "Mom" or "Dad" was another dream they decided they wanted more than being a rock star, and they weren't able to make the both fit together, so they switched to something else.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:37 AM on April 23 [3 favorites]

I agree! That's why I'm disappointed in my own disappointment.
posted by moonmilk at 9:01 AM on April 23

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