Critiquing a Critique: Part ONE

In my Formal Aspects class I was assigned to select a piece of contemporary art criticism and respond to the critique. I chose Jerry Saltz’s article in response to the Younger Than Jesus exhibition held at the New Museum (NYC) in 2009, ‘Jesus’ Saves: God bless the New Museum’s tantalizing triennial.

Please read Saltz’s article first, before going on to my response.

In Response to

“’Jesus’ Saves: God save the New Museum’s tantalizing triennial” by Jerry Saltz

(New York Magazine, April 9, 2009)

Anthony Aiuppy

July 16, 2011

At first glance as I read Saltz’s critique on the “Younger than Jesus” show at the New Museum two years ago I was put aback at how snarky and forthcoming the author seemed to be. As I read through his article a second time Saltz is no less cutting with the way he uses words, but, instead, he becomes more precise with the critique that he gives (whether in favor of or against the subject at hand).

In the first paragraph Saltz disassembles a growing aesthetic that’s grown over the last couple of years, arguing that this work is the by product of having one’s head shoved up its predecessor’s proverbial asses. It’s all a farce, as you tried to play the system, creating appropriations to critique “the man” or the social institutions and constrains that we live in.

The next paragraph is transitional (with a purpose). Saltz is setting us up; he’s creating an “out with the old and in with the new” scenario. What Saltz wants to invite us into, as the reader, is to take a journey with him and gander at the possibilities at hand. He’s inviting us to take a look around the corner, revealing to us just what’s in store for us if we walk down another avenue. Saltz transitions away from an already dead and forgotten aesthetic only to offer us a new hope. Saltz wants to show us something more desirous than “ad hoc arrangements of disheveled stuff, architectural fragments and Xeroxed photos”; he wants to show us the gems he found at the 2009 New Museum exhibition “Younger than Jesus.”

Mr. Saltz goes on to describe the environment and background story that is “Younger”. The imagery on display (not without flaw, mind you) at the new triennial “puts this kind of art behind us and points to what might lie beyond that recycling machine.” In some detail he identifies for us the size and scope of the show: how the artists were selected and the premise of the show. In this first section Saltz deals with the more frustrating (or flawed) moments of the exhibition. He comments that the curators have the tendency to adhere to some of the old habits and conventions that can tend to plague biennial tradition going so far as to say that the fourth floor is static, powerless or “inert”.

In my mind’s eye I can see Jerry Saltz analyzing several works with a smug look on his face; tight lips and knitted brow.  He states that Anna Molska’s video is “cute” and Cao Fei’s is “navel gazing fun” and Cory Arcangel’s work is a “decorative one-liner.” This is criticism that is so pointed and direct it seems wielded like a trained scalpel. Through the first section of the article I felt weighed down (almost jaded) by the state of contemporary art practices. Where was the glimmer of hope that Saltz was offering?

By the midsection Jerry Saltz begins to pull us into the good stuff, the proposed shift in “what could be” for the art scene. Saltz wants to give us an idea, a taste, for how art is changing in the contemporary context of an ever-globalizing world. The art that seems to be the most interesting and appealing to Saltz is the type of work that takes into its account the whole world (as well as the whole person). “Their work is less about how we affect time and people than how time and people affect us.” Halfway through the article Mr. Saltz says that the best artists of “Younger” are those who “turn their gaze from their own belly buttons to gaze at other people’s belly buttons.” They are the ones who see the whole world “as a living specimen.” Saltz then goes on to describe several artists stunning work.

When Saltz finally gets to those things that he wants to talk about, he takes on the persona of a giddy kid in his favorite candy shop. His scrutinizing tone becomes a more nuanced massaging of the things he’s interested in. He uses aromatic language, such as “riveting” (when describing Cyprien Gaillard’s video Desniasky Raion) and “scintillating” (describing Ryan Trecartin’s installation).

Saltz describes Cyprien Gaillard’s video, Desniasky Raion, in staunch detail. We are given the length of the film (30 minutes). We are told how the soundtrack (music by French musician Koudlam) helps to choreograph certain scenes. We are then given a description of each section of the piece. Saltz, as well, gives us an analysis of The 24 Hour Roman Reconstruction Project by Liz Glynn. He seems almost voyeuristic in his approach of describing how Glynn and her ragtag gang of volunteers build, siege and destroy the model city of Rome.

Jerry Saltz, in his closing argument, asserts that the idea of the “sublime” has moved from once again; no longer available only to outside forces, but attainable within each of us. He sees that in these artists’ work lies the key to the succession of the art word, stating that “Art is being reanimated by a sense of necessity, free of ideology or the compulsion to illustrate theory. Art is breaking free.”

After reading through this article several times and observing some of the works online to gain a better understanding about what Jerry Saltz was critiquing I have come to the current conclusion that Mr. Saltz is, to some capacity, a lone wolf in the art criticism world. He is unschooled, brash and I can never really pin him down as being “this” type of critic, or “that.” And by no means is Jerry Saltz unbiased. He’s just biased in a good way. He has an eye and he knows how to use it. Saltz knows what he likes and why he doesn’t like those things that seem banal or sectarian. Saltz in interested not in the present state of contemporary art but where it’s going. And that’s important for the future integrity of what people have been doing for thousands and thousands of years.