Art Critics Really Said This

Last week I sat in the audience and listened to husband-and-wife art critics Roberta Smith (New York Times) and Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine). They were in town at the invitation of Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum. (The photo here was taken from my seat.)

art critics Roberta Smith (New York Times) and Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine)

What struck me most was not just how much art they see (a ton), but the wide variety of art that interests them. They go to show after show after show, and then they want to see more. They never tire of looking at art. Saltz confessed to looking for all-night galleries to satisfy their obsession.

You might be tempted to discount critics, but you would be wrong not to listen to people who have spent decades looking at artist after artist, exhibition after exhibition, and style after style.

Much of this dynamic duo’s conversation for the sold-out crowd focused on two things:

  1.  How to be a better artist.
  2.  How to look at art and develop your eye.

While I don’t quote Smith and Saltz directly here, I think I got close enough to what they said to be confident in sharing these notes.

Wisdom from Roberta Smith

The Clyfford Still Museum teaches artists how to be artists.

We have more art than we need.

You can’t help people by being a miserable artist.
Don’t be an artist unless you absolutely have to. (She said this numerous times.)

It takes discipline and concentration [to be an artist].

Artists don’t own their work.

Re looking at art … I don’t care if it’s good or bad. Keep looking and looking. Develop your eye.

You have to be willing to be betrayed by your own taste.

Struggle to keep yourself open to art that baffles you.

The more you look, the more you see. Everyone in the art world is building an image bank.

Insights from Jerry Saltz

As an artist, you wake up thinking you know.
By noon, you question everything.
You’re better at bedtime.
Then you wake up at 3 a.m. with the thought, “My work sucks.”

Don’t be big babies.
There’s never enough time or money.
By the way, I’m not against you marrying for money.
Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get to work.

Instead of saying, “I’m working” when you’re in the studio, say “Right now I’m trying to figure out …” (I think there’s a lot to consider in this advice.)

Make enemies of cynicism and envy.

A Nod to Oscar Wilde

I don’t know if it was Smith or Saltz who said it or in what context, but it’s interesting to consider this quote from the conversation: “Art isn’t about understanding.” Hmmm.

And both Smith and Saltz grasped for this quote:

The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you. – Oscar Wilde [tweet this]

Your Turn

Leave us a comment. Tell us what you’re trying to figure out in the studio right now or any other reactions you have to this dialogue.

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100 comments to Art Critics Really Said This

  • I didn’t expect to feel a sense of support after reading their words… I think maybe if I didn’t feel that art was life, I would’ve taken offense to the “don’t be an artist unless you absolutely have to.” Yeah. That one resonated. I am afraid that one day I won’t be able to create and …. honestly, that feels like a terminal diagnosis.

    But to your question: What am I currently trying to figure out? I’m trying to figure out how to put my faith-questions on a canvas in a way that is honest but not god-awfully ugly! 😀 I personally have more questions than answers and painting it all out is such a cathartic experience for me. And my hope is to do this in a way that gives others permission to question, and to find peace with their own faith-questions. I think there’s a place for “doubt,” if that’s what we want to call it.

  • Good observation and I agree with the advise to artists to being dedicated. I do go to “work” on my art meaning thats what I do everyday. Maybe the word work is a little misinterpreted. To me, its just what im doing.

  • “Don’t be an artist unless you absolutely have to.” I have a day job as a graphic designer. It comes close but it isn’t the same. Making art may not pay the bills right now, but it is what I am working toward. I think it is possible within the next 2 years if I am persistent and work at making it better and do a better job getting the work out there and looking at other peoples’ art to see how I am doing. Not as a means of comparison (he/she is so much better than me!) but as a way of pushing myself further. I really like that “Right now I’m trying to figure out…”

  • Richard Harrington

    “3am, my work sucks.”

    I thought at some point during the last 26 years I’d quit thinking this. But the more you work, the more you learn, the longer the path seems. Which is what keeps me interested- seeing where it goes. Does make it harder to make a living, but I’m more interested in not being bored.

  • I find myself very lost right now. I have no idea what to make so it all feels like I’m just moving clay around. My hope is that by moving clay around, I’ll figure it out. I also want to be a better artist, but now that I’m all done with school I am pretty lost about how to improve my skills.

    And, yeah, I am one of those people who HAS to be an artist. I am insane otherwise.

  • Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi calls this the theory of “Flow”: when a person’s skill level is just below the level of ability needed to conquer the task. The challenge to conquer the task keeps the person hooked until they feel they have achieved the desired outcome. Once the challenge has been met, the person moves the bar forward, thus creating another level of flow. The rewards are almost always internal-not for monetary gain. The compulsion to exercise flow was found most often in athletes and artist.

    • I completely resonate with this, Meg. I read one of his books and I agree that, for me, the process of making art is satisfying because I am most happy when solving problems, being challenged and absolutely absorbed in the task. He defines this flow as the source of happiness. It seems akin to meditation in a way. It is also learning and reaching new levels of awareness and challenge.

    • And maybe what Oscar Wilde’s quote is referencing? “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.”

    • Excellent to bring that in, Meg.

  • LOVE the one about being prepared for our taste to betray us! Also very interesting one about Art not being about understanding.
    For myself, I view Art as something to enjoy. I understand the feelings of enjoyment, appreciation, awe, admiration and at times envy (in a good way). That is the kind of art I want to see, the rest I do not look at very often. There is so much art in the world I can filter what I want to see, just like I filter out other things in my life such as people who bring me down.
    Right now I’m trying to figure out what my next steps/goals will be for my career. Things are going well now and don’t want to become complacent but need to plan for the future and whatever it brings
    Good article, got me thinking! Thanks Alyson!

  • 3am, 10 am, 2:30pm all day long I go between “I am a genius” to “my work is crap”. It’s a very good thing that I compelled to paint whether or not I love or hate it. My work is autobiographical and I know in my soul it is a lifeline for me. Ask any previous girlfriend, when I don’t paint I get cranky. (not the only reason I get cranky but a consistent one). The autobiographical nature of my work is probably one reason why it does not sell like some less in-your-face personal works do. Or, maybe my work really is crap. I really don’t know, don’t get enough feedback and don’t have enough schooling to compare it to much. I had never heard of Clyfford Still, so thanks for turning me on to his story, fascinating that he had commercial success and dropped out from it. Want to find out more about this/why. So, the museum teaches artists how to be artists eh? Do they suggest being born wealthy to begin with? How to be an artist, maybe I will learn that one someday. What I am working on in the studio which smaller pieces to bring with me on a cross country road trip where I may find the courage to drop into a gallery here or there (Maybe) and ask if they would do me the kind favor of looking at it. 🙂 (Maybe)

  • As a representational painter, I can’t help but read into their comments that only non-representational art is worth their while…”stay open to art that baffles you”…”keep looking…the more you look the more you see”…”art isn’t about understanding”. IMO great art doesn’t have to be a scribbled mess to discipher. Just sayin’.

    Also, what the hell does “an artist doesn’t own their work” mean? I don’t agree at all. If I don’t own it who does? I certainly own the copyright of the image.

  • I appreciate their words / advice. I get it – all of it. Being an optimist and believer in creating your own success, I cannot subscribe to the ‘don’t be an artist unless you absolutely have to’ because that to me has $$$ undertones. I don’t paint for money. I paint because I love the connection I feel when I’m throwing color. The money aspect comes naturally.

    People buy art. There is plenty of abundance for all of us creatives to go around.

  • Melissa Brauen

    Truth bombs: shot from the hip without ripping me up, only making me stronger. Time to ‘figure something out’ in the studio…..

  • “don’t be an artist unless you absolutely have to.” I’ve never put it into words but this is exactly how I feel. Art is my life. Thanks for sharing this Alyson.

  • I am a bit confused. In one part you wrote that they said, “Instead of saying, “I’m working” when you’re in the studio, say “Right now I’m trying to figure out …” Yet you wrote that they also said many times, “Art isn’t about understanding.”

    From an artist’s perspective, does that mean it is mostly about the journey? Is is about applying the paint, moving the clay, and the adventure of creating something that did not exist before? And from a critic or viewer of art, does that mean that you can never “fully” understand a work of art? Can you clarify this for me Alyson?

    I liked this idea a lot, “Artists don’t own their work.”

    I never considered that at all. I think if I could just let go of it, I would have the incentive to press on harder. Create just to create, as it is a gift each time. Press on as if my life depends on it, because it really does. To be an artist is a calling. To ignore that is to ignore ones own breath.

    Right now I am trying to understand the lighting on a woman I am painting. I am sorting out colors and tones to make her “pop”. I am changing my style of painting somewhat. In the past I think I have been a lazy painter. I would tire of a work and just want it to be finished, when really I was only half way there. I did not respect the journey. I am working on that. At the same time I am sculpting. I recently posted one of my works in progress on my Facebook. It was weird because I saw things in it that I loved and could feel that part of me that arises when I am really in tune. It is a nebulous aura of what could be. As I looked at the image of my sculpture on FB I wondered for a minute where that piece was… oh yeah, I destroyed it in a moment of frustration, thinking it stunk. I stopped trying to understand how to fix it and just gave up. Good grief!! But the lesson learned from this article/blog is that I know I could have improved the sculpture and I could have figured it out how to save her. That prompts me to open a new bag of clay and revisit that nebulous aura.

    • Kathy: I love how you digested this.

      “Art isn’t about understanding” was more of a reference to the viewer. And they only said it once (the thing Roberta said multiple times is “Don’t be an artist unless you have to.”)

      I actually don’t know what she meant by this. That’s kind of why I threw it out at the end for contemplation. But it does relate to the Oscar Wilde quote.

      I am completely in love with this: “I did not respect the journey.” I’m going to quote you on it. It’s a keeper!

  • Thanks for sharing your notes, Alyson. I loved “Art isn’t about understanding.” I do abstract art and I’ve said that to folks before. Art is about a visceral reaction, a love at first sight. To paraphrase Jack White, by just looking at my art, you already know all there is to know about it.

    Pat

    • Interesting, Patricia. I don’t really believe that all art is appreciated at first glance. As a student of art history and former museum educator, I know that art can grow on you.

  • Denise

    I wonder what she actually meant by “don’t be an artist unless
    you absolutely have to”?

    • kass morin freeman

      I get the statement, “Don’t be an artist unless you have to.” better than any other. Born in the day and into a family that being financilly secure was paramount , my parents wanted more than anything else that I be a nurse, a secretary, a teacher or a computer programmer. And, for 3 horrible months I was the latter. But a scholarship allowed me to pursue art; and my parents, realizing by then that I would not survive as myself in any other venue, backed me, fully expecting that they would have to support me the rest of their lives.

      Luckily, I have had a full life as an artist; but if I cannot get the images out of my head and onto the paper, whether it be scribbled down or carried through (not so good at the finish, love the start!) it feels like the worst head cold one could possibly have until I clear it out of there.

    • Denise: Kass answered beautifully here and someone else above. It’s really “Don’t try to make a living as an artist unless you absolutely have to.” She was referencing the hard life of a working artist.

  • Linda P. Sikorski

    You ask: “what am I trying to figure out?”… I can remember a series of moments (oh so long ago) when my art came “from my soul to my hand” without trucking through the muck in my brain… Life happens, I work outside the studio more than in, and I fear myself lost… but every once in a while I get a (very brief) soul-to-hand moment… I am trying to figure out how to clear the path so it becomes an open conduit instead of an itinerant spurt.

  • Alyson:
    I feel that art critics have to make us think about what we do, good or bad in (their eyes) or they don’t get paid for their time as a critic.
    I feel that some times they are not very fair to the artist but any way they are doing a job that some times will hurt us, and our ego’s but we move on. I look at art online so much that I get a better eye for what I am looking for. I don’t understand some but the color is what I look at the most . I also get great feed back from all the great artist works that I see and that’s what inspires me to work on trying to get better. I don’t paint to sell but if someone wants to buy I have a price 80 cense an inch for the work.
    This past January my wife of (44)years and I took a break to Florida for a few weeks and I checked out Art now all I am doing is sand, palm trees, sunsets and water,but that’s what we do we get inspiredthank you for your blog’s

  • I must add, I just checked out everyone’s website here, who have commented and wow! Invigorating seeing other artists and their work.

  • I think this list is fun and to the point, in many ways. Naturally, it is only part of the picture. I do not see, as one commenter did, that Mr. Saltz is against representational art. But maybe because I see his postings on FB and also, I think the “PoCo” movements and such that some artists in the classically trained circles are spending too much energy “fighting” to be seen. I see way too many “technically accomplished” works that do not do a thing for me. That is ok, we need variety and taste is personal.
    I also suspect the comment “do not be an artist unless you have to” relates to the “do not be a bad artist.” The first idea naturally leads to the pursuit of quality. And they did say there are too many of us.
    Anyway, thank you for the break from computer work. hah!

  • Has anyone comment on Roberta Smith’s contention that “we have more art than we need”…???
    What exactly does this mean???

    As to my challenges and journey in the studio presently…
    I am transitioning from being a full-time decorative painter basef in San Francisco to being a studio artist working on artist books in LA….this is a real journey…I hope to tske Alyson’s jumpstart class this year.

    • Debra: I don’t want to put words in her mouth, so I can only speak from my point of view. Here are my blunt thoughts …

      We really do have more art than we need. So many artists have houses full of art that they can’t sell and museums have warehouses full of art that they can’t show. Need a 3×4′ print/painting to fill a space? You just have to Google the subject matter and colors and you’ll have your choice.

      I’m not saying (not even close) that artists should stop making art. I’m just saying that artists don’t make art because something is perceived as lacking in the world. You don’t make art to fulfill the needs of individuals or institutions. You make art because you have to.

      Does this resonate?

      I do look forward to working with you in one of my programs.

  • I find it interesting that Roberta said “we have more art than we need” but they both seek out (and are almost addicted to) seeing as much Art as physically possible. I do AND don’t agree there is too much Art. Even if I don’t like or understand a piece, I might gather new inspiration from it. We are not independent silos. We rely on others for ideas.

    “Artist’s don’t own their work” resonated with me. I knew this but didn’t realize it fully.

    I also go through all phases of “I suck” vs. “I’m Awesome!” all in one day. I sometimes wish I was one of those successful Artists who are not very good but have mass appeal and I think I’m great, but real critics and other Artists don’t. Then I remind myself, I’m an Artist. I don’t want that for myself. I want to be happy with my own Art (for me) and keep challenging myself, even if it’s an emotional roller coaster.

  • I liked the comment about artists not owning their work. I interpreted it to mean that once your art is out in public that the viewer puts their interpretation on it. We as artists need to create our art and then to a certain extent must be able to step back from it and let it go.

  • John – You said, “As a representational painter, I can’t help but read into their comments that only non-representational art is worth their while…”

    I’ve disagreed with Saltz on many occasions. That said, I must say that he has explored representational art at length. In fact, I believe he has written at about representational art (I know he has lectured about it) — specifically work created by masters of the past. There used to be some videos on YouTube with him discussing representational pieces during museum tours. Granted, the NYC gallery world tends to uphold non-representational art… he is a NYC writer — that is one reason he leans that way with most of his writing.

    Valerie — You said, “I liked the comment about artists not owning their work. I interpreted it to mean that once your art is out in public that the viewer puts their interpretation on it. We as artists need to create our art and then to a certain extent must be able to step back from it and let it go.”

    Bingo.

  • KR

    I dont quite like the comment about not being an artist unless you have to. I’d like it rephrased: dont try to make a living from your art unless you have to. Everybody should be encouraged to make use creative energy all the time. Theres not a huge separation between Being and Artist and being something else… Also, maybe I do try to get better at what I make, but I try not to have that kind of goal. I dont try to reach for Excellence. That sounds hopeless to me. I keep my eyes on the path right in from of me and keep my feet moving. Know what I mean?

  • Perhaps it is the way they phrased things, but I found many of their comments to be discouraging. I find that if I spend too much time evaluating “should I be an artist” or “do I have to an artist” or “does my work suck” or “do people have enough art already” I have trouble getting out of bed.

    I get that if you want to be an artist who is making (at least some) financial remuneration from their work, you should quit whining and get to it! (And see Alyson’s classes and advice in the process.)

    A helpful resource for me has been Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art. I own the Audio Book, and enjoy listening to it when I’m printing. Less evaluation, more productivity.

    And as for “working” I look my studio time as learning something new, solving some new challenge that has arisen. We aren’t talking about dirty dishes here, we’re talking about creation.

    • Elizabeth: I think artists who have to be artists are like you. They don’t analyze the questions too deeply. They get to work.

      I should get Pressfield’s audio. I’ve never listened to it – only read. That’d be good. Excellent recommendation.

  • This is making me think about the role of art education. I am a high school art teacher. Most of students will only take one art class. What is most important for them to get out of it? How does that compare to the needs of the few that will go on to make art a part of their lives? I’m always pondering this, never feeling like I have a good answer!

  • Mark

    “Don’t be an artist unless you have to.” What this means, I believe, is that the artist should be intrinsically driven to express themselves through their art. Not everyone has that “calling”. Some people make art to make a buck. Some, well, it’s a part of who they are and to not paint or whatever is a denial of self. They would rather die than to not to paint, sculpt or whatever. Only this sort of drive will get a person through the tough times.
    “We have more art than we need.” If everybody’s somebody then no one’s anybody. There is a glut of art… More than will ever be sold. And the availability of Giclee prints increases this glut tremendously. The good thing is that that which is truly good ***should*** rise to the top. But you have to wade through a lot to find it.
    “Artists don’t own their work”. There is a lot in this comment. What I get from this is: Paint what is in your heart, not what you are “expected” to paint. Believe in your story and stick with it. See it as a craft that you need to continually improve. Work at it. Make it an extension of yourself, don’t dabble at it. Live it, breathe it, OWN it.
    A related article I have found helpful: http://www.cumpiano.com/Home/Articles/Articles/pedagog.htm

    I’m working toward these things.

  • “We have more art than we need.
    You can’t help people by being a miserable artist.
    Don’t be an artist unless you absolutely have to.”

    Do you really have all the art you need when it’s all hearing art? As a deaf artist I hope to fill in the void in the art world of being a deaf artist, but to make art that also fills in more voids as well.
    There are perspectives to learn about the world from deaf art that the hearing couldn’t do.

  • Jill Singleton

    Amusing sidenote: today is Jerry Saltz’s birthday. See all his many birthday messages + images on his FB page. https://www.facebook.com/jerry.saltz

  • Interesting insight from art critics.

  • “Don’t be an artist unless you absolutely have to.” This resonated ALOT and I had to share it on FB…so true

    Kathy Crabbe
    Artist
    http://KathyCrabbe.com

  • The statements by the above critics bring to mind this wonderful book by Robert Henri “The Art Spirit”. I highly recommend it. Below are quotes from the book.

    “In every human being there is the artist, and whatever his activity, he has an equal chance with any to express the result of his growth and his contact with life. I don’t believe any real artist cares whether what he does is ‘art’ or not. Who, after all, knows what art is?”

    “Your only hope of satisfying others is in satisfying yourself. I speak of a great satisfaction, not a commercial satisfaction.”

    “Art is certainly not a pursuit for anyone who wants to make money.”

    “To award prizes is to attempt to control the course of another man’s work. It is a bid to have him do what you will approve. It affects not only the one who wins the award, but all those who in any measure strive for it.”

    “No way has been devised for measuring the value of a work of art. History proves that juries in art have been generally wrong. With few exceptions the greatest artists have been repudiated by the art juries in all countries and at all times.”

  • I took acting for awhile and a producer came and spoke to the class and said the same thing: “Don’t go into acting unless you absolutely have to.” His point was that only those who wake up in the morning *needing* to be an actor, would find the inner fortitude to stay the course in a world run by gatekeepers and who knows who.

    The world of Jerry and Roberta is similarly filled with gatekeepers and artists essentially asking them for permission to show their work. Thankfully, that’s changing as more and more artists find ways to connect with collectors over the real stuff behind the work. Understanding or not understanding no longer needs to be a thing.

  • I was interested by all the responses to this post. I can’t not make art. I feel compelled to do at least something artistic to make money so I design and sell cards. The rest is pretty much for myself. I really don’t care most of the time if anyone else likes it, and that is new for me. I like my own ideas, and I want to figure out how to do what I want to do: Right now I am trying to figure out how to make solid materials like paint and paper look like ice crystals, how to paint/collage/cut shapes that will look like the many kinds of mushrooms and lichens I’ve seen on my various long hikes, and how to recreate the sense of what a spiderweb looks like with dew on it. I’ll keep you posted .

  • I love Jerry Saltz. He shoots straight from the hip, is unpretentious, a breath of fresh air, with a killer sense of humour. Breaks the art critic mould, because his past life was being a truck driver, just a regular Joe.

    I think this is why he’s so down to earth. Critics have opinions. We don’t have to agree with them, thank goodness. There always seems to be the temptation to define art, good art or bad. I’ve got off that merry-go-round. It’s all about the creative process for me, not the final end result.

  • Great article! Great comments!

  • Mary Martin

    I am trying to figure out how to make fluid acrylics on watercolor paper make the sound of ocean waves breaking on the shore.

  • I’m trying to figure out why something I can’t not do (painting) fills me with such immobilizing fear.

  • Artist’s not owning their work. I would love to not own my work (ha ha). I would rather not say one word about any painting in particular. I think people actually like them better BEFORE I tell anything about them, their inspiration, what “I see”. I try to make my titles as pleasant as possible so that even my most dark pieces can be open to a happy interpretation. And Ikea, please, take an image any image!

  • Rejuvenating to read all of these comments. Most, I identify with. Like most here, I have a love/hate relationship with critics. I don’t listen to or read them very much but agree with Allyson that you can’t be healthy about your art while ignoring them. We all know in our souls that we do this because we have to; and, we all wish we sold more; and, if pressed, we all know there is no connection between those two axioms. Two boxes in my studio, the one where I create, and the one where I sell. When mixed, they always become mud.

    In my selling box I am figuring out the new design for my studio in my effort to make it a gallery for one person shows. In my creative box I am trying to figure out a new multi-dimensional technique I have never seen in my medium before.

    On not owning one’s work: Once it is completed, the created “thing” belongs to the world, by definition I believe. Every other explanation is contrived and ego driven. Moving on to the next experience is why I do what I do. But it is very nice to be valued by a purchase. Regardless, I would do this anyway, just because I must.

  • Theresa Fisher

    Art is not to understand first I did not realize who said this I always thought Claude Monte said this but it was ended with it is simply to Love. But by no means do I think people need to love my work but If evoke any kind of reaction I am happy. I love the challenge everyday go in the studio thinking what mess am I going to make today and simply pleased when someone says I love that how much or what were you thinking……..:) thank you

  • I really appreciate everyone’s comments. Sorry I haven’t been able to respond yet, but I have been reading your comments in my email. Just haven’t had the chance to sit down and type.

  • “We have more art than we need.” Yikes, that explains why it’s so darn difficult to make a good living off your art. Too much supply and not enough demand 😉

    • John, we have more widgets than we need yet people still create and buy widgets like crazy. I think that’s a non-reason to let get in our way. We just have to get better at connecting our art and the stories behind it to the interests, needs and desires of buyers.

      • @Michelle Twohig Agreed, but the margin on widgets keep getting thinner. A surplus of art drives prices down for many “regular” artists. A surplus of inexpensive art creates a larger gap between the artists who sell really well and the “working class” artist if you will. There will always be the art super star, the one that sells extremely well, the one with the cool story of misfortunes who somehow got noticed as a visionary and is now adored by important critics. This artist plays on a different level and sells art outside of any system remotely close to normal economics. These are the folks that spit on canvas and sell it for $100k. The other 99% of artists work more as crafts people and desire to get paid a fair price for their artwork. These folks I would argue are susceptible to market forces (although I will admit that art market forces are like non other!). It seems harder and harder to earn a good living off of art amidst so much inexpensive eye candy, prints, art-expos filled with $40 paintings, etc…

  • kathy kolada

    Re: your new office.
    You mean, not everyone works out of their backpack like me? How odd.

  • Yes Alyson Every painting, or at least some stage of every painting. But I think I’ve got it figured out. If I’m painting for my buyers, a past teacher, galleries or the bestowers of prizes, I’m paralyzed before I’ve even begun. Amazing how fast that goes away when I paint as I did before any of these considerations were in my head.

  • Boy, Boy! What a blog it all boils down to, is lets paint for us and if you make a living from it so be it. We own our art even if we sell it, to some one it never leaves our mind’s,

  • I am trying to figure out my next painting.