Art has the power to change our lives. For many, becoming an artist is a lifelong dream. But how to make it happen? In How to Be an Artist, Jerry Saltz, one of the art world’s most celebrated and passionate voices, offers an indispensable handbook for creative people of all kinds.
In these pages, artists emerge as beings who ‘hate to be asked what their work means’, ‘led by something outside’ themselves, ‘material poets’, with the imagination as a ‘creed’. There is something of the post-Vasari myth of the tortured artist-philosopher in these descriptions, and a note of adulation that veers close to reverence ... For all its talk of freedom, the book is undeniably doctrinal. For instance, rule 40 states: ‘Don’t define yourself by a single medium.’ But what if you want to? ... And while the examples in this book leap from Indian kolam painting to Manet, implying that its messages are universal, the illustrations selected are governed by a distinct visual aesthetic. We see little visual reference to the artistic traditions of medieval Europe, for instance, or east Asia ... Overall, How to be an Artist has much to recommend it. Saltz is to be applauded for his direct confrontation of issues of personal trauma, systemic sexism and financial hardship – and for proclaiming, in the fifth tip, that ‘All art comes from love’. Joy is palpable in these pages. We are told to connect with our raw emotions, to admire the constant creative work our artist’s brain is undertaking, to learn from our mistakes and to shake off criticism. Saltz even tells us to dance. We need such thinking right now.
That budding Giorgio Morandi will be disappointed to find nothing from Saltz on how to stretch a canvas or what the correct proportions of oil medium to pigment should be. They will, however, discover a surprising amount of solid advice ... His advice is sensible...and addresses issues around parenthood that women artists face. He gets gnomic ... The artists he cites are often mid-century heroic moderns, which makes How to Be an Artist feel like it should be titled How to Be an American Artist. But, throughout, his counsel frequently rings true ... Saltz has not written a book for insiders, but for the novice enthusiast – something all of us have been at one time. Occasionally, he alludes to his life...In these brief sentences, his tone softens, yet how these life-defining moments join up remains unclear. I wanted more, because the best self-help books for artists, in which the most solace and encouragement can be found, are biographies. Artists’ life stories teach that all careers are messy. That everyone thinks they’ve started too late, gets embarrassed, gets ripped off, gets nowhere. That there’s always someone across the room who looks like they’re doing better than everyone else but who is privately wracked with doubt, asking themselves: ‘How to be an artist?’
Though the book presents plenty of threads to follow if the reader wants to go deeper, it doesn’t fully connect the activities of the artist with their roots in art history or conceptual innovation ... This version of living like an artist evokes something closer to corporatized mindfulness, a heightened attentiveness to the world for the sake of problem-solving (and maybe renting a loft). Art here suggests self-discovery and self-expression without risk; creativity means things you can Instagram. Throughout the book, Saltz presents an uneven mix of pat statements on the nature of art, overenthusiastic self-help...and a handful of hard-earned critical insights ... The book is better as a guide to looking at and cultivating your own taste in art than actually making it ... Not to begrudge anyone a long-standing position within an institution, but I’d rather hear about money from the bevy of younger art writers who can only dream of a staff title or column when a few New York City staff critics have reigned for so long ... The purpose of art here seems to be as entertainment or luxury, a passionate hobby, not a force that actively shapes the way we see our society, what we expect from our lives, and thus the world itself.