New York magazine’s senior art critic, Jerry Saltz, has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. His winning article was “My Life as a Failed Artist,” an essay published last April about his failure at being an artist, the disappointment that came with it, and how it ultimately turned him into a critic.
My Life As a Failed Artist
Decades after giving up the dream for good, an art critic returns to the work he’d devoted his life to, then abandoned — but never really forgot
Link to full article: http://www.vulture.com/2017/04/jerry-saltz-my-life-as-a-failed-artist.html
It pains me to say it, but I am a failed artist. “Pains me” because nothing in my life has given me the boundless psychic bliss of making art for tens of hours at a stretch for a decade in my 20s and 30s, doing it every day and always thinking about it, looking for a voice to fit my own time, imagining scenarios of success and failure, feeling my imagined world and the external one merging in things that I was actually making. Now I live on the other side of the critical screen, and all that language beyond words, all that doctor-shamanism of color, structure, and the mysteries of beauty — is gone.
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, when my editors suggested that I write about my life as a young artist. I was terrified. Also, honestly, elated. No matter how long it’d been — no matter how long I’d come to think of myself fully as a critic, working through the same problems of expression from the other side — I admit I felt a deep-seated thrill hearing someone wanted to look at my work.
Of course, I often think that everyone who isn’t making art is a failed artist, even those who never tried. I did try. More than try. I was an artist. Even sometimes a great one, I thought.
I wasn’t totally deluded. I was a lazy smart-aleck who felt sorry for himself, resented anyone with money, and felt the world owed me a living. For a few years, I attended classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, although I didn’t always pay tuition and got no degree. But I did meet artists there and saw that staying up late with each other is how artists learn everything — developing new languages and communing with one another.
In 1973, I was 22, full of myself, and frustrated that I wasn’t already recognized for my work. I walked into my roommate Barry Holden’s room in our apartment, 300 feet from Wrigley Field, and said, “Let’s us and our friends start an artist-run gallery.” He said, “Okay.” It was great! People took notice; articles were written; I was interviewed by bigwig New York critic Peter Schjeldahl; I met hundreds of artists and felt part of a huge community that I fancied I was near the center of. For years, I lived across the street from the gallery, in a huge cold-water sixth-floor non-heated walk-up loft that had a $150 monthly rent. The place had previously been a storage facility for Jerry Lewis’s muscular-dystrophy foundation, and my furniture was mostly what had been abandoned there: a wooden bench for a couch, a huge drafting table in the center of the space, a hot plate, buckets on the floor to catch the leaks from the ceiling, a pail to fill for pouring down the toilet to make it work, and a mattress on the floor. I was an artist.
By 1978, I’d had two solo shows at our gallery, N.A.M.E. (called that because we couldn’t think of a name). Both shows were part of a gigantic project that I began the day before Good Friday in 1975. I was illustrating the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy — starting with “Inferno.” Both exhibitions sold out; museums bought my work; I got a National Endowment for the Arts Grant — the huge sum of $3,000, which, with an artist-girlfriend’s help, enabled me to move to New York. I was reviewed favorably in Artforum and the Chicago papers. My work was in the proto–Barbara Gladstone gallery in New York as well as shown by the great Rhona Hoffman in Chicago. I was delirious. Mice crawled on me at night; I showered at other people’s houses and had no heat. I didn’t care. I had everything I needed.
But then I looked back, into the abyss of self-doubt. I erupted with fear, self-loathing, dark thoughts about how bad my work was, how pointless, unoriginal, ridiculous. “You don’t know how to draw,” I told myself. “You never went to school. Your work has nothing to do with anything. You’re not a real artist. Your art is irrelevant. You don’t know art history. You can’t paint. You aren’t a good schmoozer. You’re too poor. You don’t have enough time to make your work. No one cares about you. You’re a fake. You only draw and work small because you’re too afraid to paint and work big.”
Every artist does battle, every day, with doubts like these. I lost the battle. It doomed me. But also made me the critic I am today.