Treasures Untold: Jerry Saltz on Instagram

by Anya Kowalchuk

The art world’s relationship to Instagram is frankly fascinating. A quick scan of major galleries on the platform yields professionally curated and meticulously captioned photos, with all the formalities of a real visit. I follow many of these galleries; the MoMA, the Met, the Tate, the New Museum, the Whitney etc. to keep up with current events like major shows, biennials and fairs happening around the world. But the overwhelming sense elicited by these accounts is the same just-beyond-reach feeling of their real-life counterparts. Naturally, there’s a substantial market for art-related Instagram accounts; by its visual nature, the art world is optimally compatible with Instagram as a communicative network. But, what makes Instagram compelling as a visual platform, is its deeply democratic model of two-way communication, crowd sourced images and ultimately, its inclination to remix images via pastiche and caption.

The most prestigious institutions stick to a safe script, posting images of their permanent collections and advertising upcoming exhibits. That said, there are an abundance of accounts who do no such thing. One particular critic refuses any kind of superficial overtures to civility, sharing and saying exactly what’s on his mind.  

Jerry Saltz is an art critic, likely best known for his social media presence. Essentially an outsider to the art world, Saltz had no formal art criticism education, and worked as a long distance truck driver until his foray into writing at 40. Kicked off Facebook in 2015, Saltz enthusiastically took to Instagram (which he already used, though perhaps less vigorously). I first discovered Saltz in high school, when he liked about 15 of a recent graduate’s paintings on Instagram. Of all his social-media-persona merits, this might be his most respectable. Saltz doesn’t just walk the walk, he talks the talk. He uses Instagram as a tool, constantly looking for new and emerging talent. More often than not, the people he scouts are either students, emerging artists, or outsiders to the art world. I actually once sent him a DM asking what critics he liked and he actually responded. Granted, it wasn’t much, but it showed me that his reputation for 2-way communication was not a farce.

But Saltz’s Instagram is so much more than the promise of a returned DM. His penchant for the odd and obscure has led to a mesmerizing, though often bizarre, stream of images. He is well known for parodying familiar images, or dramatically inserting himself in major ongoing politicized debates. In March of this year, Saltz posted the  now-famous Salvator Mundi, with the face of Robert Mueller replacing Christ’s.

You might remember the sale of the Salvator Mundi sparked a major controversy, over the authenticity of the piece, given remarkable stylistic inconsistencies and questionable documentation. Saltz emphatically opposed the hype around the painting, which sold for 450.3 million earlier this year. Believing the canvas to be fake (which frankly, I agree with), Saltz took the moment target the corrupt motives of the bloated art market, denouncing the painting. Similarly, Saltz recently criticized the Metropolitan Museum of Art for receiving significant funding from republican industrialist and climate-change denier David Koch. In a dramatic gesture, Saltz printed a strip of paper resembling marble, and pasted it over the inscription of Koch’s name on a central Met plaza.

Later, Saltz went back and covered Koch’s name again, with a strip reading “Climate Change Denier Plaza.”

Saltz is one of the few critics with a backbone still writing. For a critic who didn’t really begin writing until he was 40, he is remarkably in touch with the contours of social media. Moreover, for a white man over 60, he is remarkably aware of and frequently speaks out against the art world’s propensity to undermine female artists and artists of colour. In a rant against the domination of men in exhibition spaces, he said “In fact, we should ban males from exhibiting for the next two years. Let’s say no man can show, we will only show women, bad women, terrible women, great women, and if the art world dies in those two years, we can kick them out again. But my guess is nothing bad will happen. The art world needs to get out of its own ass, frankly.” Saltz can perhaps best be understood as a force of chaotic good in the world of art criticism. More often than not he ruffles a few feathers, but that seems to be his primary motivation to keep doing what he’s doing.

When he’s not taking aim at corruption and discrimination in art institutions, he is delivering rare and unusual medieval illuminated manuscripts. While these predominantly serve as comic relief (given the violent or simply peculiar nature of their subjects), Saltz is also sharing remarkable documents that may very well be inaccessible to most people following him.

I think we can all learn something from Jerry Saltz. Whether you care about art or not, its clear that Saltz stands up for what he believes in, and doesn’t fall for intimidation tactics. He sticks to what he knows, and he asks questions about what he doesn’t. He may talk a big talk, but he never shies away from walking a big walk. Jerry Saltz is doing the kind of criticism we need right now, calling bullshit on corrupt systems and ardently demanding change. Still, he knows how to have fun while doing it, as the most unlikely internet troll out there.

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