PLAYING IT SAFER
Art is for anyone. It just isn't for everyone. Still, over the past decade, its audience has hugely grown, and that's irked those outside the art world, who get irritated at things like incomprehensibility or money. That's when easy hit jobs on art's bad values appear in mainstream media. A harmless garden-variety example aired last night on CBS's 60 Minutes (I didn't know it was on anymore), as Morley Safer went into high snark.
Nevermind that he did virtually the same piece in 1993, beating up on institutions like the Whitney and mentioning some of the same names with the same pseudo-knowingness. (I think he's got an art bromance brewing with Jeff Koons. This time, at least, he has nice things to say about Cindy Sherman and Kara Walker.) As with that 1993 piece -- which he brought up repeatedly, crowing about its notoriety -- Safer was on about art fairs, artspeak, high prices, collecting as conspicuous consumption, Russian oligarchs who throw money around and the ugliness of the market: endemic stuff we all know about and dislike.
In the days before cable TV and the Internet, the art world would get bent out of shape by such sniping. (I remember tittering when, shortly after the 1993 story aired, I spotted Safer downing free Champagne at a Whitney event. The cravenness!) Nowadays, Safer's cynicism is a good sign: It even performs a service for the art world. He goes to the biggest fish-in-a-barrel scene around, Art Basel Miami Beach, to take a few shots, and (while publicizing the story the other day) complains that there are now "customers who just weren't there twenty years ago." He scornfully said, "Now you have China, Malaysia, India, Russia . . . seriously, Russia."
Ick! Rich people from Malaysia and Russia! (It's like he's trying to stop a posh men's club from integrating. Oh wait, he recently did that, too.) The self-devouring service he performs is being a One-Percenter going after other One-Percenters. He's hating art that only others like him pay much attention to. You go, Morley.
In last night's segment, Safer delivered cliché after cliché, starting with "the emperor's new clothes." Earlier in the week, he was moaning that contemporary art "lacks any irony." (What has he been looking at these past 40 years?) He worried that the "gatekeepers of art" permit such bad work. He doesn't know that there are no "gatekeepers" in the art world anymore, that it's mainly a wonderful chaos. It's like the scene in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen crosses into Cambodia and asks a soldier, "Who's in charge here?" The soldier, unaware he's in a place where old rules no longer apply, panics and replies, "I thought you were!" That's Safer.
Rather than really looking at art, he's focused on the distraction, on celebrity, cash and crassness. Safer fails to see that cash simply does what other cash does and collectors basically buy what other collectors have already bought. He's now doing the same thing: spotting the obvious. It sounds like he doesn't regularly go to scores of local galleries, big and small, parsing out what he sees, month by month, deciding on a case-by-case basis what works, what doesn't, why. He's not finding his own taste; all he's doing is not liking what other people like himself like. Or maybe Safer is just what Colonel Kurtz, in Apocalypse Now, calls "an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill."
Flacking for the piece on Friday, Safer told Charlie Rose and Gayle King, "Even Jerry Saltz says 85 percent of the art we see is bad," adding that he'd suggest that it's 95 percent. Whatever. I wanted to tell him that the percent I suggested doesn't only apply to the present. Eighty-five percent of the art made in the Renaissance wasn't that good either. It's just that we never see it: what is on view in museums has already been filtered for us. Safer doesn't get that the thrill of contemporary art is that we're all doing this filtering together, all the time, in public, everywhere. Moreover, his 85 percent is different from my 85 percent, which is different from yours, and so on down the line until you get to Glenn Beck, who says everything is Communist. No one knows how current art will shake out. This scares some people.
The reason Safer isn't able to have what he calls "an aesthetic experience" with contemporary art is that he fears it. It's too bad, because fear is a fantastic portal for such experiences. Fear tells you important things. Instead, Safer is fixated on art that only wants to be loved. Most art wants attention, but there are many ways of doing this -- from being taken aback by Andy Warhol's clashing colors and sliding silk-screens to being stopped in your tracks by just a dash in a poem by Emily Dickinson.
Art isn't something that only wants love. It's also new forms of energy, skill or beauty. It's the ugliness of Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children. Often art is something we cross the street to avoid, something that makes us uncomfortable, that tells us things we don't want to know, that creates space for uncertainty. Safer goes to the most hellish place on Earth to look for "an aesthetic experience," then gets grumpy when he doesn't have one. It's clownish.
The art world now knows that the more time spent by the Safers out there shooting the wounded, the more time other emerging, on-going, subtler and maturing art will have to take root before the next generation of Safers takes its aim. The longer these folks are distracted by being riled and right, the better. I understand that Safer makes watercolors of motel rooms or something. So he does have ideas about what art should be. Morley, I challenge you to curate a public New York show of 25 to 35 contemporary artists -- those who have emerged since, say, 1985 -- whose work you really approve of, plus a few examples of your own art. I promise to review it, fair and square. Deal?
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.