Art Critic Jerry Saltz On His New Book 'How To Be An Artist' NPR's Scott Simon speaks with New York Times Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz about his new book "How to be an Artist."

Art Critic Jerry Saltz On His New Book 'How To Be An Artist'

Art Critic Jerry Saltz On His New Book 'How To Be An Artist'

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NPR's Scott Simon speaks with New York Times Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz about his new book "How to be an Artist."


Back in times of old when people could just walk into New York's great museums, we went through a couple of rooms at the Museum of Modern Art with Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic of New York Magazine, who stopped us in front of one of the most famed and identifiable paintings on this planet - "Starry Night," the 1889 post-impressionist oil in blues and yellows by Vincent Van Gogh.

By the way, Jerry, shouldn't that be Van Gock (ph)?

JERRY SALTZ: Never say Van Gock (laughter).

SIMON: OK, all right, somebody told me. Forgive us.

Jerry Saltz is celebrated for criticism that opens up paintings for people who've seen but maybe not really looked into a work of art. As Jerry asked questions and nudged responses the week before last, we drew a small crowd.

SALTZ: What do you see? What's the subject matter?

SIMON: It's the sky.

SALTZ: The sky, a cypress tree, an evening.

SIMON: Mmm hmm.

SALTZ: OK, now stop seeing the subject matter. And what do you see?

SIMON: Swirls.

SALTZ: Swirls. So you see shapes...

SIMON: Colors.

SALTZ: ...Colors, brush strokes...

SIMON: Brush strokes.

SALTZ: And yet, Van Gogh has done something that's never been done before. He's making you see all of these things simultaneously.

SIMON: Jerry Saltz has a book that's come out just as millions of Americans are at home with time and maybe inspiration to create something we can see, read, hear or touch. He calls it "How To Be An Artist."

You say, just start.

SALTZ: Yeah. For anyone listening, I have no degrees. I didn't go to school. I started as an artist. I became a long-distance truck driver After demons spoke to me and said, you can't do this, you're not good enough, you're an imposter - all the things that all the people listening to this tell themselves all day long. And so I became a long-distance truck driver and then came back and thought, I've got to be in the art world. And so I thought I'll become an art critic.

SIMON: You really were a long-distance truck driver?

SALTZ: I was. My CB handle was the Jewish Cowboy. And I used to get on the CB and go, shalom, partner.

SIMON: (Laughter).

SALTZ: And no one ever spoke to me.

SIMON: Throughout this book, this good short book, you emphasize the value of imagination over technique.

SALTZ: Right.

SIMON: Let me replace the word technique with craft. You do need craft, don't you?

SALTZ: You do. But every person is born creative. It's a survival mechanism. Yes, you need a craft, a skill, but then once you perfect this, you have to practice it, work, but then you have to redefine the definition of skill. If you become just a person, let's say, that can draw a perfect face, well, all you have is a certain amount of dexterity. What I want to see is how Scott Simon draws a face. I want to see Scott Simon in the portrait he does of somebody else. That's what we see in great art. We see a face, a work of art and something much deeper, bigger, more complex, something that changes our ideas of beauty, skill, imagination, subject matter, yada, yada.

SIMON: You suggest draw something.

SALTZ: Right.

SIMON: Then try to draw it in different styles.

SALTZ: That's right. If you want to draw, again, a face, now draw it the way an Egyptian would draw it - in that clear, perfect profile. Now try to draw it like Picasso. That would mean seeing every side from every angle at the same time. Now draw it, say, like a Japanese print, which would be all flowery and there would be elephants in the face, and there would be people flying around. What it's showing you is that there are a million ways to do every tiny move in what you're doing. And that it's all open all the time if people would just given themselves permission to be and do whatever they want to do.

SIMON: I'm imagining people listening to this interview, maybe living under self-quarantine. I wonder if they'll pick up of a pencil and a pad and start sketching.

SALTZ: Pick up anything and start sketching. Your iPhone - take all those ridiculous pictures you took - all of that is a form of drawing. All the funny little songs you thought, oh, that's got a great lyric, those are the beginning of ideas. Every dream you have is a possible little bit of an idea. And all of that can be put into use - all of your obsessions. Yes, you like to watch dog videos. Well, maybe you might want to make one. So what if it's not that good? I'm telling you the lessons I've learned in a lifetime of doing it and being terrified of doing it and a lifetime of talking to real artists. The only way to take the curse of fear away from working - the only way is to get to work.

SIMON: Jerry Saltz, former long-distance truck driver and Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic. His book - "How To Be An Artist." Jerry, thanks so much.

SALTZ: Thank you.


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