How to be a quitter

54

Dear Artist,

“Tell your own story and you will be interesting,” wrote Jerry Saltz last week, borrowing from Louise Bourgeois. He used her quote as Number 2 in his 33 Rules for How To Be An Artist, an article he wrote for New York Magazine, the publication for which he’s been the senior art critic and columnist since 2006. Some of Jerry’s other tips: “Prize vulnerability, make an enemy of envy, learn to deal with rejection, and accept that you will likely be poor.” In his Rules, Jerry is full of idealism, artist myth-making and scrappiness. Living on what he calls, “the other side of the critical screen,” Jerry feels he’s in a special spot to help artists be — and stay — artists.

Saltz-feature

Jerry Saltz, ca.1976
in front of his drawings
photo: Carol Diehl

Jerry Saltz grew up in the Chicago suburbs with a leather-strap wielding father, Polish Catholic stepmother and a couple of up-to-no-good stepbrothers. Art was not a part of the equation, and his biological mother, who had committed suicide when Jerry was ten, was made invisible. After a few turns at petty crime and the subsequent beatings by his father, Jerry enrolled at The School of Art Institute of Chicago and moved into a cold-water, 6-floor walk-up studio in the city. There, he bushwhacked a path to righteous re-invention by way of what he felt was a new language and identity. He made hundreds of pastel and pencil crayon drawings — admitting he was too lazy and insecure to learn how to paint — and worked on what he thought would be a life-long calling: illustrating 100 cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy, complete with wall-based, opening-and-closing alter pieces. Jerry toiled at his masterwork while eating from a hotplate and showering at friends’ places — for a dozen years. He also showed in Chicago and New York and received critical, positive reviews in not-unimportant art rags. Jerry was living the dream.

Saltz_alter-piece

—altarpiece inspired by the second canto, depicting Beatrice’s meeting with Virgil
photo: New York Magazine

“On the outside, things were great,” he said. “On the inside I was in agony, terrified, afraid of failing, anxious about what to do next and how to do it. I started not working for longer and longer periods. Hiding it. Then not hiding it. Until all I had left was calling myself an artist.” Jerry says he listened to the demons. “I never made it to the inside, I never made it further. I quit making art in the early 80s and felt miserable, became a long-distance truck driver,” he said. “Behold the failed artist.”

Saltz_artwork-3

artwork by Jerry Saltz

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “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.” (Jerry Saltz)

“You never fail until you stop trying.” (Albert Einstein)

“I miss art terribly.” (Jerry Saltz)

Esoterica: Jerry Saltz, after a couple of sell-out shows, winning a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and using the money to move to New York, was eaten alive by self-doubt and envy. He dropped his art making, never to pick it up again. He started writing about art for The Village Voice and, later, Art in America, Flash Art, Frieze, Modern Painters and New York Magazine. Today, a winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Jerry says he approaches his writing and teaching as a failed artist; suspending cynicism and maintaining the belief that every artist means everything she’s doing, sincerely, even if the end result is not his cup of tea. “I didn’t have the ability and fortitude. That’s why I always look for it in others — root for it in others — even when the work is ugly or idiotic. I want every artist, good and bad, to clear away the demons that stopped me, feel empowered, and be able to make their own work so we can see the ‘real’ them.” Jerry’s other tips for being an artist include: “Work, work, work, Art is a form of knowing yourself, Don’t be embarrassed, Start with a pencil and Be delusional.”

Saltz_artwork

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Being an artist also made me realize that I wasn’t built for the type of loneliness that comes from art. Art is slow, physical, resistant, material-based, and involves an ongoing commitment to doing the same thing differently over and over again in the studio.” (Jerry Saltz)

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54 Comments

  1. Dear Sara,
    Thank you for this one. It means a lot to me.
    Even though I volunteer at my local gallery, I have not picked up a brush in a very long time. Perhaps this will make me try again!
    All the best to you for the holidays.

    • Dear Diana, I, for one, hope you will pick up your brush again. You do have something to offer of your own. You may want to pick up a copy of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artists Way, to support yourself in finding your way back to your work. Good luck to you.

    • Hi Diana,
      Your email broke my heart. Diana, just pick up that brush or pencil or whatever media you like and just paint for yourself alone. Don’t do it with anyone else in mind at all – just to exercise the desire you have in yourself. No-one need ever even see what you are doing. Immerse yourself in the sheer fun, freedom and joy of ‘colouring’ and picture making that we all had as young children and who knows where this honest and inherent ‘playtime’, so to speek, may lead to in your future. Above, all, be lighthearted about it, ‘play’ with art and paint ‘for yourself’ ! Just paint – t’ heck with the rest of the world’ and what you may think that they think! Have fun !

  2. When I was very young, my father took a few of my sketches to an art professor, asking if I had the talent to become a professional artist. The professor said, that’s the wrong question. The right one is: does she have the desire, discipline, persistence, and passion. This is a difficult life, riddled with roadblocks and obstacles, not least of which is plaguing self doubt. An excellent work ethic is essential, along with a tough skin, a sensitive heart, and the ability to love deeply whatever one paints. Empathy is mandatory in painting, and problematic in life. But no other life- no other vision nor focus- provides such riches for the soul.
    Thank you Sara, for the riches you share. I miss your Dad.

    • Loved your reply to Sara’s letter. I have the desire, discipline, persistence and passion and work ethic. I’m still working on the tough skin thing and I’m now 81 years old.

      • Hey 81 year old artist. I am 75 and sold my first four paintings at an art show. Age means zilch nada zero nothing. I think I’m good for the next ten years at least. All the best to you.

      • It’s tough feeling the creativity we once had when we see most of our life is behind us. I’m a few years behind you but not many. I’ve worked as a professional artist of some kind most of my adult life but now I find it difficult to pick up a pencil or brush or to make a meaningful photograph after working 31 years as a photojournalist. I felt a spark reading Catherine’s reply to Diana’s note. Maybe tomorrow I’ll make a mark.

    • Thanks for sharing Nancy,

      Your father recognized talent and potential in you even at an early age. How fortunate that he was able to find a professor who imparted such sage wisdom and insight to both him and you. I’m sure that is has helped frame and guide your expectations and efforts as an artist.

      Jack

  3. I don’t know of one artist that does not struggle with working on the next art piece and staying motivated. A lot of self-talk goes on for those that stay active along with working in groups. Very interesting that he has remained a critic, but never to pick up his art again.

  4. I love this letter Sara. It reminds me of something an elderly friend and art collector said to me yesterday in her southern drawl, “Sharon, most of the art out there today looks like what kids did at church camp. There is no quality in anything anymore, and everything these days is about instant gratification.” I am happy she still collects my work.

    • So your collector would completely disagree with Salz’s thesis. The collector would expect classically based art, not work that is personal and contemporary. Am I getting this right?

  5. I had the good fortune to hear Jerry Saltz talk at the University of South Florida a year or so ago. He was insightful, thoughtful, knowledgeable and wryly, delightfully, willfully hilarious. There are way too many artist wannabes — including many who the gallery and museum worlds promote in the name of $$$ and keeping their own careers alive — wasting time (theirs and mine), money, materials and space; and way too few who should be seen beyond their own garage. Jerry Saltz found his way to his real calling… making art and the art world clearer, more interesting, all the while skewering people and work who should be skewered. Come on Jerry, do your own public TV art show; it would be great!

  6. Elaine hartley on

    Just I was beginning to linger and doubt once again your brilliant post appears. I am so grateful for this wisdom; and that you follow through no matter what you are experiencing! Thank you Sara!

  7. Inspiring piece Sara. Art is not for the faint-hearted. It requires dedication, hard work, patience and the ability to keep up with our own self belief – not in an arrogant way but by accepting there is no other life to lead – this is it!

  8. What an interesting story about Jerry Staltz. From what I read in your post Sara, he has made an incredible contribution to the art world. And yet, he didn’t do what made his heart sing – that is, make art. From where I sit that is very very sad. I wish he hadn’t been a quitter. Granted, I don’t have to sell my art in order to live. Now that I have started to paint in my senior years, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have my passion for painting stilted by outside factors and influences. It makes me giddy with joy to turn out a piece that will make someone happy. And make me happy. Jerry! Pick up the brush and paint!!! Make yourself happy! Do it for you!

  9. Amen, Michael Lewin. Thank you, Sara. As we draw near the end of another year, I thank you for your dedication and love for your readers. I almost always come away with something positive after reading Twice Weekly. All the best in 2019.

  10. Dear Jerry Saltz- Having encountered your critiques from time to time- I still didn’t know your back story. So
    I have some mixed feelings. For those of us artists who started early and never stopped- even while being regularly distracted by the need to make money doing something else- I’m glad your writing got you here. But giving up on your visual art is still problematical. I’ve got art from high school on. Pictures of work from 1973. Consistent work from 1977 on. A resume with well over 100 exhibits- many juried- multiple awards- many one-man shows and any number of international exhibits. And a consistent expectation of selling my art while sacrificing everything just to keep working. And I did all of it while critical people in everyone’s life (like parents) often actively got in the way. So- whatever. The odds against us all really are impossible.
    I turned 65 this year. I’m having dental problems and other physical problems requiring surgery. I’ve been forced to apply for social security not knowing if I’d ever paid enough into it to get anything back. I just had to not only apply to medicare- but also the Colorado Indigent Care Program for assistance. Last year I broke even. This year I’ve sold 3 pieces- I’m months behind in my rent and facing the possibility of eviction. And several months ago my hand-me-down computer died. I finally have a new second-hand computer but some things are lost. And with ongoing money issues my work has ground to a halt- something that hasn’t happened in decades. I’m tired. I hurt. And I’m finding it hard to care.
    There’s something inherently wrong with the cultural system out there. It needs to get fixed.

    • J. Bruce!! You turned 65 this year! Don’t you know by now that you are a survivor?! It so doesn’t matter where support comes from. Watch for signs. You will be okay. You must believe that. Wishing the best for you.

      Verna

    • I am sorry that you are presently experiencing difficulty, but the Consistent Expectation of selling your art must have been pleasant. What’s changed culturally? Or is it you that’s changed?

      • Bonnie J Eldredge- I have changed. The older I’ve gotten the more difficult it’s become to go out into the world and engage. Of course this partly hinges on money. My sales have always happened through personal connections. Never have I ever had a cold sale to a complete stranger happen right off a gallery wall. And I’ve had work travel the country and even visit Europe/Ukraine on more than one occasion. I’ve always gotten that work back. So when money has me stressed it’s become far more difficult for me to go out into the world with the intent to make new friends and find new collectors.
        So- my mental state- and the likelihood that I’m somewhere on the autism scale- making me more of a hermit and less of a gregarious and happy person who loves to socialize with just everyone- has made making those personal connections so much more difficult. Half my sales last year came from facebook connections in other parts of the country from where I actually live. And 2 of the 3 sales this year fit that pattern. So I don’t actually know what to do about that.

    • Sorry to hear this. Physical pain is no joke….but maybe your art will save you… try expressing that pain in your work.?

    • Verna Korkie- a survivor? Just for getting to 65? I survived 10 years of physical- emotional- mental and spiritual abuse and constant threats and intimidation from the 3rd grade through high school. I just barely graduated- and then moved out. But I was severely mentally ill and didn’t even know it. I then survived for another 20 years walking my creative path- and a dozen years into that I put myself on my full-time art path. And then I survived a period where I was actually starving- and a suicidal depression and watching hundreds of friends and acquaintances pass over from AIDS. I more or less finally healed the mental illness. And then I recommitted myself to my art path. But 30 years later I’m not surviving- and the depression was never any further behind me than one backward step. Right now I’m in over my head- sucked back into the only part that still exists- the situational depression related to money.
      Bonnie J Eldredge- I’ve always made art 100% for me. But I’ve also always made art 100% to go away from me and find its new home and live its own life. I have no attachment disorder related to letting it go. Pleasant? What artist doesn’t think like I do? Oh never-mind… so many of them the number is uncountable. Which is of course part of the larger problem. If we don’t have a consistent expectation that our work will sell- why are we creating it? But you are right because something has changed culturally- and it’s destroying this country. So those of us who are always on the bottom of the food chain are in even worse trouble. 2016 was bad. 2018 has been worse. I guess 2017 was the anomaly. I broke even.
      Linda S- My health issues are no joke- but they are physical rather than illness related. And easily solvable with enough money. Money I don’t have. I prided myself on the fact that no matter how much pain I was in- you couldn’t see it in the work. I think I’ll stay on that path.
      Many thanks for your responses. They were unexpected.

  11. “Why put of until today what I could have put off until tomorrow?” I said that, but it was quite some time ago.

  12. Dear J. Bruce Wilcox:

    Really brave of you to bare your soul and describe your life now compared to what went before. You say that you’ve sold three works so far. I haven’t sold any this year. I’m wondering if “this is it” and it’s time to retire at age 86. But, this letter has been very encouraging along with the comments. It’s really helped my attitude and, frankly, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do except paint and do gardening.

  13. Pingback: Keep on… |

  14. How terribly unfortunate to have been so demonized by self-doubts. This is a really sad story about one who endured all sorts of negative things in his life starting at a very young age losing his mother. Creating his writing skills about art, I guess, was a good thing for him, kind of a substitute if you will, although he still misses “making ” art.

  15. I’ve read this essay and the responses with great interest. I turned 90 in October and I honestly feel that art (for fifty years) has done much to kept me alive this long. After my husband died in 2000, I wrote a memoir and four novels, while continuing to paint. One art form feeds off another. While recently hospitalized, I realized that life is filled with ups and downs; the ups keep us going and the downs are another chance to get it right. Perhaps never getting it right is what keeps us at the easel. Enthusiasm for what we do is the best medicine for a long life. So, artists young and old, never lose your enthusiasm for creating art in one form another. Happy New Year to all.

  16. Jerry did not discuss what contributed to his doubt and ultimately deciding that he was a failure. I have seen this many times a tender plant who is trampled on by jealous others and competitors. This world can be very cruel and hard and not nurturing. I’ve experienced it most of my life in all the arts dance, painting and music. A lot of envious peers who are really hard on sensitive artistic types who have not developed a thick skin yet. Happened to me my first year in college being insulted in front of a class of my peers in a figure drawing class, so much so that I dropped out crushed and didn’t paint again for ten years. I do have talent and have been told many times by other artists and it brings me the most joy and pleasure when I get a good one. But I’ve seen so many teachers crush young people’s talents and skills just because they aren’t as developed. Not sure what the answer is. I sort of feel like I’ll be an Emily Dickinson discovered post mortem.

  17. great letter. Thanks for sharing it. It is comforting to know how many artists suffer from self doubt. I know that sentence sounds wrong because we wish all people confidence in their work. Knowing self doubt exists widely helps make the down daus easier to bear.

  18. Dear J Bruce. Your words are my words. I just opened my show, works way out of my comfort zone, difficult works, that my gallery, even though wonderful and supportive, have acknowledged are unlikely to sell. And I am deep in debt, every bone and tooth aches, I feel very much alone, a deep aloneness from having gone deep within. I am 53 and old lady tired. Yesterday evening as I walked through town thinking how to make 40 euros stretch to food and at least a pint of beer, I passed a lovely little house, the light on inside but the curtains not yet drawn. Warm and neat and well furnished, and I tried not to wish for such a thing as my own bedroom and hearth. I happened to be introduced to a lovely young woman later that evening when I allowed myself that pint of beer, who smiled brightly as she was congratulated on her masters degree in law. Yes, she loved her work, was made a partner. I could see she was secure and happy and shone with health and a kind of sureness. She had learned all the rules, now administers the rules and is handsomely rewarded by the world man has made. And I have followed no rule but have sought and reached for impossible understanding and seeing with my blind eyes and will be punished and abandoned by the world man had made. No one admires willful poverty. And I woke this morning with no love in my heart for art. It eats alive the maker and offers to the consumer a life worth living, a world made beautiful and wonderous in poetry and film and paintings and music and theater, for how dull is your money when there is no art to make the heart soar, art that reaches forward and expands the boundaries of the conscious mind . But yes there is something wrong, when the maker is sacrificed. There are so many the world can afford to loose a few. Plenty more where you and I came from. Music is free. To walk into a gallery and see is free. We want our art free and our legal fees and our medical bills as expensive as all hell. Art is a living thing. No amount of money in the world can make a living thing. Money deals in dead stuff, in turning living things into dead things for consumption. Dam right there is something wrong with this picture. But even though I am bone weary and old lady tired, I am also a little bit proud. I feel the warmth of my own courage. At my opening the other night a gentleman approached me who had just been to two other openings of well established male artists, and he told me that they both has produced works of flowers. beautiful paintings no doubt, perhaps even for the Christmas “market”, and when I walked in here he said, it was like being smacked in the face. I don’t know what is going on in these works, he said. And so we talked for as good 15 minutes and he thanked me when he left because he was going home with something he had not expected and did not have when he walked in the room. And this morning, when I ask myself, was it worth it, I think yes. Yes. To me and to him and to anyone who is reaching forward into the wider space, to all that is outside of us. So that we grow. We live to grow. We make art to know more and to grow. Money cannot make that happen and so, it simply ignores what it cannot trade in. J. Bruce, thank you, with all of my heart, thank you. You are the gift in the world because you give voice to the greater consciousness that is trying to communicate with us. Money cannot buy it. Money is too small. Stand tall and carry your suffering with pride. We will all die by way of the body breaking. No amount of money will stop that either. And when you do you will do so knowing your life was about truly living, about growing and making more, pain and suffering be dammed, you will know yourself for the gem you are , polished to a high shine by your relentless efforts, and you will be rewarded by the bliss of that knowing. Be brave. keep going. Much love to you. XC

    • Beautiful letter. In a world where the English language is rarely properly used this letter is refreshing. It gives me hope that one day the elegance and subtly of the language will return.

    • Well written Catherine, Your loving empathetic encouragement to J Bruce may touch and inspire many others to press on. You press on too! Jack

    • Adelle Leiblein on

      Catherine Barron – what a grand and heartening reply you’ve written. I feel your heart in this. You have a gift for empathy and a remarkable skill in offering solace. Your note I’ve read over and over…and I am appropriating it, reading it as if it had been written to and for me! The language of your reply shows a skilled writer as well as a full human being behind its prose. Thank you. So inspiring, I think it should be published as a poetry/prose broadside! A different aesthetic from the Desiderata or Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, your piece stands on its own as sage, loving wisdom. Thank you. And thanks to Bruce as well, who shared his circumstances with frankness. Two voices calling out in the wilderness. Blessings on you both.

    • Many thanks- Catherine Barron. As others have noted- your response is extraordinary. I’m oddly happy and somewhat bemused that my comment triggered it!
      So glad you made the work you made. That single conversation was worth your whole lifetime of creating. I’ve lived for those conversations. And I’m so glad you didn’t make your work for the *christmas* market. What retail hell has done to this season? Horrifying.
      We tell our story- where we can- if we can. I can. So I do. But to tell a story that comes from decades of struggle- most people don’t want to hear that story. It is too painful for them because it mirrors back their emptiness. Emptiness based in never following their heart- their passion- but instead following the directives of society- and parents- and anybody who tells them ART is not a career option- not even a possibility. Some of us simply can’t do anything less with our lives.
      These lives of ours are supposed to be a gift. A gift to us- and if we follow our hearts and manifest our gifts- our lives are supposed to be a gift for everyone. How is it that we’ve come so far yet simply can’t grasp that the conditions that produce suffering and depression really aren’t the optimal conditions fro producing inspired ART. Struggle defeats. A lifetime of nothing but obstacles delivers ART drenched in pain. Who in their right mind would think this is a viable condition?
      I have little hope for the immediate future. Not just for me- but for society at large. With art and drama and music programs being deleted from curriculums everywhere- we’re producing a generation of brain-dead robots addicted to their technologies.
      But I was never in any position to work a corporate job until retirement- to only then start to produce. My work is labor-intensive. If I hadn’t been creating the entire time- no work would exist. Thanks for your response. Said without ego- we are the leading edge of love- of creativity- of community- of humanity. We have a reason to exist. So many never even figure out why they are here. You have. Congratulations on your very successful show. Successful for all the right reasons. I hope someone feels compelled to purchase and own some of it- if not all of it.

  19. Thanks, Sara, for this reminder that most artists have insecurity and self-doubt. Just yesterday I was thinking: “really I am more of an appreciator of art than an artist. I love to read about artists, spend hours at a gallery. I’m not disciplined enough to be an artist. Who am I fooling?” And yet I need to paint. Too much my motivation is making art for others – making art that will sell.

  20. Helen Stephenson on

    I have learned much for this letter and from all of your replies. Thank you all. I will carry on because of you.

  21. Sara, This one must speak to the heart of almost everyone who is or would be known as an artist. Thank you again for taking up the mantle, and continuing your father’s legacy. I’m sure he is proud of the way you honor him by doing such a service to the art community.

    And Jerry, what gives? Thank you for giving so much to so many with your writing and contributions. Why not give a little to yourself with your art, even if only for the sheer joy you may rediscover in the experience of creating it. Jack

  22. I was touched by this article and all the interesting replies.

    When I was choosing a career,my father said the me, “Whatever you do, do NOT be an artist”So I said to him,” Is being a designer OK?”Today I had a book signed by Robert Bateman, and he said the same thing. He didn’t sell anything until he was 35, and he worked as an Art teacher. So I worked all my life as a set designer in film and television, and then at 60, I took up painting full time And I have never been happier.Sometimes you have to wait ,but going into my studio, “A Room of One’s Own” is a great joy to me. I was 60 when I had it built

  23. I’m not a painter, but a woodworker…a craftsman… A creator of wooden toy trains. Handcrafted wooden toy trains. I’m constantly fighting the self doubt you’ve described. I began making there 5 years ago. Designed them myself. In those five years I’ve sold 2 or 3 a year. Advertised, website, ebay,….the works. Silence. I’m alone in the shop making beautiful toys nobody wants. Its an ache that won’t stop, but like those of you who paint I can’t give up. Is it Van Gogh who sold one painting in his lifetime?

  24. Don Berger- sharing my story- baring my soul- has been a part of my experience for a long time. Of course- I had an acquaintance call me a victim for doing so. But there is a need for us to share our stories. It’s part of the larger communal creative experience. We can’t glamorize our existence. It will never change if we just pretend everything is okey dokey when it isn’t. I believe in making it. Not faking it.
    Last year I sold a dozen pieces. I can’t live on 3. Sorry. That’s just bottom line stuff. My existence consists of rent- a phone bill- a power bill- food- and bus fare. I do almost nothing else. Unfortunately- last year my rent went up by 1/3rd- so it’s been harder this year. On top of that are the multiple physical age-related health issues. And I really lived 30 years longer than most of my friends. So when the negativity outweighs the positivity…
    I don’t plan on quitting. I just plan on leaving when I can’t move forward any longer.

  25. Wonderful article, Sara! We all struggle. I set my artistic goals aside for three years after a call to ministry, and found that when I emerged from seminary, that the drive was still there – helped immensely by the experience of seminary itself. Not for everyone, true, but I found that so much of the overburden we are talking about here was simply gone. Immense self-examination, not just of what is whispering in your ear, but why and where it came from helps immensely. Now I can pursue my painting, although at a later age, when health necessities of an older spouse and my own more limited strength weigh in, but they are piffle compared with the agonizing self doubt I encountered through my sixties! Wish me luck.

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