The 3 Most Surprising Rules from Jerry Saltz’s Opus, “How to Be An Artist”
The Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic penned the cover story of New York magazine this week, in which he doles out 33 lessons for aspiring artists
For the cover of this week’s issue of New York magazine Jerry Saltz, the publication’s art critic, transforms into Salvador Dalí, Frida Kahlo, and Andy Warhol. The trio of homages accompanies his sprawling manifesto, entitled “How to Be An Artist,” which is based on spending a lifetime surrounded by art.
Inside the magazine, Saltz breaks his advice into six steps and 33 rules. The story idea came to Saltz after he wrote about his experience as a “failed artist” in a magazine feature last year. (The story was a core piece of the body of work that won him the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in criticism.) Since its publication, people kept asking him questions about being an artist. “So I started thinking about it more, making notes, writing things down. I had scraps of paper all over the house,” he revealed in a statement. “Then, in a 36-hour straight fever dream this summer I wrote a 26-page, single-space memo about all this and sent it unread to my editor [David Wallace-Wells] and the editor in chief [Adam Moss]. Luckily I wasn’t fired. We just boiled it all down.”
Within Saltz’s lengthy guide for aspiring artists are some practical lessons that any artist or creative has likely heard again and again, like find your own voice and accept that you’ll be poor. But there were a few unexpected gems on the list as well. Below, we picked the three most surprising tips from Saltz’s opus.
1. Feel free to imitate.
According to Saltz, we all start as copycats making pastiches of other artist’s work. “Fine! Do that,” he says. “However, when you do this, focus, start to feel the sense of possibility in making all these things your own—even when the ideas, tools, and moves come from other artists.”
2. Know what you hate.
“Make a list of three artists whose work you despise. Make a list of five things about each artist that you do not like; be as specific as possible. Often there’s something about what these artists do that you share. Really think about this.”
3. All art is identity art.
Saltz claims that because all art is made by someone, all art is identity art. “And don’t worry about being ‘political’ enough,” he continues. “Kazimir Malevich painted squares during World War I; Mark Rothko made fuzzy squares during World War II; Agnes Martin drew grids on canvas during the Vietnam War. All art is a confession, more or less oblique.”