Jerry Saltz during Vulture Festival LA, November 2017.
Photo: John Sciulli / Stringer

The Top 10 Quotes from Jerry Saltz’s Art Talk at the ‘Davos of the Berkshires’

The Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic joined Henry Kissinger, Elisabeth Sussman, and Lesley Stahl at the annual KentPresents

“What does art do? What is art? What’s it for?” These were some of the questions posed by New York magazine’s Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic, Jerry Saltz, on Saturday at the ideas festival KentPresents. Saltz was one of over 75 speakers invited to speak by hosts Donna and Benjamin Rosen. The annual festival, whose motto is “Ideas work best when shared,” brings together leaders in the fields of art, science, and politics for three days of thought-provoking panels and discussions. Now in its fourth year, the event is quickly becoming a magnet for national and international luminaries, including Henry Kissinger, Harold Varmus, Wynton Marsalis, Elisabeth Sussman, and the dance theater company Pilobolus.

“It’s hard to go through our everyday lives and seek out true, discerning knowledge,” said Donna, a Whitney Museum board member who cofounded the program with her husband, Benjamin, the former chairman and CEO of Compaq. “So, since we have access to that, we thought, that’s what we would like to define at KentPresents.” Asked why it’s different, Donna said, “Intimacy. You can sit down and have a meal with a Nobel Prize winner.”

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Panels this year covered an incredible range of subjects from immunotherapy and “designer babies” to U.S.-China relations and cryptocurrencies. There was also a discussion between Elisabeth Sussman, the Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum; artist Wardell Milan; and gallerist Jeffrey Fraenkel on the work of Diane Arbus. But among all the stimulating talks, the one that we can’t stop thinking about is the one with Jerry Saltz.

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For those who couldn’t attend the sold-out event, we’ve rounded up our favorite quotes from Saltz’s talk, “The Contemporary Art World; the Good, the Bad, and the Very Bad; Tips, Lessons, and Warnings.”

1. “I’m going to talk about art as if you know nothing. I know nothing—that’s a thrilling place to be, because really, in front of every single work of art you’ve ever seen, you have never seen it before. And that to me is an amazing thing that we discount all the time. We begin to take that thrill, that otherness, that silence, even if it turns out to be crap, for granted. And I don’t want you ever to do that. Don’t think beforehand you know what’s good or bad, because you really don’t. When I first listened to the Talking Heads, I didn’t recognize it as music. It’s a nightmare.”

2. “What does art do? What is art? What’s it for? Have you ever asked yourself that? Have you ever looked at Egyptian sarcophagi? There are eyes painted on the side. Why are the eyes there? So that you can see out! Because it’s dark in there.”

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3. “A lot of people complain about art. They say, ‘I don’t understand it.’ You can’t worry about understanding art. It’s way down on the list. It is, in the sense like food or music, something that penetrates you. That enters your body. That mixes with you, your experiences. It’s a way of knowing—it’s a way of thinking.”

4. “An artist needs to be able to embed their thought in material.”

5. “Art’s really part of a cosmic force. It’s not optional. It’s been here since the beginning. It’s not just a decorative hedge at the citadel. I would say it’s as essential to our being as economics, philosophy, or religion.”

6. “Icons. People worship. I’m not religious, but I could make the argument that people who worship the Bible are worshipping great art. People stand around Rothko’s chapel—for God’s sake, those are just Buddhist televisions. There’s nothing there! He’s just an old Jewish guy—bald—who made floaty squares and fuzzy rectangles. And yet you go there and you cry.”

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7. “It’s weird stuff. That’s what’s going on a lot with artists and art. A lot of people complain about art. They say, ‘I don’t understand it.’ We understand movies, we understand books, we understand TV. And we understand money. Which has become almost a disease in the art world that has turned everyone cynical. I look at an all-white painting by Robert Ryman; I don’t understand it, but I want one.”

8. “We think we have 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent of all the cave paintings that were ever made. Who has seen one in the flesh? Life . . . changing.”

9. “The artist has to be able to embed thought in material. Job one. Have you ever heard of Marcel Duchamp? The urinal that Duchamp designated art—what year was that? . . . If I have to pick out one favorite Duchamp readymade, it has to be the shovel. There’s no way to look at the damn shovel and say, ‘That’s a marvelous shovel.’ . . . The thought is embedded. You understand his intention to change the category.”

10. “I have to say, these days, the thought is only on the wall label. . . . I was in a good gallery looking at handsome pictures of clouds, and I asked the dealer about them. . . . I said to the dealer, ‘What’s with the clouds?’ And she said, ‘Oh, the photographer went to Ferguson and took pictures of clouds in Ferguson.’ I lost it. I said, ‘Those clouds are NOT in Ferguson, Missouri. Those clouds are NOT about Black Lives Matter. None of that has been embedded in the material, do you understand me?'”

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