The Anatomy of a Developing Discourse: Jerry Saltz, Frieze Magazine, and the Ethics of Art Criticism

Jerry Saltz asks Frieze magazine a tough question

This past week in two separate classes, I touched upon the importance of the “talk” or "discourse" around art and how it influences the production and circulation of meaning around art objects. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the world of art criticism, where individuals with some measure of influence evaluate and offer critical description, analysis, interpretation (and yes, judgement) about chosen visual art objects. Importantly, it is the notion of ideas being at stake more than just the actual form that art objects take, and the many voices weighing in to react to those ideas drive the discourse in often new and unintended directions.

In recent days, a terrific example of a “developing discourse” emerged with one of North America’s most publicly recognized art critics, Jerry SaltzNew York Magazine’s art critic and guest judge this past summer on Bravo TV’s celebrated Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. Saltz, who has started a new online Q&A column on New York Magazine’s Vulture Network (which addresses questions from the lay public on art-related matters), stirred some controversy with the response to a poster who wanted Saltz to address the problematic issue of whether or not art critics should submit a disclaimer if they are writing about an artist whose work they own or are closely affiliated with. In the post, Saltz made specific reference to a review written in the current issue of Frieze magazine (a leading journal of contemporary art and culture), claiming that the reviewer had very close connections to the curator who put together the art exhibition under review--the curator had been the reviewer’s graduate student, worked with him at MoMA, and was now working for him at an ivy league university.

Within days, my Twitter feed was buzzing with discussion about this allegation, with Tyler Green (editor of Modern Art Notes on calling via Twitter for Frieze to respond. Frieze finally did post a response on Saltz’s column, claiming that the “review” was actually more of a regular column, but that they agreed more should have been disclosed about the personal connection between the reviewer and the curator whose exhibition he was covering. I leave the entire affair for you to ponder (the full text of the question to Saltz, his response, Green’s tweets, and Frieze magazine’s letter to Saltz follow), but it certainly exposes some of the mechanisms concerning the “talk” around art objects in its most recent and cyberspace mediated form.

Dear Jerry,
Here's my question: Should an art critic post a disclaimer if they write about an artist whose work they own?
Museum Nerd

Read Saltz's response, Green's Tweets, and Frieze's response after the jump

Jerry Saltz's response to original question:

Dear Mr. or Ms. Museum Nerd,

I don’t make rules for other people, but my policy is to not write about artists whose work I own or I know well. When I’ve done so, I try to disclose my association. The last column I wrote for the Village Voice was on Barbara Gladstone’s show by the painter Carroll Dunham. The first lines of that review are: "By now I no longer know if I like Carroll Dunham’s paintings because we’re friends or if we’re friends because I like his paintings. So anything I say about his work is biased — although over the years I have relentlessly ribbed Dunham about how limiting and wrong it might be that he seems to paint the same male character over and over again." I’ve written about my friend, the curator Francesco Bonami, calling one of his shows great and another, organized for French luxury-goods magnate billionaire art collector Francois Pinault, "truly horrendous." But to each his own; I’m with Whitman who wrote, "It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall."

Still, something caught my attention in the current issue of Frieze. Robert Storr gives a rave review to Sarah Lewis’s "Site Santa Fe" show in the September–October issue of the magazine. The review is subtitled: "Site Santa Fe’s Eighth International Biennial is as inspiring as it is original." (Actually, the magazine misspells the name of the city as "Sante Fe.") The first line of Mr. Storr’s review is, "Sometimes someone gets it right." The last lines of Mr. Storr’s review are, "If I were young, how would I want to begin my curatorial life? With an exhibition like this — because there’s never been one like it before."

It's absolutely fine that Mr. Storr loves Ms. Lewis and this show so much (while in the same review lambasting previous "Site" curator Dave Hickey as a "Michel Foucault–quoting ... all-around all-American Tea Party aesthete, Slim Pickens impersonator ... "). Storr neglects to mention, however, that Ms. Lewis was his student at Harvard. Ms. Lewis worked with him at the Museum of Modern Art. Ms. Lewis is now employed with him at Yale University, where she is a PhD student, and listed as a "critic of painting and printmaking" in the School of Art, where Storr is dean and also a professor of painting and printmaking.

The four questions I would ask are:
1. Why would Frieze ask this person to review this show?
2. Why would Frieze publish this without mentioning the writer’s special long-term relationship with the curator?
3. If Frieze was unaware of these facts, why?
4. How did this come to pass?

I’m sure all critics have done some of these things. I am sure that I have written on former students. I’m not sure, however, that all of these unstated overlaps have appeared at the same time in the same review about such a high-profile biennial in such a high-profile magazine by such a high-profile critic/curator/art-school dean/former curator of a "Site Santa Fe Biennial."

Tyler Green's Tweets:

@frieze_magazine Are you saying Saltz's facts are wrong? Send me deets: tgreen (at) artinfo (dot) com.

Frieze magazine responds to Saltz's criticism by eagerly confirming cronyism. Sad, pathetic: (Scroll a bit.)

Update: Frieze co-editor Jennifer Higgie responds to Saltz's comments on Robert Storr:

Dear Jerry,

I hope this finds you well.
We would like to respond to the allegations of cronyism in your column, which we take very seriously: I can assure you that Frieze is scrupulous about impartiality in regards to reviews. Which gets to the crux of the matter. You ask: "Why would Frieze ask this person to review this show?" There's a simple answer. Rob Storr's piece on Site Santa Fe (which you can read here) isn't a review, in the conventional sense — it's part of his regular column, 'View from the Bridge,' in which he has carte blanche to express his enthusiasms and bug-bears about shows/writers/artists/ideas that are engaging him at this point in time. (Our extensive international review section is to be found at the back of the magazine.) In retrospect, however, we agree it was an oversight not to mention Storr's personal relationship with the curators, although it must be stressed that there is absolutely nothing self-serving in the piece. If Storr has committed a crime, it's simply to be enthusiastic and supportive of the work of upcoming curators he knows professionally and whose work he admires.

With best wishes,
Jennifer Higgie
Co-editor, Frieze magazine