Jerry Saltz is a great writer. At times, he’s a decent thinker. But he imagines himself engaged in a titanic battle with art-flipping philistines debasing great art. Nevermind that most art from any era is mediocre and that all styles that are in vogue breed popular figures who don’t live up to the test of time. In Saltz’s melodrama, he’s all that stands between the vulgarians (who naturally all seek him out to bless their chosen mediocrities) and the unsuspecting collectors who lack Saltz’s superior eye. In today’s example, it’s Walter Robinson’s brilliantly-coined Zombie Formalism which only exists because of the market and the flippers.
After paragraphs of complaining that “Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical,” Saltz softens:
I’ll admit that I don’t hate all of this work. Frankly, I like some of it. The saddest part of this trend is that even better artists who paint this way are getting lost in the onslaught of copycat mediocrity and mechanical art. Going to galleries is becoming less like venturing into individual arks and more like going to chain stores where everything looks familiar. My guess is that, if and when money disappears from the art market again, the bottom will fall out of this genericism. Everyone will instantly stop making the sort of painting that was an answer to a question that no one remembers asking—and it will never be talked about again.
That last statement could apply to just about any genre. Eventually everyone stops painting in a style when the original provocation is no longer relevant. Buried within Saltz’s fairly commonplace screed (he’s not saying much here that Robinson didn’t say weeks ago) is another culprit:
Almost everyone who paints like this has come through art school. Thus the work harks back to the period these artists were taught to lionize, the supposedly purer days of the 1960s and 1970s, when their teachers’ views were being formed. Both teachers and students zero in on this one specific period; then only on one type of art of this period; then only on certain artists. It’s art-historical clear-cutting, aesthetic monoculture with no aesthetic biodiversity. This is not painting but semantic painterbation—what an unctuous auction catalogue, in reference to one artist’s work, recently called “established postmodern praxis.”
That’s not a bad line of thinking. Certainly it is more interesting than the warmed-over complaints about art made for art fairs. And that observation reminds us again that Jerry Saltz actually does have something to say until he remembers that all modern ills stem from art sales and he’s right back attacking the auction houses and the market.