This May, at the Frieze New York art fair, New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz (a newly minted Pulitzer Prize recipient) gave a talk in which he dispensed advice to young artists. He was speaking from experience, it seems; the essay that got him the Pulitzer was “My Life as a Failed Artist,” his memoir as an artist manqué. The implicit thesis of Saltz’s homily was “don’t repeat my own mistakes.” Most of his recommendations were of a practical nature, predicated on the idea that young or (as they are now awkwardly labeled) “emerging” artists have to persevere through poverty, misunderstanding, and envy in order to embrace humility, toughen up to criticism, and internalize genuine collegiality with fellow artists.
Sensible advice to be sure, but also essentially peripheral to making good art (as one guest in a 1975 episode of Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. pointed out, “you don’t have to be nice to be good”). If we read between the lines of Saltz’s talk, his audience’s aim is reduced to marketable success and public recognition, and the surest path to these lies is not through becoming a good artist, but through projecting an image of being a good artist. This is done by securing allies powerful enough to ensure access to the art world game: “you only need to convince seven people that your work is worth taking a chance on: four collectors, one art dealer, and two critics. Just seven!” Sadly, but not surprisingly, such emphasis on appearance at the expense of being, as Guy Debord put it in his 1967 Society of the Spectacle, chimes perfectly with the way simulacra are perpetuated today by social media and “reality” television’s alternative to reality.
In contrast to his current boosting of superficial success, Saltz’s approach two decades ago was based on the premise that good art is informed by exposure to a solid core education through reading literature, history, art history, theory, and criticism. Exactly twenty years before the 2018 Frieze New York, for the occasion of the 1998 Frieze London, he edited a short volume of bibliographical recommendations. In this small paperback of only sixty-one pages, titled An Ideal Syllabus: artists, critics, and curators choose the books we need to read, Saltz compiled a list of readings and films recommended by art-world players for the benefit of young artists. The recommenders included a rogue’s gallery of writers and critics (Hilton Als, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Dave Hickey, Peter Plagens, Adrian Searle, Peter Schjeldahl), a few old-guard artists (Vito Acconci, Roni Horn, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman), and some rising stars (Matthew Barney, Peter Doig, Jeff Koons, Laura Owens, Raymond Pettibon, Elizabeth Peyton, Charles Ray, Luc Tuymans, Kara Walker, Rachel Whiteread). The curatorial cohort was represented by Paul Schimmel, Nancy Spector, Robert Storr, and David Sylvester.
An Ideal Syllabus is a fascinating document. Some of its seventy-three short bibliographies are annotated, a few feature protracted introductions; many are clearly thought-through, serious and detailed, while others are sparse, amusing, or off the cuff. The recommendations range from historical memoirs (Hilton Als suggests Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America), to literary classics (one of Janine Antoni’s choices is Shelley’s Frankenstein; David Batchelor listed Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which is also on Kara Walker’s list; John Currin suggested Melville’s Moby Dick). Rachel Whiteread included two books by J. G. Ballard along with Rilke’s poetry (the latter two authors made multiple other lists), and Nabokov’s Lolita.
There is a sprinkling of classics led by Plato, Pliny, Spinoza, and Machiavelli, along with canonical works on aesthetics from Kant, through Wittgenstein, Ruskin, Pater, Adorno, Benjamin, and Merleau-Ponty. Although none of the bibliographies comes from an academic art historian, the academy is solidly represented through canonical texts by Gombrich, Panofsky, and Clark, as well as newer offerings by Krauss, Fried, De Duve, Foster, Bal, Bryson, and Jacqueline Lichtenstein. The selection of artists’ writings is vast: Alberti, Vasari, Judd, Naumann, Warhol, Kaprow, Richter, Smithson, Kelley, Prince, Acconci, Horn, LeWitt, and Reinhardt. Art criticism and essays reappear in multiple lists, with Hickey and Gilbert-Rolfe cited most frequently. French theory checks in with Barthes, Bataille, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, and Kristeva. Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media is on at least two lists. Many contributors recommend newspapers and art magazines, although incredibly not a single bibliography mentions Artforum.
In short, the 1998 selection is based on the premise that expanding one’s knowledge will help to improve one’s art. We get a very different impression from “Seven books for a young artist, art dealer, or collector”, a recent mini-bibliography aimed at young artists and published in August 2017 by Stefano Pirovano in Conceptual Fine Arts. Its focus is firmly on the superstructure, rather than the base (to use the venerable Marxist terminology). Not one of the seven recommended books addresses aesthetics, culture, art history, or the process of art-making. All seven aim to instruct on the intricacies of maximizing career returns. The list includes a book on behavioral economics; four on the inner workings of personal collecting, galleries, and auction houses; one book with the unapologetically cynical title Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular; and an inspirational novel about how art should rest on the basis of “love, hope and sacrifice” rather than become “a symbol representing . . . personal wealth.”
Tellingly, the banner image used for the article is John Waters’s 2007 Study Art Sign, which reads: “Study art for fun or fame.” And if the titles on the list do not speak for themselves loudly enough, Pirovano smugly declares the futility of any readings that are not directly related to the “unprecedented growth” of the art market: “This selection of books is dedicated to young artists. . . . They will also notice that there is no book about aesthetics in our list. True artistic talents don’t need its deadly kiss.” Translation: art is dead; long live the art market; there is no need to be good, so just learn how to be nice and you will achieve the young artist’s nirvana of fabulous commercial success. What more could you possibly want?