December 26, 2017

I’ve never cared for Jerry Saltz as a critic but this story of him as a failed artist has something genuine worth reflecting on.

To me, it’s not a question of whether he should have quit or not; the fact that he was able to quit is a good enough sign that he did the right thing. If he truly loved painting, he wouldn’t have been able to quit. Even as he worked as a critic, he would have kept painting on the side. He wouldn’t have had a choice.

But it’s also questionable whether he loves being a critic either. This article is about someone who lacks an internal compass or is out of touch with it, and at the time same time feels strongly the cultural imperative to do what he loves. The superego is telling him to follow his passion, yet his id doesn’t have that drive. As far as I can tell, he is not aware of this reversal of the conventional dynamics, so he thinks his superego is telling him to get a safer job that would allow him to make a living.

In the days when the artists weren’t so self-conscious of the historical significance of art—before art became a game of making history—their id drove them to make art, and their superego told them not to (“Be responsible!”). This gradually reversed in the 20th century and accelerated in the 60s. It’s now the superego telling them to make art (“Follow your bliss!”) even though there is no drive within them. Ironically, they are alienated just like the assembly line workers who can’t relate to what they are producing.

This is a complex knot that would take some serious self-reflection to undo because they are convinced that it’s their id (drive) telling them to make art. They are trying to advocate for their own drives but their superegos have them fooled; those drives aren’t there.

So, it was wise for Jerry Saltz to quit doing art, but I’m not sure if becoming a critic was a wise alternative for him either. Roberta Smith, on the other hand, seems to have the right drive to be a critic.

When one’s superego and id are inverted, one needs to quit everything, sit in an empty room, and stare at oneself until the superego calms down enough for the drive to become audible again.