Jerry Saltz on How Art Can Guide Us through Crises

Alina Cohen
Apr 7, 2020 4:11PM

Cover design for Jerry Saltz’s book, “How to Be an Artist.”

Portrait of Jerry Saltz by Celeste Sloman.

Jerry Saltz believes that nothing—not even a global pandemic—can stop human creativity. We just have to adapt. In March, the writer’s new book, How to Be an Artist, hit the New York Times bestseller list. It features dozens of “rules” for living a fulfilling creative life—from “Have courage” to “You must prize radical vulnerability.” Yet after just one stop in Toronto, his entire book tour was canceled. The spread of COVID-19 radically altered what would have been a celebratory spring.

Yet Saltz sounded more invigorated than disheartened when I spoke to him by phone. Since March, he’s confined himself to his home in northwest Connecticut. He’s using this time to “go deeper” into his work, he told me. He’s thinking about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, enjoying his video conferences with his New York magazine colleagues, and contemplating the post-COVID-19 future of art. “Art is helping everyone alive get through this. And through everything,” he said.

Saltz believes that creativity is crucial to survival: Our species has endured because we’ve found new ways to deal with changing situations. “Viruses come, viruses go. Art will be here on the other side,” he said. It won’t “disappear until all the problems it was invented to address have been addressed.” Given the state of the world today, it’s difficult to see that happening any time soon.

Saltz has recently turned his own creative, exuberant, and critical eye towards a painting that hangs in the Museo Nacional del Prado—in his estimation, “the greatest painting museum.” The panel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death (1562–63), depicts a busy, nightmarish scene. A skeleton army wars with a group of men and women, whose corpses hang and lie across a barren, brown landscape. Skulls fill a cart and line the parapet of a tower; Bruegel is unrelenting in his details of one atrocity after the next.

Though Bruegel’s subject matter is fantastical, it perfectly captures our contemporary mood. In his crowded, claustrophobia-inducing composition, the world violently closes in on people, bringing illness and death ever nearer. For all of us reading an onslaught of bad news while cooped up in our own homes, it’s a familiar feeling. “This is indiscriminate death with no purpose, no redemption. A godless apocalypse. Everyone is subject to it,” Saltz said of the painting, explaining why it resonates with him right now.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562–63. Courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado.


The Triumph of Death is just one of the artworks “knocking on the door” at the back of Saltz’s mind. Instead of looking towards contemporary art, he’s using this time to remember and reconsider past viewing experiences. As the physical art world shuts down, even the most extroverted of us must turn inward—and go online.

Saltz is well known for his controversial social media presence, so it’s no surprise that he’s also embraced the now-standard Zoom chat. He likened a recent video meeting with his editorial team to attending an art opening. “I loved hearing the group mind talking to each other and watching. I was so excited I couldn’t say anything,” he recalled. Old dogs, in the age of coronavirus, must learn new tricks.

Despite our newfangled means of connection, Saltz is aware of the challenges facing artists. When we make art now, we’re confined to smaller, busier, domestic spaces. Children may be at the table. Parents and grandparents may be chattering in the background as we try to complete creative work. But in Saltz’s estimation, “art was made to survive this catastrophe.”

Artists make art as a means of self-expression, a desire that certainly doesn’t end when external conditions change. The pressures of today are incubating inside people with stories to tell, whether they’re conscious of it or not.

For his part, Saltz looks back on his moment of glory in Toronto with pleasure. “If I succumb to the virus, I’ve had that book signing that I will never forget,” he said. “My letter to the world got delivered to a few people.”

Humans will find ways to write their own letters to the world, no matter their circumstances. “There’s no choice,” Saltz said. “If you have to make anything, you will make it. This is the time.”

Alina Cohen