Art Critic Jerry Saltz’s Reckoning with Trauma and Anxiety

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)


MORRA AARONS-MELE: Welcome to season three of The Anxious Achiever, the show where we look at stories from leaders who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they pick themselves up and how they hope workplaces can change in the future. I’m your host Morra Aarons-Mele.

It’s October 2020. And I’m speaking to you in a changed world, certainly a world where anxiety is part of our everyday vernacular. I was pumping gas yesterday and on the little TV screen at the gas pump was a perky news anchor giving me tips for handling anxiety when it wakes you up in the middle of the night, just while you’re pumping gas in a suburban gas station on the way to your kid’s soccer practice. And I thought, what a perfect example of where we are now, more anxious than ever, marinating in uncertainty, anxiety normalized so much, there are segments on it at the gas station.

Part of me feels like the world has just caught up to my brain and actually compared to most people, I think I’m sleeping better. I find my anxiety has taken the form of relentless performance, 24/7 overwork, and a need to try to control the small things, never have my to-do lists been so detailed. Before we dive into today’s show, I’d love to know how are you coping? What forms has your anxiety taken during these times? Let me know on Twitter @morraam or send me an email.

So, what can you expect from season three? This season I’m seeking out people who can inspire us with their messy, anxious, depressed, but still joyous truth. People who have lived with demons in their brains forever, and who can perhaps now show us a path towards more peace and fulfillment because this new reality, isn’t all that new to them. The other common thread, they love their work and are driven by an internal motivation to succeed. So, what’s the secret? Well, it doesn’t always come from a place of optimum efficiency. It doesn’t begin at birth and it doesn’t come from a fancy university degree. It comes from love and passion and knowing how to feel your feelings and manage accordingly, but it can be a bumpy road to get there.

You know when you’ve read something, and your heart stops and you just simply must talk about what you’ve read? I felt that when I read an article by the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine. Trust me, even if you’ve never cared to read a piece of art criticism in your life, Jerry’s piece, “My Appetites” will get you there. Jerry wrote about his work, his anxiety, his trauma, the way he eats and what he loves. He wrote it early during the coronavirus pandemic, deep in the midst of grief and fear and loneliness. And I started by asking him how he’s doing since the piece came out.

JERRY SALTZ: I am speaking to you in my 188th day of quarantine. I’m now in my office in lower Manhattan, New York City, my wife and I have spent almost that entire time pretty quarantined up in a rented house in Connecticut, but it’s great to be back in New York. It’s almost empty, everything is quiet, everything is clean, I’ve never seen the subways so clean. And I’m going to galleries and museums. It’s really great to be back.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh, that’s so nice. You wrote this article My Appetites at the start of the pandemic, which, it kind of feels like that was yesterday, but also a century ago. And the article, it struck a nerve with so many people, your premise of the article was food and your sort of weird habits, almost strict, but not rigid habits around food and all of the anxieties and complexities that go with your daily regimen. And of course, food has such a way into our feelings in every way. But I was wondering if you think that your relationship with your food habits and how you manage them is really about anxiety or is it about something else?

JERRY SALTZ: Well, this is exactly how that essay began Morra, right after we all went into quarantine in the Northeast at least, my editor sent me an email that echoed a lot of comments I was getting on my social media where I’m very active, and all it said is, “What are you eating!” And I thought, “Why is everyone asking me this?” I asked him back. And he said, “Well…” And then I got into talking about what he was referring to, which is, I don’t think I have any food issues until after writing this piece, that I do not cook. My wife does not cook. I am a full-time art critic for New York Magazine. My wife is the co-chief art critic for New York Times. We don’t have kids. I hate kids, she hates them. We’re godmother and godfather to a lot of children. And I love them, and I give them money whenever I see them to make them like me.

JERRY SALTZ: And what we do is see about 50 to 75 shows a week in New York. And then we come home and we both write, and we go to hell while writing. The hell part we’ll get into, but the heaven is deciding not to worry about eating or cooking at all. And so, what we do more and I’m sorry to go on because I’ve been so quarantined. I’m just babbling.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Talk.

JERRY SALTZ: What we do is I go to a local deli or grocery store and buy about 20 already grilled chicken breasts. I buy a bunch of broccoli and I steam it in one go. And I put all of that in the refrigerator. And what we eat for lunch is broccoli and chicken. And what we have for dinner is chicken and broccoli. That way, what we do is just get up, go over to the microwave, put the food in, sit together, eat, have a great time and go right back to work because all we want to do is work, but I didn’t know those were food issues.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, one of the things that you wrote about it is, “I no longer know what is the pathology and which is the coping mechanism.” So, what did you mean by that?

JERRY SALTZ: Well, the whole story goes back to being raised in a pretty dysfunctional family. Maybe exactly like everybody and not anything like anybody else’s because each of us comes from the same story, but different. When I was 10 years old, my mother killed herself. My father never told me that. All I knew was one day I came home from our temple Sunday school and he said, hello to me and my two younger brothers. I’m 10, we’re in the rec room, we’re sitting on a couch together, which is unusual for right after temple. And I notice there’s a lot of old people that I’ve never seen before milling around our living room upstairs. And he said, “Your mother’s gone away.” I said, “Where did she go?” He said, “To the angels.” I said, “When will she be back again?” And he said, “She’s not coming back.” I then asked, “What are we doing with her car?” He looked at me funny and that was it. There was no funeral, no mourning, no lying in shiver. No nothing. She was never spoken about again for the rest of my life. The point being that I then kind of grew up on the other side of the law. My father later remarried a polish, working class Catholic with two kind-of gangster sons, one my own age. And I kind of grew up in an animal like household where you-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. You’ve written that no one taught you anything. They didn’t teach you how to cook, they didn’t teach you how to drive. It sounds like you kind of were feral in a way.

JERRY SALTZ: I and my brothers were all feral. I never really spoke to them, they didn’t speak to me. It was like Hobson, every kid for themselves. My parents had a belt made out of leather that hung on the fridge and they would strap us if we did something wrong. I only grew angry, resentful, I felt pretty sorry for myself in this very large suburban home where everybody else seemed to have normal lives. And I thought, “I’ve got this stupid life.” But no, we were never taught anything, and as a result, there was no learning how to cook. We had a polished housekeeper who made a big, giant vat of what was called grub. It was put in the re-fridge and we would come down anytime we wanted just to eat. And I had that and bread. That was all I ate. And it was all totally 100% normal to me. I never thought of it as unusual. It never occurred to me.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: When you were 10, you lost all control of your circumstances. Everything sounds like it got extremely chaotic, extremely scary, extremely dangerous. Has anyone talked to you about the desire to control through food and to maintain a life that is free of things besides work as a reaction almost to the chaos you grew up in?

JERRY SALTZ: Well, not really Morra. I guess I went my own way and I ended up never going to college because my parents never thought of bringing us around to colleges… I guess that’s what kids did, at all or setting us up for the SATs, which I took and just filled out all in about 10 minutes and made a beautiful pattern, which I really loved, the beautiful geometric pattern out of my answers and graduated at the bottom of my high school. But I graduated and that night I moved into an apartment with some other friends in a rat hole in downtown Chicago, and I never went home again. I still have no college degree. I became a long-distance truck driver. So when you talk to me about ideas of control and food, that for me, even though I wrote an essay that used that as the center piece, that’s kind of the hole in the donut, so to speak, that’s so far down on the list that I think, “Well, I’ve really done well with food” in all honesty.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, and you provide, the thing that was touching for me was having grown up with no models of caretaking the way that you write about taking care of Roberta, your wife, is so dear and so touching.

JERRY SALTZ: Well, Roberta was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2014. And I remember going inside of myself knowing that this is what I was facing thinking “Well, I’ve got to really, really man up as it were.” And I always that I would take care of her and cook for her from the beginning, because she didn’t cook. And I think her work is much better than mine and I happen to love mine. So I’m not putting myself down and I want her to work above all because I think she’s one of the greatest art critics to ever live. Certainly the greatest alive right now, blah, blah, blah, I’m biased.

JERRY SALTZ: And so I grew up around no women and this really caused a problem for me that I had five brothers, a father, a stepmother for a while, and then she died, not that I was aware of it. They never even told me that when that happened. But the point of all of this I think is it’s somewhere in here I learned to take care, to get my work done. Although it took me till I was 40 to become an art critic. I’d never written a word in my life, I was in hell as a long-distance truck driver, eating Kentucky fried chicken out of Big Barrel while I sat in the truck, totally isolated yet in love with art. And whenever I came back to New York from these long-distance truck runs, the only Jewish truck driver I might add probably in the world. My handle was the Jewish cowboy, I used to come on and go, “Shalom partner.” And no one ever spoke to me.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: They didn’t think it was funny? No one liked it?

JERRY SALTZ: No. I thought I was being pretty funny and the truckers spoke to each other all day and all night on this goddamn thing. And then I would come on, finally and try to say something. And they all went silent. Everybody had me marked. Somehow I was a ringer and they knew it. I was just a suburban kid. I was a fake.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I wanted to go back, and I want to read a little bit of what you wrote about your panic anxiety and your panic attacks. I think you were in your mid-twenties, or a little when you started having very bad panic attacks. And you say that your long silenced, subterranean demons rose up and you started having panic attacks. “These attacks made me afraid to be with anyone, to go into public, to go anywhere far from home.” And you also took out your panic on food, right? You would just, sounds like get food, wolf it down and live with this panic that anyone listening who’s had panic anxiety, and I have panic anxiety. We can feel that feeling of even going down the street feels too far from home. But it sounds also like that was a time when your panic made you stop being able to work, to do the work you love around art. And that’s when you became a truck driver. Looking back, what did that experience with panic teach you about yourself and what you needed to take care of yourself in the world and do your work?

JERRY SALTZ: Well, you’re really good at this Morra. You’re making me feel things.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh dear, sorry.

JERRY SALTZ: No, great. I think the hologram of self that I must have been projecting on the one hand and holding up from the inside as it were at all costs, struggling to maintain an appearance of, I was then a successful artist and a successful kid that ran an art gallery artists run space.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, before you became a truck driver, you were a successful young artist?

JERRY SALTZ: Yeah. I made art, but then around… They’d always been there. But then the demons that speak to everybody spoke very loudly to me and they said to me the same things they say to you and everybody listening, “You can’t do this. You’re a fake, you don’t know what you’re doing. You didn’t go to the right school. Your hair is no good. You have a bad neck. You don’t know how to schmooze. You don’t have enough money, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I listened. And as a result, I went to hell, left the world. These panic attacks would keep… I had insomnia for a few years and that was a drag, but they kept me away from my world. And I stopped myself from working. And that’s when I became a long-distance truck driver and spent 10 years on the road, resentful of everybody else, looking at what everybody else had, feeling sorry for myself, being envious.

JERRY SALTZ: One of the things I wrote is, “For anyone trying to get out of these things, you have to make an enemy of envy.” Envy is in the service of everybody else but yourself. It’s your eyes looking outward. And that’s what I spent 10 years doing, hiding from the world but looking at it thinking, “Oh, you’ve got a trust fund.” Or, “I know why he’s got a good job.” Or, “I know why she’s getting what she’s getting.” Over and over until I finally was so miserable Morra, in this life that in the trucks, I thought anything would be better than what my life is now. And I decided having never written a word in my life, I’ll be an art critic. That must be easy. And of course, it’s, if anybody listening to this has ever written, writing is horrible. I would rather do anything in the whole world than write.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well then, I’m just curious. So, I have this image of you driving 10 years, stewing over your truck, filled with envy and rage. And that’s the thing about depression. That’s the thing about anxiety, right? It creates these monsters that never leave us. What was the moment where you said, “Screw this, I’m getting off the road and I’m going to write, even though I am going to hate it and it’s hard and I’m probably going to be bad at it? And I don’t even have a college degree.” Do you remember what made you save yourself?

JERRY SALTZ: Again, I just think, I thought, “It cannot get worse than I feel now. No matter how much rejection, no matter how much failure.” And I was very, very poor. I lived in like a squat in the East village, which was then overrun with heroin and then crack and then AIDS and everything else. But I have to remind listeners that the minute I began saying, I’ll be an art critic, I was ecstatic 24 hours a day with no heat, I wasn’t paying rent, there were dogs living in the hallway. And I was in heaven thinking, “For the first time in my life, I’m now in pursuit of something of trying to be in this case, an art critic.” I think it was just saying out loud. And this is why we love big cities saying out loud to somebody. When they say, “What do you do?” And I just lied. And I said, “I’m an art critic.” I remember the person went, “Huh? Cool.” And I thought, “That’s it. I’m now an art critic because I say I am, I can invent myself.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You. Well, I’m tearing up Jerry, because I think that the beauty of work is something that we never talk about when it’s totally in you, did the envy go away?

JERRY SALTZ: Envy went away, fury went away. Instead what you… You all know, anybody listening to this that has worked in any creative way, in a way you never know what you’re going to make until you do it. And then it always surprises you, like there was a ghost or a poltergeist inside of you that kind of arrived and had to do this and you could control some of it, but a lot of it, you don’t know where it comes from. And that feeling is incredible. And I never ever want that to go away because writing as a way I have a thinking, a way of seeing the world, our work leads us to other work. Work only comes from work. Work does not come from worrying about work and thinking about maybe working someday, you got to grow up you big babies. You’ve got to get to work. That’s what I decided.

JERRY SALTZ: Honestly, Morra, I thought grew up your big baby, your big white male suburban baby. And that goes for you too Morra and everybody listening, woman up, man up, I’m sorry, this is hard. I’m sorry you’re not rich. If you want to marry rich, do it. I’m amoral about whatever it takes anybody to get to work. And for me getting to work, coincidentally also meant not worrying about eating.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: If you had been to a therapist in all those years, they might’ve also said you had social anxiety, right? And all the feeling of constantly being other and not measuring up. And I’m curious though, if you think that you have any social anxiety and if you do, I feel like for me, my social anxiety powers a sort of inner dialogue that also feeds creativity. An ability to perceive what other people also might not.

JERRY SALTZ: All right. Do you have a hard time, like sitting at a dinner party, Morra?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh, I have to either get totally drunk or have a serious talking to myself in the bathroom before I go. Absolutely.

JERRY SALTZ: Right. I don’t think you’re alone in that. I have that. And I’m “famous.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Everyone wants to sit next to you at dinner, I bet.

JERRY SALTZ: Yeah. But here’s the problem with me. I doubt that anyone really does, but yeah, they want to sit next to Jerry Saltz senior, art critic, blah, blah, blah, 1 million followers, the whole thing. And I love all of that, mind you. I spend about 70% of every day Morra, thinking, “God, am I lucky? I am so lucky to have escaped with my life and get this life that I have.” But the truth is I have gone out and Roberta and I are lucky. We’re invited to every dinner party in New York. Sounds exciting, it is exciting to be invited, but I would say that I’ve gone to no more than 20 dinners in the last 10 years. Why? Two reasons. One, is we finish our galleries on opening nights on a weekends around eight o’clock. We get a slice of pizza on 10th Avenue, cheap pizza that you get on a paper plate and eat with plastic knives and forks. Don’t hate me. I appreciate great food, but, and then we go home and make our notes and get ready for work. Or we began working.

JERRY SALTZ: The other thing is I can’t go to dinner parties because the minute I sit down next to you, I will look at you, this sort of amazing person. And I will say, “What shows have you seen lately?” And you’ll go, “Well, I’ve been in Boston.” And then I turn I face forward. And I don’t say a word for the rest of the meal. I have nothing to talk about.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Why do you say you have nothing to talk about? Because you only want to talk about art or because I haven’t seen shows. Tell me why or you just find small talk awful?

JERRY SALTZ: My life is narrow. Someone once said it’s a tunnel life. I’m not part of society in a funny way. And I get nervous, I guess that is what is called social anxiety.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It is what. Yeah.

JERRY SALTZ: And I wear “fame” as a beautiful coat of many colors that keeps me safe so I can be in the world and I’m recognized, and that part is fun. I have to say, I like that because I wanted criticism to be able to reach people like me. I wanted art to be understood and not be intimidating for people like me. I wanted art criticism that didn’t sound like, “The late Mark has commodified post-simulacra object of the Hungarian parallax” that stuff, I don’t understand a word of that. I’m not sure who does. It’s written by 155 people for 155 people. I didn’t want that.

JERRY SALTZ: So, my work is very popular. It’s very accessible. And what I found as a coping mechanism was to be “famous” in my tiny, tiny, tiny world. And that way I can control my surroundings, so I get to be invited to the dinner. I go around for the drinks and I don’t really drink, I guess I have a beer and then I can talk to everybody for four minutes. Wouldn’t this be your ideal dinner party Morra?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It would be ideal dinner party.

JERRY SALTZ: You walk, you don’t sit down. You say, hi, you’re brilliant. The other person amazes you.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But here’s the thing that’s instructive for listeners who maybe aren’t famous like you, is that the reason I was so attracted to what you wrote and who you are is that you have crafted what sounds like exactly the life you want, doing the work that you love. Your limitations are so vividly present to you, you acknowledge them, but you have created your life. Does that sound true to you? And what advice do you have for someone listening who says, “You know what? I don’t want to pretend to be who I’m not. I want to do what Jerry does. I just want to do the work I love and screw everything else.”

JERRY SALTZ: I would say Morra, that it’s the easiest thing in the world. First, you have to get to work you big baby. You have to work. I’m sorry, I’ve tried every way there is around work, so have you. So has every person listening to this. You have to be willing to get lost and become embarrassed when you work. I promise you, when you begin to work, you will soon be humiliated, horrified by what you’re doing, how bad it is, how revealing it is, how stupid you are, how bad your ankles really are. That’s the first sign that you’re beginning to do things that might be helpless for you to otherwise do, meaning you’re doing what you must do. You must learn to write, to be, to behave in your “own voice.” That means yes, you have to learn your skills. That means in my case, looking at thousands of works of art, to never stop looking, but then be able to somehow say what I think in my own voice. And I want it that voice in your work. I want your listeners to fly on extended wings.

JERRY SALTZ: Stick out your scarcity, cap wings you big baby. And there are no wasted days. You clear your desk, you clear the studio, the work you make should not be made for the distant future and for people that discover you after you die, the work you make should be addressed in the idiom of today and addressed to today. That doesn’t mean it should be about Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the Corona virus, not subject matter. Just the material, the idiom. You want it to have that kind of urgency. Art, what you do, Morra is a verb. It’s not a thing. It’s not a thing that sits in a file in somebody’s phone. It’s a verb that changes people’s worlds while it’s happening.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: My last question is some career advice from you. I came across this in something you wrote and I just loved it. And I’d love you to explain why it’s powerful. You say John Cage said, “Always be around.” And I was all that allowed me to finally see the sun. What does always being around me.

JERRY SALTZ: Here’s what it means Morra, that Jerry and Morra might have a social disease. And that is they’re afraid sometimes of being around people that they won’t measure up, that they want to go home, that they’ll have a panic attack or they’re too thin or fat, but all of us are vampires and we must stay up late, online or in person every night my brothers and sisters with other vampires, people half crazy the way you are half crazy to invent these new languages, to carve these new idioms, to know what each other means when they speak. You must show up. You can’t just hide out. It doesn’t work that way. It works that way for me now, but I’ve earned that. I went from my 40s all the way until I was 60, 20 years of failing in public every night, even though I was poor and had a full-time job all that time as a chauffeur driver, a limo driver, I’ve worked in galleries, but I went out every night with my terror. And that’s what I mean, show up.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Do your work. Why is that not workaholism though?

JERRY SALTZ: Oh my God. I never even thought of it. I think it’s life-ism and I love showing up, I don’t know. Therapist’s listened to this, I don’t think it’s… Morra and I get deep pleasure from it. And we know how to get from taking walks and watching bad TV and yelling at our cat. But we also know how to go to parties and learn the new idiom of 2020. And if that’s workaholism, I’ll have double.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Jerry Saltz, thank you so much.

JERRY SALTZ: You are amazing. And I’m grateful to be here with your listeners.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to close this week show with a quote from Jerry’s article. When he talks about the overturning of everything in our world, he says, “Amid this overturning, I lose my defensiveness and embarrassment about the way I eat. I’m no longer overcompensating with excuses, self-pity, guardedness. In this terrible pause I can say that as someone who didn’t find writing until he was 40 years old and then always felt frantic, out of time, and at the end of the line, I took my limitations and I paired my life down to art, work, and Roberta, I couldn’t be happier.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, that’s it for this week show. Thank you to my producer Mary Dooe, thank you to the team at HBR and the studio team who make the audio happen, especially in these challenging times. I’m so grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and for you, the listeners, please send me feedback. If you want to hear, I’ve gotten some great feedback over the break, which I’ll be incorporating. You can email me at anxiousachiever@gmail.com or tweet me @morraam M-O-R-R-A-A-M. And if you love the show, tell your friends, subscribe or leave a review. From HBR Presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.



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