n a world of very bad white men, this season — please bear with me — I’m asking Santa for more white men. White men like Jerry Saltz. To cleanse the palette and loins. For those uninitiated, Jerry Saltz is the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at New York magazine, a self-taught, art school dropout who once made his living driving trucks.
Spend ten minutes on his Instagram — or if you’re like me and his drove of devotees, a half hour every damn day — and you’ll bear witness to his neurotic, obsessive, nerdy beyond the pale essence, and absolute devotion to championing art and social justice.
And while I know it’s odious to insist someone’s physical appearance belies some inner truth (or contradiction in this case), Jerry Saltz’s old white man aesthetic is undeniably disarming in its absence of readily readable sex appeal. Pale, balding, mottled with freckles and age spots. Teeth so ecru they nearly match his face. Slight, bespeckled in tortoise-shell rimmed glasses, he’s often spotted in a sports coat and baseball hat. And ever-touting his reusable Big Gulp of ice coffee.
As an old white man, Jerry Saltz doesn’t occupy the two typical realms of old white man f*ckability — i.e., you’re media mogul Rupert Murdoch and your gravitational money-pull is comparable to a black hole, undeniable if horrific, or, you’re someone like Mick Jagger whose simian slinking and decades-long gyration habit renders you undeniable in your own sex-orbit.
Saltz occupies some hinterland of the mind and body. In short, he possesses a should be genital-dampening visage and yet commands — completely unelicited — come-ons on the daily. And sure, geek-chic is a veritable phenomenon, but even among the awkward-loving, it’s a stretch to call Saltz sexy.
And yet here we are.
I decided I needed to examine this collective pining for Saltz, to figure out the compulsion to send him nudes, to examine why this particular old white eccentric has captured the imagination of the creative left?
1. We Still Want A White Man We Can Love
This is not a popular sentiment, and I wince as I write it, but I do think it’s true. White men reside in a potent, collective, cognitive dissonance. They’re synonymous with power, stature, safety, desire; straight, white, maleness is the pained baseline we compare everything to and against. We’d like to banish this white compulsion entirely, but we can’t quite do it, so in lieu of overhauling our racist reality, we find Old White Men like Saltz who hate their old whiteness as much as we do. There is redemption in Saltz’s iteration on old white man-ness, a place to put hope that it doesn’t have to be like this.
2. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Jerry Saltz is a purist, openly devoted to his wife Roberta Smith (who is also a celebrated art critic and incidentally the first woman to ever head up art criticism at the New York Times.) When Jerry isn’t ranting about the dark capitalist underpinnings of the art world or posting stunning art, he’s talking about the brilliance of his wife and his admiration of her. Their unabashed, mutual adoration is enough to induce gagging or weeping depending on my mood. So what compels people to try and make him stray? Saltz has expressed his embarrassment: sheepish appreciation of the explicit fodder folks have sent his way. Perhaps people like the idea of being powerful, smart, beautiful, or talented enough to sway his desire — a perverted, but nearly archetypal impulse I suppose. It’s like taunting a saint, and with every refusal, our Saltz devotion is deepened and renewed.
3. The Ouroboric Element
Saltz — and I mean this in the most loving way possible — exists, almost, in a sexually self-castrated way. He is antithetical to everything we've been taught is erotic. He's over 70, balding, weak-looking, and lives in ill-fitting trousers brandishing his beautiful art rage in cartoonishly nebbish-y rants clad in a nearly monastic lifestyle. His relentless authenticity, his seeming absence of any desire to be desired makes him incredibly desirable. That absence of erotic energy circles back like a self-amorous snake, until it reaches its own tail of very erotic energy.
4. Takes No Prisoners, Pulls No Punches
Saltz is unapologetically progressive and politically turned the hell on. Every day he comes out swinging against institutions and attitudes he finds abhorrent from racism and sexual assault to the dark machinations of the art world. There is integrity there, an unwillingness to compromise although being a more centric/diplomatic human — and critic — might bring him more visibility and a larger following. Saltz isn’t interested in being widely palatable, a rarity among celebrities — especially straight white old men; he’ll happily alienate whoever can’t get on board with taking aim at the status quo. (Himself included.)
5. Patron Saint of Perversion
A lot of Saltz’s posts on Instagram — I’d venture something hefty like half — are explicit. Hieroglyphic anal sex. Throbbing art deco phalluses. Contemporary oil paintings of women masturbating. You name the body and Saltz has celebrated it. Saltz is hugely sex-positive — he seems especially invested in female pleasure — without embodying that very common, nearly requisite creepy feeling that accompanies old men posting and discussing nudes. Is our collective perverted joy in Saltz’s perverted joy possible simply because of #2? IE., he’s removed himself from the realm of desire and thus his interest in bodies and pleasures feels political instead of polluted? In a world of Epsteins debasing women and their bodies for money or dark pleasure, Saltz’s beatific near-obsession with the explicit is like breaking the surface of a fetid pond.
6. Everyone Loves an Underdog Story
Saltz — while possessing all the privilege that straight white man-ness always affords — isn’t a pedigreed human or one marked with a path of grace, ease, or even an inherent gift that accompanies so many writers in prestigious positions charged with demarcating taste and culture for the rest of us. He was born in Chicago, his mother died when he was ten; he attended art school for five years before dropping out. (The gallery he owned folded as well.) He then drove long haul trucks before recommitting to art; he didn’t start writing about art until his 40s at the Village Voice. And in the 30 odd years since he reentered the fray from the critics’ side, he’s been genuflecting at the altar of creation, while trying to tear the walls of the temple down around it. Not for destruction’s sake, but to reveal the beauty — and ugliness— of the Process to as many people as humanly possible. Saltz is the great antidote to the sterile sanctity of the four white museum walls.
Tis the season for wishing. And hoping. So Santa? If I have to listen to more old white men next year, let them come in the rageful, art-and-human-loving, mysterious sex magic trappings of Jerry Saltz. (I feel confident he'll just about fit in my stocking.)