Jerry Saltz, How to Be an Artist (Riverhead Books, 2020)

How-to books are not usually my thing, especially when it comes to art. Even instruction manuals—what brush should I use? how much linseed in this medium? how do I draw a horse that doesn’t look like a chicken?—end up on my bookshelves unread, no matter how many times I say to myself, Today, I’m going to do it right!

But I like Jerry Saltz. He calls bullshit on the bullshit, and here’s a great example. I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this, either in a gallery or while reading the introduction to an art book or in a classroom or in an artist’s statement.

You’re looking at a picture of a cloud (a deserted alleyway, a crumpled Coke can, a broken eggshell, a tree) and beside the picture you find a text that says, “This image is about [insert: much-too-specific event, person, or theory with no discernible referent in the image].” I agree with Saltz on this: “The meaning has got to be there in the work.” Even if it’s just the emotional meaning. No, especially if it’s just the emotional meaning.

I tell my poetry students all the time, once your poem leaves your hands and strays into the world on its own, you won’t be there to explain to every reader what you meant to say. It has to be there already, in the poem or in the painting or in the photograph. And if it’s not, expect to be misunderstood by insane margins of error. Expect the duck when you intended the rabbit.

Also, shoutout to Lucia Bernard, the designer of this book. I feel like designers rarely get the accolades they deserve on trade editions, but this color palette is luscious! Even the page numbers are like different flavors of cotton candy.