Thursday, January 8, 2015

On Critical Terms, by Alfred Jan and Kenneth Baker

The following is an exchange between Alfred Jan and Kenneth Baker on art critical terms.  Jan has an M.A. from the Philosophy Department of San Jose State with a specialization in aesthetics.  He has been an art critic for a number of publications.  In recent years he has focused on editing classic pulp fiction works. Jan asked me to publish this exchange on this blog, and Baker gave his OK.

Tom Leddy, Department of Philosophy, San Jose State University

To:  Kenneth Baker, Art Critic, Dec. 22, 2014, San Francisco Chronicle

Kenneth: I have been reading your reviews of non-objective painting for many years, and one thing has puzzled me. In today's paper, you describe Van Tran's "Hurricane Flowers" as "unrehearsed and bravely well judged". What property of the painting correlates with that description? Is it the brush strokes, the manner of paint application, the colors used? What are the criteria of painting which leads you to that description, and are they transferable to another painting? Conversely, in the review, you use terms signifying negative aesthetic qualities such as "overreach, incoherence, and breakdown". Can you isolate aspects of a painting to which those terms apply? In other words, can you identify physical, empirically, observable examples of those qualities in any painting recognizable as "overreach, incoherence, and breakdown"?  Many times you seem to be psychologizing the artwork which makes me ask "How does he know that?" What evidence in the painting justifies that description? Please explain.

Alfred Jan

Hello, Alfred –                                                        Dec. 26, 2014

         I’m afraid there are no general answers to your questions.
         When I speak of “overreach” or “incoherence,” these are judgments best justified in conversation when confronting the work itself. I make such assertions partly to provoke readers into putting them to the test of direct observation (and damned if some readers don’t occasionally do just that, with varying results).
         As for praising Tran’s picture as “unrehearsed and bravely well-judged,” those adjectives are based on my perception of the speed that his brushwork implies in this case and his apparently having known — intuitively, no doubt — when to stop messing with what he was making.

         Description is not about reporting facts alone. It is inherently tendentious and meant to challenge readers to find better language than mine if they disagree with me (this seldom happens, sad to say). The rhetorical intensity I sometimes inject into reviews partly expresses the hope that I can get people out there to see eyes-on stuff that excites me in one way or another. Most people who respond to reviews, especially those who reject what I say, never look at the real thing — they respond to images presented in the newspaper or online. It’s that passivity and attendant belief in the transparency of media that are the real tendencies I’m combating when I take an aggressive (or enthusiastic) tone.
         I hope this clarifies something for you.

HNY  [Happy New Year],



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