Kenneth Baker is one of San Francisco's most famous art critics. He writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle, and has been an influential voice in San Francisco's art scene. He was a friendly, articulate man, who was more than happy to help us out with your project! We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview him, so here goes it.
Z + E: As students who have taken Art History, we were wondering how did you decide to major in Art History and how did you decide it was something you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
KB: Well I was a failure as a mathematics major..... And I said 'What the Hell. I might as well become an Art History major!.. I might as well have dessert all the time.' I was actually the first Art History major at Bucknell University.
Z+ E: We interviewed an artist in North Beach last week and she said that being an artist is about 50% artistic ability and about 50% marketing yourself. What do you think about this? Do you think this degrades art today or it’s just naturally a part of the art world?
KB: Well there’s nothing natural about a market. You know markets are human contrivances. And the art market is completely unregulated. It’s like the wild west still. As dealers like to say, ‘A work of art is only worth what someone is persuaded to pay for it.’ But the reason people pursue this difficult way of life is that there are nonmonetary values that works of art embody and support in the culture and people care about that… some people care enough about that to deal with the 50% of marketing. I don’t think you can put a ratio on it at all. For some people its effortless, they get discovered and swept up by some aggressive dealer, and they don’t have to give it a thought again, they just do what they do and the money showers down on them. There’s a few lucky people like that who rise to the top, not without gifts necessarily, but luck really plays a big part in it.
Z+E: One thing we’ve noticed about Art History is that many art historians try to incorporate the artists’ intentions into their analysis. What are your opinions on this and do you do this with contemporary art? If you do, do you infer the artists’ intentions from visual details, researching the artist, or asking the artist?
KB: You can’t avoid the question of intention. It’s central to your own questions, or anyone’s questions about what is this and why would someone make this…When it comes to a showdown between artist and critic, the artist can speak for his work in a way that a critic can’t….I try not to over invest in the notion of intention because people do that. They want so desperately to know what someone intends that they put an exaggerated focus on that. And when you make a work of any kind, it enters a field of efforts of the same sort in which intentions ricochet. …. Even if an artist has strong and well defined intentions and knows what they are, that’s not going to be the whole story because once the work leaves the artist’s hands it is subject to these other influences and opinions that he or she won’t have any control over. The artist’s intention is never irrelevant, but it’s never the whole story. Or if it is the whole story then it’s probably not a very good work. … It’s only when intention meets some sort of resistance, friction of a medium itself or some sort of competition or it meets the resistance of interpretation.
Z+E: So as far as deciding which artists you follow or which shows you attend, how do you go about choosing them?
KB: It’s shockingly arbitrary. There are events and artists of such importance and celebrity that they can’t be ignored, so there’s a level of journalistic duty... It’s really only in my gallery column that I have complete discretion over what I write about… It comes down to what I have something to say about. I see lots of perfectly respectable work that I just pass on because I have nothing interesting to say about it.
Sometimes the writing process is not about saying something you have to say, but about figuring out what you want to say. And that’s a gamble.
Z+E: Do you have a favorite contemporary artist or type of art?
KB: No. I have favorite artworks, but not a favorite artist…. It’s unrealistic to expect an artist to be that consistent, and most artist aren’t…. no one hits the target every time, and no one can.
Z+E: How does being an art critic differ from being an art collector?
KB: I wouldn’t know I’m not a collector. (Chuckles to himself). I’m a fantasy collector, like fantasy football or something. I could put together a collection spending no more than three figures per object because I’m constantly seeing new work that’s at the bottom of the market, and I’m constantly seeing things that I could imagine living with, but I don’t spend my resources that way.
Z+E: Where would you suggest I go to collect art for my home?
KB: I suggest you go to the bottom of the market. To galleries that are either non profit or act like non profits.
Z+E: What do you think the next art movement is?
KB: I haven’t a clue. I don’t even know what the last one is. It seems as though we are in a post movement phase, which may never end. It’s pluralism that has made this happen. When I started out in New York there really was a main stream, you were either in it, on the edges, or completely out of it. And then everything got blown open by feminism, identity politics, and the globalization of the art market. The art market had already been globalized, but it became unignorable. I don’t see that ever changing, so I don’t think there can be a global art movement anymore…. I just think we’re in a post movement phase now. There’s a kind of nostalgia in looking for the next movement, and I don’t think there’s going to be one, and if there is it’s going to be a little sprint that will peter out. People should give it up, but they won’t.
Z+E: As an art critic are you ever worried about offending people?
KB: Constantly, but I get over it quickly. I still get hate email occasionally. You know it’s just a part of the job. However, I’m not really interested in negativity. It’s a law of nature: anything can be made to look bad. Not everything can be made to look good. I’d much rather talk about something constructive.
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