OK, then, fine. If Regina Hackett is determined to pick a fight with me, a fight she will get.
Let it first be said that I’ve been a big Regina fan. Her work as art critic for the P-I always demonstrates her completely poetic imagination, and I’ve loved reading her, and talking to her.
We appear, however, to have arrived at a serious fucking impasse.
Her story in today’s P-I, titled Chihuly victim of his own success? takes pains to refute directly a story I wrote two months ago about the issue of Chihuly’s authorship in the context of a copyright lawsuit he has filed against one of his star glassblowers (Glass Houses, Feb. 16).
Regina’s claim is that the real art world loves Dale, and it’s only provincial idiots like me who “bash” him, because we are of small minds, small hearts (the guy has aching feet and bipolar disorder, after all!), and we slept through art history class.
Oh, and that I specifically am an inspiration to criminals. Regina transforms a joke I made in an interview on this web site about Chihuly’s bulletproof rock-candy sculptures into a spot worthy of local television news:
… Graves invited those who share her negative view (“terrible”) of his supposedly bulletproof Bridge of Glass in Tacoma to express their displeasure by shooting at it.
With a gun.
There are a lot of separate issues here (um, I didn’t mention a gun, but I agree with you, Regina, it works better for dramatic effect to include a firearm, and I should have), but the most enduring issue, I think, is the one about whether an artist’s production methods are relevant to a discussion of the artist’s work and worth.
Regina tackles this two ways in her story. First, she goes about establishing Chihuly’s total credibility in the art world. To do this, she actually lists the people who like him: “art critics such as Arthur Danto ad Donald Kuspit, and artists such as Jeff Koons, David Hockney, Kiki Smith, and John Torreano.” Everyone else falls under the category “Those who have never taken glass seriously.”
Um, when you have to list people who take an artist seriously, that’s just sad.
Regina then describes how three British critics went ga-ga over a 2001 Chihuly show in London. This tidbit is interesting, because it goes directly to how powerfully Dale’s work relies on context, which is something I mentioned in my piece. Henry Geldzahler, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had it exactly right in 1993 when he praised Chihuly’s work as a form of Manifest Destiny: “American in its apparent vulgarity, its brazenness and its fearlessness to move farther out west even if there is no further west to move to.” You don’t think that plays differently in the Motherland than in Florida, Utah, and Seattle? Of course it does. And it should.
But it sure as hell doesn’t establish Chihuly’s credibility in the art world. The art world is absolutely ambivalent about Dale Chihuly.
How about this: Liz Brown, chief curator at the Henry Art Gallery, is the sole museum source Regina used to prop up Dale in her story.
I called the Henry, Seattle’s only contemporary art museum earlier today, to confirm something I suspected.
The Henry Art Gallery, the contemporary art museum in the city where Dale Chihuly lives, has never, ever, had a solo show of Dale Chihuly.
Seems to me that is worth a story. (And Regina, if your answer is that the Henry has an unfair bias against glass, maybe we should start talking about the relationship between that bias and the problem of craft and physical authorship.)
Brown tells Regina that she is “amazed” that anyone could question Chihuly’s authorship. Regina then trods out the usual litany of art-historical references to establish that production is a dead issue, and that nobody cares how you make your art—at least the people who matter don’t care, because Warhol (who Chihuly is like “in many ways”—yeah, except he has absolutely no intellectual basis for his work) taught all the little children to stop worrying and love the factory.
Throughout art history, artists have used assistants, sometimes liberally, but in the 20th century artists directly challenged the idea that art is more valuable as a hands-on operation.
From Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Lawrence Weiner and Robert Gober, artists say that hands-on production is a choice, not an imperative.
Oh, Christ. Of course it’s a choice, and how an artist chooses can mean something. When Chihuly, who doesn’t blow glass in the first place, starts cranking out works at a rate impossible for any single person to view, let alone oversee, his market might love it, but it causes me some anxiety. When is an art factory just a factory? When do these inflections enter the work of art itself? And when they do, how can they not influence an estimation of that artist’s contributions?
Regina may have swallowed art history whole, but I think issues of authorship and craft in art are constantly in flux. A recent story in ArtNews explored leading painters’ own anxieties about working from photographs. It is widely accepted practice, but it is also something each artist handles consciously (unlike Chihuly’s unconscious use of assistants). The story is responding at least in part to Damien Hirst’s 2005 prank of showing paintings that he fully admits are beyond his capabilities and made entirely by assistants as copies of newspaper and magazine images. Appropriation art is old news, and Hirst is being derivative. But he’s also mocking the very real taboo against taking traditional ideas of craft and authorship into account in the art world. Unseating production’s primary role is the golden discovery of the 20th century, but by now it’s just a hegemony with about as much need for a defender as a grizzly bear. The fact is, the ways that production can enter into a work as an aspect of context are fascinating, and to ignore them is to be some kind of fundamentalist. Anyone who seriously claims that both Dale Chihuly’s inability as a glassblower and his mass production methods are utterly unrelated to the final work sitting in your living room or your museum (or NOT sitting in your museum, as the Henry case may be) has some explaining to do. Those factors may not mean everything about every one of his works, and they may mean different things about different works (huge installations made of hundreds of parts versus paintings on paper versus small sculptures). I never claimed Chihuly wasn’t an artist. I said he wasn’t a great glass artist, and he isn’t. A great glass artist, I believe—horror!—would know how to do complicated things with glass. I called Chihuly “a glass celebrity.” I should have added that he is a mediocre installation artist.
You want hegemony? Nowhere is it more obvious than in this belligerent quote in the ArtNews story from Chrissie Iles, the super-powerful curator who co-organized the Whitney Biennial: “There is an ultraconservative definition of what art is, and it comes from a romanticized view of how paintings are made. If you’ve painted something that’s copied from something else, or had someone do it for you, or if you’ve involved a projection, then it’s not art. That’s very ignorant. The only thing that has a relationship to value is quality.â€ť
Right. Contemporary art museums and leading contemporary dealers are ultraconservative. They just refuse to touch anything that isn’t made by a single guy in a garret. Uh-huh. I do agree that the current popularity of figurative painting is bound to raise questions again, some of which will be stupid. But I hope the answers from all of us—artists, curators, dealers, and critics—come back complicated every time. These issues are far from dead, and to my mind, they’re a hell of a lot more interesting than whether Dale Chihuly has pig shit on his shoe, or whether he thinks about glass while he’s swimming in his pool.
In fact, I might just write about them for The Stranger.