People Who Live in Glass Houses: Why Chihuly Matters

Artists We Love to Hate (More Than Others)

In a way, one might say that glass is to the art world as artists are to the world at large: troublesome yet indispensable, seemingly fragile and easily shattered but incorruptible. Those who would speak truth about their place and time occupy a precarious place in society, and artists are the first to attest. In the past, institutions and individuals of great means were the sole patrons of the arts and violent censorship was the norm. Paintings were generally limited to the immortalization of personages, religious and mythic illustration, and erotica (created for a male gaze and disguised as mythic/religious illustration). Subtlety was required if an artist wanted to include meaning beyond the prescribed propaganda. Some artists were so sincere and skillful in their role as propagandist that we may still look upon their works with delight, even if we recoil at the underlying sentiments. The rise of the bourgeoisie and spread of self-governance have allowed artists to speak truth a little more freely to a wider, more populist audience and nouveau riche patrons—those, at least, who aren’t vainly trying to blend with the aristocracy by affectations to tradition and established mores.

Unfortunately, no one likes the nouveau riche, and artists who disrupt the status quo still have to deal with the mob, even if they aren’t subjugated by the crown and the church (or authoritarian religions of state). Hence, in our time the only thing worse than a starving artist is a successful one. And there are three successful artists whom people particularly love to hate. Chihuly is one. Another is Thomas Kinkade, who has been mentioned obliquely. The third is Damien Hirst.

These artists polarize their fans and detractors, and their reputations play a large role in this. I find this problematic, as I advocate for a separation of artist and work…at least at first, for I well know that we do not experience work in a vacuum, nor should we hope to. If one is sincere about excluding artists who did objectionable things (such as succeed), one’s options are quite limited. From Caravaggio to Pollock, flawed humans on the fringe are bound to be a little troubled and many lead tragic, messy lives. And if you don’t like queer people, you may just want to plug your ears and eyes for good, because much classic work is saturated with the homoerotic, especially the religious pieces.

Kinkade was a self-professed religious painter with a mean streak, but one should not hate his work because he was a misanthropic, misogynistic drunk whose behavior was inconsistent with the “pro-family” (i.e. fundamentalist Christian) and political propaganda he sold en masse (defrauding his franchise owners in the process); if anything, the troubled meanness of his life is the one thing that might provide a streak of pathos in his otherwise soulless husks of rustic, materialistic fantasy.

Speaking of materialism, one should not hate Hirst’s work merely because he rode the crest of an art market bubble (secondary to the central bubble of easy credit) that treated art like real estate investment. In delusion and collusion, the art world praised mediocrity at the expense of credulous investors, many of whom had earned their wealth at the expense of more credulous hoi polloi. (While insisting that art is the highest, humanist endeavor, the art world kept the masses behind the gates, as one among them might just have noted that the emperor had no clothes).

A figure such as Hirst was, in fact, an historical inevitability, the poster child of this swell of l’art-pour-l’argent. Following a reckless market that held up the idea of money (unhinged from all reality), Hirst was a prime prophet for profit-driven minds who lost the substance by grasping at the shadow, the shadow of a shadow of Duchamp, who was a trickster heckling the tricksters. This was a time of adolescent narcissism, and Hirst was a middling installation artist whose works look like the notebook of an adolescent confronting death and other deep thoughts without much sophistication. In fact, his famously decaying creatures better serve as metaphors for the decadence of the shell game that made him rich, and his Pharmacy auction (perfectly timed just before the bubble completely burst) will hopefully be remembered soberly as the apex of a culture of unthinking venality in the early 21st century—but only time will tell.

Hirst’s work indulges our inner narcissist with cynical fatalism, without hope of reconciliation or transcendence. A similar darkness resides in Kinkade’s works, which even as kitsch indulges a desire for idealized creature comforts and isolation in a world without original sin (as Kinkade himself put it) and therefore without need of redemption, without need to struggle, without life ultimately.

A chandelier style piece reflected in the swimming pool room at the boathouse

The Call of Chihulhu

So where does that leave Chihuly? He is also wealthy, popular, and patronized by the same culture of largesse, as any successful artist. Some might say that what makes me reject Hirst and Kinkade is all well and good, but Chihuly has no content, no criticality at all: His pieces are merely exquisite, gaudy, vulgar window-dressing for new money. Furthermore, he doesn’t even make his own work. So what is there to defend? It is not all so hollow, so fragile?

Such criticisms can be made as a matter of taste, which is just fine as long as one accepts it is a subjective matter. Chihuly’s large pillars and chandeliers that I at first found mesmerizing in Atlanta now make me shudder when I see them indoors. I refer to them unflatteringly as Chihulhus. (If you don’t get the Lovecraft reference, don’t ask. I’ve already outed myself as an arrogant prick here. I’ll stay a closet nerd, thanks very much.) But I also know that in the right context they are gorgeous and in any space they can capture the imagination of those new to art, especially of the young.

But underlying the criticism that works such as Chihuly’s are merely beautiful and empty is an indictment of craft that is not just a matter of preference. It states that things must have a meaning and a message—especially an iconoclastic one—and that we should not be indulging that old model in which artists and artisans create exquisite objects for the sole pleasure of an elite. To disparage craft in art is to devalue the role of the artist, whose personal journey in creating the object may not be evident to the viewer and therefore may not weigh in the criticism, but is yet the raison d’etre for it. Art can be thoughtful, compelling, and well-wrought without being of a traditional high craft. (Think of Ai Wei Wei, James Turrell, Mark Dion, Richard Serra, et al.) But we have room enough for work that is simply beautiful.

Saying that Chihuly’s work is illegitimate because he no longer spins it himself is also problematic. Glass blowing is an expensive and involved process, so it is rare for individuals to work solo, especially with larger, more complex pieces. Chihuly had devoted his life to glass, had brought talent and old-world knowledge from abroad, and when he lost his eye and his depth perception (and therefore his ability to spin regularly near an open furnace) he began operating more in the background instead of leaving glass behind entirely. The objection seems to be that Chihuly’s name eclipses those in his employ…to the world at large. But the glass community is tightly knit and those within the craft know precisely who is who, though those outside of it do not. Can not the same be said for the artists who assisted in Caravaggio’s studio, or in the design rooms at Chanel under Lagerfeld, or the hands who have created Hirst’s most recent dot paintings?

Chihuly is also criticized for churning out an endless stream of the same shapes, over and over. This accusation once again reveals ignorance about the medium itself, as the technique required to develop new forms (especially of an organic nature) is not so simple. Furthermore, Chihuly is able to design glass “paintings” on the surface of the cylinders, vases, orbs, and organic forms using shards and threads in which the larger piece is rolled. Some of these images (if they were transferred and flattened onto canvas) would be stunning on their own, but because they are contained in this novel, dimensional, reflective substance they have a sense of movement that could not be achieved in any other medium. But perhaps because vases might potentially serve a function, because they do not hang on the wall, some seem ready to relegate the work to craft, not art—as stated above, a spurious distinction.

But is Chihuly not a detriment to the glass community, being such a behemoth, such a glitzy distraction from other work? Does he not stigmatize it further? Well, no, but this seems to be part of the inspiration for the insulting comparison to Kinkade. There is no comparison to be made. Chihuly is one of the fathers of the glass art world in America and his studio and Pilchuck (which he co-founded) have been incubators for many renowned glass artists (and artists of other disciplines, too). For better or for worse, there would be no glass art as we know it without Chihuly. (Furthermore, all his pieces are unique, so trying to compare them to the push-button prints of Kinkade is grossly ignorant.)

The more we look at the complaints, the underlying problem seems to be a persistent wariness about the medium itself, not Chihuly’s message (or lack thereof) or his operation and its prodigality, which is immaterial in our approach to artwork if the value of art is not a matter of novelty for novelty’s sake. Frankly, if you like glass at all, you must admire what Chihuly has accomplished. He may not be the Alpha and Omega of the art…but he is rather the Alpha of its popularity.

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