Okay, 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 Hackett fan. Her work as art critic for the Seattle P-I always demonstrates her poetic imagination, and I've loved reading her, and talking to her.
We appear, however, to have arrived at a serious impasse.
Her story in the P-I on Monday, April 17—titled "Chihuly Victimized by His Own Success?"—takes pains to refute a story I wrote about the issue of Dale Chihuly's authorship in the context of a copyright lawsuit he has filed against one of his star glassblowers ["Glass Houses," Feb 16].
Hackett's claim is that the real art world loves Chihuly, and it's only provincial idiots like me who "bash" him, because we are of small minds, small hearts (he has aching feet and bipolar disorder, after all!), and we slept through art history class.
Oh, and that I in particular am an inspiration to criminals. Hackett transforms a joke I made in an interview on The Stranger's website 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." New paragraph: "With a gun."
There are several issues here (I didn't specifically mention a gun, but I agree with you, Regina, it works better for dramatic effect to include a firearm), but the enduring issue is the one about whether and when an artist's production methods are relevant to a discussion of the artist's work.
Hackett sidesteps this issue in two ways in her story. First, she goes about establishing Chihuly's credibility in the art world. To do this, she actually lists the people who like him: "...art critics such as Arthur Danto and 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."
When you have to list people who take an artist seriously, that's just sad.
Hackett then describes how four British critics went gaga over a 2001 Chihuly show in London. Henry Geldzahler, the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator, had it right in 1993 when he praised Chihuly's work as a form of Manifest Destiny that is "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 doesn't establish Chihuly's credibility in the art world. The art world is absolutely ambivalent about Chihuly.
Liz Brown, chief curator at the Henry Art Gallery, is the sole museum source Hackett used to prop up Chihuly in her story. On Monday I called the Henry, the only contemporary art museum here in Seattle, the city where Chihuly lives, to confirm something I suspected: The Henry has never had a solo show of Chihuly. Maybe that's worth a story. (If your answer, Regina, is that the Henry has an unfair bias against glass, let's start talking about the relationship between that bias and the problem of craft and physical authorship in contemporary art.)
Brown tells Hackett that she is "amazed" that anyone could question Chihuly's authorship. Hackett then trots 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 (whom Chihuly is like "in many ways"—yeah, except that Chihuly has no intellectual basis for his work) taught all the little children to stop worrying and love the factory. "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," Hackett writes.
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, cranks out works at a rate impossible for any single person to view, let alone oversee, it is bound to cause 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?
Hackett 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 art world's very real taboo against taking traditional ideas of craft and authorship into account. Unseating production's primacy is the golden discovery of the 20th century. A once radical idea that's become hegemonic, it has 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 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 has some explaining to do. Those factors may not mean everything about every work, 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 isn't an artist. I wrote that he isn't a great glass artist, and he isn't. I called him 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 quote in the ARTnews story from Chrissie Iles, the powerful curator who coorganized 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."
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. 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org