Dale Chihuly is a glass-blower; but whether he is an artist or not is another question.
Most people consider him a craftsman, and a fanciful one at that, one whose design is imaginative and whose technique in blowing, shaping, and configuring his works of glass is masterful.
Others consider him a kitsch craft show headliner along with artisan soaps, hand-wrought wood, Navajo jewelry, and pottery.
Some consider him an artist, for what is art after all? Must it always say something or mean something? Why can’t art be simply be defined as what observers find beautiful? These critics point to contemporary artists who, although trying for depth and resolution, and up with only vain and totally irrelevant works. Chihuly at least is self-evident. His colored glass whorls, spindles, and hollows are at least interesting to look at.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres certainly had something important to say in his recent work, Untitled, but to most visitors to his exhibit, it was no more than a pile of jelly beans dumped in a corner.
Anya Zholud is a minimalist, and once again all but the most committed academic has to wonder at the point of this installation:
The installation is “evocative of a Zen posture”, one critic noted. “A spiritual severity which reduces life to its essentials”. The wire framing was significant, another noted, because it symbolized the emptiness and perverse loneliness of the human condition. A third recognized its irony. “How perfect”, he said, “that patio furniture has been placed on a parquet floor, both symbols of bourgeois taste”.
Most visitors who were asked to write comments in a guest book were far less charitable. “Nonsense….needs upholstery….do those picture frames do anything, like light up?”
New York art critic Jerry Saltz writing in New York (6.7.09) described Charles Ray’s work (above, Ink Line):
The three Charles Ray installations at Matthew Marks right now, all brilliant examples of post-minimalist/conceptual sculpture, each created in the late eighties and new to New York, rattled my perceptions, jangled my faculties, and made me go “Wow!” They exemplify a drug-addled view of the world. Ray’s sculptures, part of a long tradition of minimal installations, are also forerunners to much of the theatrical Festivalism of recent times.
Once again, gallery visitors other than those from the New York art scene, saw nothing of the sort, a total waste of gallery space. One guerilla art Marxist had his lieutenants casually obstruct the view of the gallery notes which praised the work for its hallucinogenic view of ‘both the inner and outer world reality’. He asked people who had seen the notes what they thought, and not surprisingly they echoed the sentiments of the gallery. Those who had not been able to read the notes said, also predictably, “A wire….maybe a guy wire …I don’t know, a high-wire maybe, like circus, but upside down”.
“You see”, said the Marxist. “Decadent bourgeois vanity”.
There is a good reason why visitors flock to see the Mona Lisa. It’s to see ‘a masterpiece’ and to figure out her enigmatic smile for themselves. Was she pregnant suggested a reviewer in the Ames (Iowa) Tribune? Did she just get laid? In any event most of the visitors to the National Gallery of Art drift in off the Mall to get out of the summer heat and to take full advantage of their Washington tour. They don’t know shit from Shinola about art – whether Anya Zholud or Leonardo – and will always flock to the Dale Chihuly exhibit.
For me Chihuly will always be a craftsman and never an artist. Art has always been about more than what you see. It may be about urban loneliness (Hopper), romantic rural simplicity (Homer), Freudian complexity (Bacon), or the horrors of war (Picasso).
Francis Bacon, ‘Pope Innocent X’
Anselm Kiefer, a German contemporary artist describes a dark, frightening, tormented post-Apocalyptic vision of the world. His paintings are riveting, unforgettable, and unsettling. It should be noted that Kiefer is painting at the same time as the minimalists Zholud, Gonzalez-Torres, and Charles Ray. While many viewers may be perplexed by Kiefer’s paintings, few walk away unmoved. These immense, wall-sized works are dominating and overwhelming.
Oscar Wilde offered perhaps the most concise and most accurate of definitions of art:
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that it is impossible to come up with one definition, and there are inherent contradictions in the major three:
The standard candidates [for the definition of art] are representational properties, expressive properties, and formal properties. So there are representational or mimetic definitions, expressive definitions, and formalist definitions, which hold that artworks are characterized by their possession of, respectively, representational, expressive, and formal properties. It is not difficult to find fault with these simple definitions. For example, possessing representational, expressive, and formal properties cannot be sufficient conditions, since, obviously, instructional manuals are representations, but not typically artworks, human faces and gestures have expressive properties without being works of art, and both natural objects and artifacts produced for the homeliest utilitarian purposes have formal properties but are not artworks.
Post-modernist Deconstructionists reject all the above. A work of art has no unified artistic integrity as Formalists say. Its meaning cannot be found in the complex network of relations between its parts (allusions, images, rhythms) and judged in one singular way. Art per se does not exist. There is nothing especially creative or ennobling about artistic enterprise because it will always be an aggregation of the many social, economic, and cultural forces that have determined its execution. The only way to ‘interpret’ a work of art, then, is to deconstruct it into these elements and learn from them. Post-modernists have debunked the Canon, saying that any text is the equal of any other because they all are predictable in their secular, non-inventive, deterministic origins; and their view of ‘great’ art is similar.
Formalism and the Canon have been under siege since the 80s when Deconstructionism emerged out of academe and influenced contemporary art. Art is nothing and everything said Derrida and his colleagues; and minimalists, loosely interpreting the Post-Modernist canon, took this theory to heart. Yet both Formalism and Deconstructionist minimalism do co-exist.
Needless to say neither Formalists nor Deconstructionists have any use for Dale Chihuly and his craft show colleagues. Even the Deconstructionists begrudgingly give credit to the likes of Anselm Kiefer, Picasso, or Francis Bacon; for they more than other artists give us more to deconstruct. Chihuly, however, gives us nothing.
There is no doubt that whether one dismisses all art as ‘text’ or celebrates its individualism, genius and creativity, one is in the intellectual One Percent. Most people either like what they see or they don’t; and popular art will always be representational, simple, graphic or unusual. Visitors will gawk at an installation if it is made up of refuse, office waste, and basement trash; or if it is twenty feet tall, sexually explicit, or gaudy. The artist may have deeper, more significant intentions, but his audience has been weaned on Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Times Square.
Regardless of all the academic debate over the metaphysical nature of art, or its three major definitional categories, art is really only divided into two camps – the intellectual and the popular. Those in the former value art as a rigorous and rewarding exercise which elucidates and reveals meaning. For the latter it is fun, an amusement, a quick and easy gratification, and a pastime. The twain shall never meet. This is nothing new. While the Romans are known for Pliny, Cato the Elder, Cicero, Epictetus, Lucretius; architecture, friezes, frescoes, and sculpture; they were also famous for gladiators, circuses, and spectacle.
America is a pluralistic democracy, a big cultural tent under which can easily reside Faulkner, Joyce, and Nora Roberts; Anselm Kiefer, Francis Bacon, and Dale Chihuly; Tennessee Williams, O’Neill, and Two and a Half Men. We shouldn’t judge, but we do.