Seattle is the center of the fine arts glass universe, and it is appropriate that an intellectual battle of words involving the world's most famous glass artist has been going on around the blogs and newspapers of that beautiful city, so dear and near to my heart.
Circular criticism, or as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's eloquent art critic Regina Hackett calls it "Prizes in Hypocrisy," is a very good story on two newspapers first trashing an artist on a particular point and then later taking the other viewpoint.
First she recalls (through the writing of Trevor Fairbrother's 1996 essay about the collaborative paintings of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat) the New York Times critical drubbing of the Basquiat and Warhol art collaborations. Hackett writes:
Writing there in 1984, Vivian Raynor observed that Basquiat might turn into a substantial artist if he doesn't become an "art-world mascot." (A year later, reviewing the Basquiat-Warhol collaboration, she repeated the mascot charge and added that the jointly produced paintings were Warhol manipulations with Basquiat as the "all too willing accessory."Then Hackett brings to national attention the fact that the Seattle Times in 2006 wrote a three part series focused on Dale Chihuly by Sheila Farr (the Times art critic) and Susan Kelleher (in which Chihuly's work process is compared to Thomas Kinkade's) which starts like this:
Wounded, Basquiat distanced himself from Warhol, who had functioned as an anchor for the younger artist. After Basquiat's death at age 27 in 1988, the same New York Times called him a "genius" who unfortunately had cooled his relationship with his mentor "partly out of fear that he was being viewed as Mr. Warhol's mascot."
If we measure an artist's importance by the number of museum exhibitions, books, articles and television appearances he has, Seattle glass guru Dale Chihuly is right up there with the greats.Kinda tips your hand as to where these articles are heading, uh?
His work is in the collection of most every U.S. art museum you can think of, as well as many abroad. Museum exhibitions of his work circulate continually and stacks of hefty coffee-table books praise his talents. And who hasn't seen one of those often-aired documentaries about him on PBS?
But what many don't know is that Chihuly — a Northwest icon who has built a multimillion-dollar business — generates the bulk of that exposure himself.
Most of those hugely popular exhibitions weren't organized and distributed by art museums, but by Chihuly Inc. And those books and television shows? Most of them were produced by Chihuly's publishing company, Portland Press.
All that publicity has inflated the public notion of Chihuly's status in the art world.
And yet, the more you think and see the articles as a purely investigative series of articles, the less they appear to be "bloated and inconsequential," as Hackett describes them. Generally Farr and Kelleher do a pretty good job of describing and somewhat exposing an amazing business and propaganda machine, which -- other than the fact that the business empire happens to be that of an artist -- is much like any other article that investigative reporters write, and like many of those, we know from the beginning words what the conclusions will be, or in this case, what flavor they want to leave the readers with once they are finished reading the series.
If we began to read an investigative article in the Washington Times about the finances of Move.org, or in the Washington Post about the finances of the Republican National Committee, we'd all know from the beginning what the conclusions or findings will be, right?
And although Farr and Kelleher tip their hand early on, and generally leave a somewhat negative taste at the end of the series, nearly all of what they write appears to be fact, I think.
It is fact reporting from a negative, and perhaps somewhat unfair viewpoint, but facts nonetheless, and their negativity is probably because the artworld is not used to famous artists who are also astounding business wizards. And when the big, famous artist who is the most famous artist in your city sues lesser-known artists, then we have victims and victimizers.
Artists are supposed to be always the victims, not also the victimizers.
The articles are also a little naive in the sense that the writers approach Chihuly's success from that sort of ivory tower view of the artworld that so many art critics have that leads them to assume and believe that mixing business and publicity with artmaking is a bad thing. And if you're as good as the Chihulian Empire is at all those three, then you're Darth Dale as far as some art writers are concerned.
And Hackett righly points out that then the Seattle Times seems to be contradicting some of their own nuances in the Chihuly series by noting later on that this artist's work is indeed quite similar to Chihuly's.
This is sort of what happens when a WaPo movie critic trashes a film on Friday, and then a second WaPo film critic loves it on Saturday. Kinda...
Hackett has written her own excellent piece on Chihuly, not necessarily "defending" him, but presenting him from a more positive viewpoint. This piece by Hackett is the counterpoint to the articles by Farr and Kelleher.
And she does a pretty good job of presenting Chihuly in a good light, even delivering a very convincing argument why it is OK for us all to accept the fact that Chihuly actually doesn't make any of his artwork himself. And in her blog, Hackett goes a little more out on a limb when she writes:
After six months of digging, the Seattle Times produced a bloated and inconsequential three-part Chihuly series, suggesting grave wrongs were being uncovered at Chihuly Inc., maybe just over the hill of the next paragraph.Mmmm... I think that this is perhaps an easy pass by Hackett, for the million dollar profit reported by the Times article.
As written by Seattle Times investigative reporter Susan Kelleher and Seattle Times art critic Sheila Farr, there was nothing but smoke over that hill. My favorite headline in the tell-all wannabe series was "Chihuly Benefits from his own Philanthropy." Who doesn't?
Then Hackett apparently went on a war of words with the Stranger's (a Seattle alternative newspaper) art critic Jen Graves over this interview. It all led in turn to Graves responding with this article.
It would be fair to conclude then that the art critics from Seattle's three main newspapers are now somewhat arctic to each other over the issues, allegations, facts, opinions and printed words brought forth by that walking publicity machine that is Dale Chihuly, who -- along with the savvy art aficionados of the Seattle area who are lucky enough to have art critics and newspapers who care about stuff like this -- is the only winner from this glass skirmish.