Dale Chihuly Glass: Art or Decoration?

11Aug08
Chihuly's Fiori di Como at the Bellagio in Las Vegas includes over 2,000 handblown glass elements

Chihuly's Fiori di Como at the Bellagio in Las Vegas includes over 2,000 handblown glass elements

If you bring up the work of Dale Chihuly at a cocktail party, you are bound to be met with energetic praise from his devoted followers or pained looks and eye rolls from his critics.  I have found that people either love or hate the intricate, multi-colored blown glass and have yet to meet someone who has no opinion on the matter.

The love/hate debate over Dale Chihuly is timely because of his current show at San Francisco’s de Young museum.  Kenneth Baker launched a scathing review of the show in The San Francisco Chronicle and David Littlejohn also attacked Chihuly’s work in The Wall Street Journal.  Baker’s review generated so much controversy that he felt compelled to write a follow up piece defending his review. 

I am interested in what ArtsÉtoile readers think of Dale Chihuly’s work.  Do you love it or hate it?  Do you think his work is art or mere decoration?  What do you think of de Young museum director, John Buchanan’s statement that Chihuly is “the world’s greatest living artist?”  I have included citations from Baker and Littlejohn’s articles on Chihuly in order to get the dialogue going.

Baker on Chihuly:

“Educated viewers cannot look for long at Chihuly’s work without wishing there were something to think about. So they think about something else. The capacity to hold our attention, in the moment or in reflection later, is a mark of significant art in an era when mass media work hard to abbreviate attention spans so as to cut costs and decapitate questions. The history of art is a history of ideas, not just of valuable property. Chihuly has no place in it, and the de Young disserves its public by pretending that he does.”

Littlejohn on Chihuly:

“The word most commonly used by Chihuly-fanciers to describe the works is “beautiful,” a concept of little value in defining serious art after the Impressionists. Although some Chihuly objects appear snakelike or surreal, there is never anything troubling or challenging about them. It all looks strangely safe and escapist, even Disney-like, for art of our time. The writhing shapes and bright kaleidoscope of colors signify nothing but the undeniable skill of their crafters and the strange tastes of Mr. Chihuly…Kenneth Baker, art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, outraged the glass man’s admirers (and no doubt some interior decorators) by dismissing him as an interior decorator. I wouldn’t go that far. Team Chihuly decorates exterior spaces as well.”

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50 Responses to “Dale Chihuly Glass: Art or Decoration?”

  1. 1 Bill Pilkington

    What an interesting post by ArtsEtoile! I would come down on the side that Dale Chihuly’s work is decorative but not artistically significant. As with all artwork, it is a matter of personal taste as to whether you would enjoy it in your own home. I am most amazed at the money machine that Mr. Chihuly has clearly built and he clearly has every incentive in seeing his works on exhibition at the de Young.

    As to your question of whether he is the world’s greatest living artist, that only requires a simple “no”.

  2. Thank you for your insightful comment Bill, I couldn’t agree more that all artwork is truly a matter of personal taste and whether or not one enjoys it in their own home. Also agree that there is no way that Mr. Chihuly is the greatest living artist today! But he certainly has made some mind bogglingly beautiful blown glass works, though I would not call them art. Thanks again for your feedback!

  3. I worked with John Buchanan when he began his career as a museum director in the early 80’s in Illinois. John like most museum directors are given 2 directives 1. Raise money and 2. Get warm bodies in the museum. I’m not surprised by John’s comment. If you host a Chihuly exhibit your dealing or exhibiting to the lowest denominator. What do you have to know about art to be star struck by colorful bright shinny objects? This is a given formula for getting folks into the de Young Museum or any museum for that matter. Even during Chihuly’s exhibit at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory, located in a not so wise to leave your car parked better take a cab neighborhood, it broke all attendance records. John Buchanan is a bright guy he knows this will bring in a fire sale attendance. As for his comment, why not throw a little accelerant on the flame.

    So I guess you know what side I come down on. It’s not really even good decoration. In my opinion, Dale Chihuly is not even in the top 100 greatest living artists.

  4. 4 H. Jay Simpson, III

    I feel like the Chihuly criticism from the arts “elite” is just sour grapes that more people appreciate Dale’s work than their “conceptual” projects which appeal to very few.

  5. 5 Brennan Gray

    Glass blowing is, afterall, a craft, a practical art, and contemporary craft isn’t usually artistically significant. Although beautiful and fun to think about how it was conceived, Chihuly’s work certainly does not transcend the work of his contemporary craftsman. It’s a craft and it happens to be pretty, and that’s as far as I seem to think about it, even when wracking my brain.

  6. 6 Steven Siegman

    I basically agree with Mr. Simpson. Most of Chihuly’s critics agree the work is beautiful and expert, which is a lot more than I can say for most “important” art that is neither.

    The idea that beauty and expertise went out with the Impressionists is one of those Orwellian notions that make my heart ache for all who believe it.

  7. 7 Bob Allan

    Kenneth Baker has a problem. His shorts are too tight and it blurs his mind. What ever happened to that old saying “art is in the eyes of the beholder?” I have visited his studio and factory in Tacoma. To see this work being produced is a sight to behold. Chihuly has created a large following because they like his work. Mr. Baker is giving us his thoughts. Fortunately millions of people around the world are voting with their feet and enjoying Chihuly’s work.

  8. 8 artsetoile

    Thank you for your comment Bob, you raise a very good point: the art elite seems to have forgotten the old adage, “art is in the eyes of the beholder.” Also, wonderful insight about your visit to his studio and factory in Tacoma.

  9. I’m just wondering why we are even having this conversation. Have we forgotten what art is? Look around at art, any kind. What exactly are the guidelines, the rules, and who decides them. If art is what I was brought up to believe it is then Chihuly is indeed an artist. The best in the world? I would’nt go as far to say that. He certainly would be in the top percentile. If you have any doubt of that the fact we are having this conversation and the price his work brings if for no other reason would prove his talents.
    I wish I were such a poor artist or good interior decorator that people would talk about my work on line. As Mr. Simpson said “sour grapes”

  10. 10 BBB

    Art: A visual work of imagination that transports you, moves you emotionally, makes you think.

    Does Chihuly’s work do this?

    Yes.

    I’ve seen “art” in national museums consisted of a canvas with a hole in it. Is that art? For some I guess.

    Bottom line: art is totally subjective.

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