Musings on Photography

It’s Pretty, but is it Art?

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on August 10, 2008

Not long ago I read this interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, about Dale Chihuly and his art glass, and argues that Chihuly’s work isn’t appropriate for getting a real show in a real museum.

There’s quite a bit there, some serious snark about Chihuly, how Chihuly makes money, and exactly what disqualifies his work as worthy of a show.

The part that got me, though, was this:

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.

There isn’t a whole lot I agree with in Littlejohn’s article, but I certainly would disagree that ‘beautiful’ is a concept of little value in defining serious art after the Impressionists.

Littlejohn ends with

But first, a surfeit of Chihuly — which attracted 150,000 visitors in the first month of the show’s 3½-month run.

Apparently, something which attracts 150,000 people in a single month can’t possibly be Art, especially if it’s actually beautiful.


13 Responses

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  1. Derek said, on August 10, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    I thought contemporary art was supposed to “say something”, or to make a comment or statement of some sort.

    As pretty as Chihuly’s works are, they don’t say anything else. All they got is that they’re easy on the eyes.

    Reminds me of Thomas Kinkade in a way. He makes pretty art, millions of people but the stuff, be there’s no way Kinkade would end up in a contemporary art gallery.

  2. Rosie Perera said, on August 10, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    “… ‘beautiful,” a concept of little value in defining serious art after the Impressionists.”

    Yeah, that’s what they teach them in art school these days. And also that intuition is no guide for making good art. An artist friend of mine was telling me about what happened in the last art class she took, which made her give up studying art. In a final assignment, the students were all asked to give an artists’ statement with their final project. One guy in the class wrote something about his intuitive sense of beauty. He was laughed at by the teacher and ridiculed in front of the rest of the class. No such thing as intuition or beauty. If you can’t explain what you’re saying with your art, then it’s trash.

    Now I don’t personally like Chihuly’s art, or Kinkade’s for that matter. But it’s not because it’s merely “beautiful” without saying anything. Kinkade’s at least does try to say something, but it’s something false and sentimental. It’s that all’s well and snug with the world, which isn’t true. Chihuly’s I just don’t get, doesn’t move me. Whatever. The appreciation of art is very subjective.

    Some folks have had some Photoshop fun with Thomas Kinkade.

  3. AJesse said, on August 10, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    It appears that some find beauty deeply offensive to their highly refined sensibilities. In fact it is so offensive to them that they want the rest of us to cover our eyes lest we be seduced by its power to blind us. Hogwash. These are the people who would love to legislate against wasting valuable time and precious human resources on the pursuit of such a “safe” and worthless commodity. I wish they would lift the “ugly-veil” through which they view the world and humanity to see what some others of us see.

    I hasten to add that I also subscribe to the philosophy that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” It seems perfectly natural—even desirable—to me that what I find beautiful someone else may find trite, corny, or even ugly. Differences of that sort make life interesting. How arbitrary and boring if everyone had exactly the same tastes.

    I am deeply grateful that I can be moved by the beauty that surrounds us. Furthermore, I have become increasingly annoyed by those who sneer at me for appreciating the glories of this planet. The implication seems to be that any simpleton can recognize and produce beauty. It’s all around us, therefore worthless. Well, guess what. Ugly, quirky, troubling, and sad are all around us, as well. There is plenty in the world that is upsetting, disgusting, puzzling, and heart-breaking. I am thankful we also have beauty to help sustain us through life’s journey. If I were surrounded by squalor, filth, and despair, these stingy types would resent my having a lovely flower on my window sill because the flower is “merely pretty”. The beauty bashers would likely insist that, in the interest of authenticity, I have a filled garbage can there, instead, to remind me of the despair. A pox on these self-appointed arbiters of taste and the dirty work they do.

    Perhaps I should apologize for ranting on your site, Paul. I am too exhausted to edit myself.

  4. Bryan Willman said, on August 10, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    I think this is round 3 trillion of “what is Art!”, as debated by that part of society for whom “art is a verb” isn’t an acceptable or adequate answer (for whatever reason.)

    The Kinkade mashups may end up like weird Al, more widely known than the things they parody…

  5. Mike said, on August 11, 2008 at 1:40 am

    This is all it is according to our Anglo-American language: art or fine art is making something using skill – no more mo less. So where’s the need for discussion? Everything else is just a matter of opinion and we know that opinions are like sphincters – everyone has one.

    Humans making things – that’s what they do when they’re not killing one another off for any number of silly reasons.

    Both definitions are from the Merriam Webster online dictionary.

    fine arts – art (as painting, sculpture, or music) concerned primarily with the creation of beautiful objects —usually used in plural.

    art – the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced.

  6. Sean said, on August 11, 2008 at 6:33 am

    There’s a little Mark Hobson in everyone. 🙂

  7. Sean said, on August 11, 2008 at 6:38 am

    “It’s that all’s well and snug with the world, which isn’t true.”

    The world can be a damned ugly place. All the more reason to dream of, and reach for, a world where all really is beautiful and well. I buy my yearly Thomas Kincaide poster and enjoy the calm it brings me.

  8. Tyler Monson said, on August 11, 2008 at 8:16 am

    To understand how Chichuly’s glass falls short, look at the work of Lino Tagliapietra.

    What I find most irksome about Chichuly is that he is all about self-promotion; the P.T. Barnum of art. Credit him, though, with raising the public awareness and acceptance of art glass…except now they are looking at the wrong direction!

  9. CMPatti said, on August 11, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    For Kenneth Baker’s similar evaluation of the Chihuly show, see While the discussion may get bogged down a bit in the “definition of art” question, it seems to me that what Littlejohn and Baker are both saying is that Chihuly’s work does not go beyond pretty ornamentation and is not important or meaningful enough to warrant a major museum show.

  10. Mike said, on August 12, 2008 at 7:49 am

    Chestnut. Chestnut. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …”

  11. Dave Wright said, on August 12, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    The fact that 150,000 visitors in a month makes me think of his work more as bubblegum pop music, rather than experimental art school noise. Pandering to the masses, rather than pushing the boundaries.

    Exactly what CMPatti said – pretty ornamentation, nothing important or meaningful.

    And yes, I absolutely agree with the Kinkade comparisons.

  12. Andreas Manessinger said, on August 15, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Interesting find. It certainly made me think and the result is a short post on my blog.

  13. […] I thought about the comments on this post, and I have some responses. I will admit that this sort of stuff makes me lean ever further away […]

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