Dana Self

Beauty connotes pleasure, and Dale Chihuly's glass resonates in the arenas of public pleasure and private desire. Gazing at the beautiful in art with unrestrained longing allows us visual and sensual pleasures that we have conditioned ourselves to live without or, at least, live with in fugitive guilt. For in the visual arts, beauty has come to represent the commodification of luxury goods and capitalist gain. However, Dale Chihuly's explorations of the unique, various, and unpredictable possibilities of glass, its history and relationship to our bodies allows us not only to experience pleasure but also to derive a meaningful experience from beauty.

According to many contemporary theoreticians and art historians, one aspect of beauty's long and complicated history is its emersion from the body, or our ideas about the body - from the Greek idea of man as the measure of all things, to the male gaze directed at the body of woman, which has been loaded with ideas about what constitutes beauty, decency, and/or normalcy. Thus beauty has become burdened with the weight of religious, gender, sexual, cultural, and social politics, making its appreciation a tricky endeavor. According to Dave Hickey in The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, "The history of beauty, like all history, tells the winner's rate -, and that tale is told in the great mausoleums where images like Caravaggio's, having done their work in the world, are entombed - and where, even hanging in state, they provide us with a ravishing and poignant visual experience." [1] Hickey questions whether contemporary images are enhanced by their institutionalization, or whether they might do better "out" in the world. Chihuly has, in his way, answered that question. He has taken his works out of the institution -- without abandoning it or its ideologies -- into the public arena of corporate hallways, restaurants, Fifth Avenue capitalism (Liz Claiborne), rivers, bridges, deserts, and almost anywhere else imaginable. Emerging from the hermetically sealed space of the institution to find life in the world at large, Chihuly's glass changes the dynamics of what, these days, constitutes art and beauty - the ostensibly intellectual and the popular - for Chihuly is about aesthetics as much as commodification. Therefore, one of the questions raised by Chihuly's work is whether it merely asserts the status quo of beauty, in its most shallow and ill-perceived sense, or whether it, in its utter provocativeness, laden with commodification, a certain Hollywoodism, and sheer pleasure transgresses the status quo because it proclaims its beauty in no uncertain terms.

Chihuly's glass pieces, including and even especially the Chandeliers, have become objects of wonder and enchantment from which we derive visual pleasure, and visual pleasure has historical precedence. As the art historian Svetlana Alpers notes, the encyclopedic collections of Renaissance princes often centered on objects that "tested the border between the craft of nature and that of culture, natural artifice and man's - goblets fashioned out of shell, for example, or worked coral." [2] Chihuly's art straddles the divide, for his glass appears highly artificial yet simultaneously natural. Chihuly's titles such as Seaforms suggest the natural world and conjure visions of splendid urchins and other fantastic ocean creatures, as the Persians "the Brooklyn Wall installation at the Brooklyn Museum) connote flight and fantasy. His work challenges the notion that perfection is embodied only in natural forms, for his slickly perfect, but wildly excessive glass objects feel as though they inhabit the interstice between artifice and nature. And, in experiencing beauty and pleasure, what we feel motivates our response. According to Alpers, "The visual. interest accorded a flower or a shell in nature is challenged by the visual interest of the artist's representational craft." [3] This visual interest, or more specifically, artists' and collectors' fascination with the world made visible, continued from Renaissance princes' collections through the eighteenth-century natural-history cabinet.

The pleasure of looking, from which Chihuly's work emerges full-blown, has historically been immersed in the spectacle of vision and wonder. Eighteenth-century cabinets of curiosities contained paintings, bronzes, books, animals, plants, and other objects for both public and private contemplation. Barbara Maria Stafford in Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, writes, "The natural history cabinet as the museum for an epitomized creation of spectacle incarnate was, I believe, the source for this spectacularization of experience. Moreover, the conflicts over its nature and function and the tensions between a supposedly serious linguistic system or ordering and the merely appealing exposition of images, has a distinctly contemporary ring." [4] It was that visual spectacle and the idea that beauty should be ghettoized to the realm of, in Stafford's words, the "merely appealing" that established a continuing and problematic fascination with not only the beautiful but also the exotic. Chihuly's glass trades on exoticism. The obsessive and excessive ornamentation feels exotic and may be compared to historical (Victorian) ideas of "orientalized" or non-Western cultures. Even his titles, such as Persians and Venetians, have roots in Victorian England and France. For instance, during the Industrial Revolution, British and French glassmakers were inspired by the patterns of both Islam and Venice - exotic "Others" to these imperialist nations.

While Chihuly's Chandeliers and other forms may look like splendid imperialist booty, they resonate in other ways. The production of glass as art object is not a solitary artistic endeavor undertaken in a pristine studio setting. It is produced in a hot, sweaty, even dangerous industrial environment. Ironically, then, the resonance - intimations of a larger social group or community - of the industrial factory and its workers emerges from the aura surrounding Chihuly's glass. The Chihuly Over Venice Chandelier project is a particularly potent example of the factory's working ethos. Chihuly traveled to Finland, Ireland, and Mexico to blow glass in local factories. And yet, the commercial factory is not the studio of the artist; it is the production site of generations of workers. By inserting the artist into the locus of commodity production to create fine art rather than goods, the spectacular object, which dances between art and industry, emerges. According to Guy Debord, "In the spectacle, one part of the world represents itself before the world and is superior to it" [5] Chihuly's Chandeliers refer to parts of the world-industry and utilitarian glass goods. However, through his artistry, Chihuly converts potential goods - goblets, bowls, vases - to beautiful art objects that represent an aura of both industry and utility without being either industrial or utilitarian. Within that aura, Chihuly produces what Debord refers to as the spectacle.

In the Waterford, Ireland, factory the spectacle is the most provocative. Here, where for generations leaded crystal has been made for the tables of those who could afford it, Chihuly and his team worked, combining art and industry. Chihuly's merging of art and industry has historical precedence in perhaps the most celebrated combination of the two: Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, a work of art itself, which comprised more than a million square feet of glass, and the event for which it was built, the 1851 Great Exhibition, or Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. In this exhibition, cut crystal (from Britain) was noted as the height of the glassmaker's art, which may be attributed to both quality and nationalism. The immersion of the Chihuly production team into the industrial factory not only changed the nature of the factory for a short time, it also affected some of the glass workers. According to a Chihuly staff member, Joanna Sikes, "The factory etchers were very excited and applauded Dale because in all the history of Waterford, they were never allowed to etch a curved line. And of course, that's what he had them do." [6] The spectacle of a changing environment and of a changing vision then affects the spectator and the worker as well. The presence of television crews, photographers, biographers, etc., into the factory changes its meaning, its order, and its structure, at least temporarily. Chihuly's creation of beautiful and often unpredictable art objects in the commercial factory environment, where the same objects have been made for decades, may startle and delight us as it may have the Waterford employees with whom he worked. As scholar Ruth Lorand writes "Beauty tends to surprise us by offering a new unpredictable order." [7]

Our pleasure in beauty, defined partly in the curved lines the Waterford etchers produced for the first time, and capitalized on in our view of the finished work of art, leads us to the exaltation of the beautiful object and even the fetish. The fetish may be read from a variety of theoretical positions, including anthropological, first identified in the cult of objects of West Africa; Marxist, the commodity; and Freudian, the substitute for desire after trauma; all three of which "define the fetish as an object endowed with a special force or independent life." [8] Contemporary scholars have broadened the term as a useful vehicle with which to investigate cultural signifiers, including clothing, beautiful objects, architecture, and ornamentation. Chihuly's Chandeliers and other glass objects with their obsessive ornamentation, for all practical purposes, subsume structure and surface around them so that nothing may disturb the viewer from aesthetic pleasure. The pieces have no function in its strictest definition - ritual or ordinary - other than beauty. The charismatic effect, then, is to heighten desire (looking) and produce a fetish. According to Mark Wigley, "The word fetish carries the senses of 'fabrication,' 'making, 'artifice,' 'cosmetics,' 'makeup,' 'adornment,' and 'embellishment.' This chain carries both the sense of the ornamentation and structure.... The fetish., by definition, convolutes the distinction between structure and ornament." [9] Because Chihuly produces his works in such a way that they are often constructed as entire installations, the sense of sheer ornamentation becomes almost overwhelming, forming a site where ornament and structure collapse together. According to Massimo Carboni in his article "Infinite Ornament": "A fundamental property of ornament, in fact, is that it is offered as a form of waste, luxury, excess, expenditure without compensation." [10] Thus, the overwhelming beauty of the glass produces the fetish with an independent life of its own. The English literary theoretician Stephen Greenblatt offers a theory that may be useful in our understanding of how we appreciate the intensity of our love of and desire for beautiful objects. He writes:

"This understanding ... is centered on a certain kind of looking, the origin of which lies in the cult of marvelous and hence in the artwork's capacity to generate in the spectator surprise, delight, admiration, and the intimations of genius. The knowledge that derives from this kind of looking may not be very useful in the attempt to understand another culture, but it is vitally important in the attempt to understand our own. For it is one of the distinctive achievements of our culture to have fashioned this type of gaze, and one of the most intense pleasures that it has to offer." [11]

Desire is the driving force behind the gaze and the pleasure of looking. How do Chihuly's Chandeliers and other glass forms mediate and transmit our experience of desire? Much of Chihuly's work is large-sized to the human body and beyond; therefore we may relate to the works on a corporeal as well as aesthetic level. The biomorphically shaped Baskets often cradle other, smaller Baskets, while the Chandeliers can be monumental, sized to overpower and command the space in which they are installed. Chihuly's glass has cavities and protrusions, as do our own bodies. Consuming and subsuming are part of our physical relationship with one another and with the world around us. Because we may experience Chihuly's works in such a physical manner - they intrude into our space, they are slick and sexy, slightly dangerous, making us want to touch them - the distance between the glass and us is narrowed by the reciprocity between our bodies and the work, which is both surprising and disturbing. Not only is working with molten glass dangerous, but even our appreciation of the final art object is tempered by the dangerous nature of glass. While sensually beautiful, any glass can break or shatter. Therefore, the unexpected tension that Chihuly creates between attraction and danger may heighten our sensory experience of the work.

Chihuly's work seems to be unpredictable in that the forms rarely add up to the expectations we may have of them. For instance, he titles many of the bowl shapes Baskets, yet they are made neither of fiber nor reed, nor do they function as a utilitarian object. Additionally, the Chandeliers are not lamps, nor are they intended to function as such. By subverting the causal assumptions we make in language based on our experience, Chihuly creates a new order based on his own personal vision, thus surprising us. Surprise may contribute to the desire that is inherent in our gaze, for the unexpected often adds to our experience of pleasure. The mystery of glass compounds the experience because glass is the only traditional medium that cannot be touched by the naked human hand while it is being formed. Looking becomes, then, one of the key components in the making of glass, as well as in the appreciation of it after it is complete. And in that pleasurable looking filled with desire and longing, we also find enchantment. Greenblatt writes, "Looking may be called enchanted when the act of attention draws a circle around itself from which everything but the object is excluded, wheat intensity of regard blocks out all circumambient images, stills all murmuring voices." [12] History amplifies our shifting gaze and our bodily and intellectual responses to beauty. Chihuly's fantastical explorations into industry, art, capitalism, commercialism, history, pleasure, and finally and always, the beautiful demonstrate that beauty does produce a meaningful experience of the world. Beauty, far from a guilty pleasure, allows us to examine the re-creation of meaning through a path of pleasure and the wonder of looking.

Dana Self is Curator of The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art & Design. The content of this essay has been shaped in part by readings of Rive Hickeys work, including, but nor limited to, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, 1993.


  1. Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles, CA: Art issues Press, 1993) p. 20.
  2. Svetlana Alpers, "The Museum as a Way of Seeing." 25-32 in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, editors Ivan Karp and Steven D. Levine (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press,1991) p.26.
  3. Alpers, p.26.
  4. Barbara Maria Stafford, Good Looking: Essays on the Virtues of Images Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996) p. 192.
  5. Guy Debord. "The Society of the Spectacle" (Detroit, MI: Black and Red, 1970) p. 29, in Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993) p.84.
  6. Shawn Waggoner, "Chihuly Over Venice," 38-43. Glass Art, May-June 1996, Volume 11, Number 4, p.40.
  7. Ruth Lorand, "Beauty and Its Opposites," 399-405, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 52:4, Fall 1994, p. 403.
  8. Hal Foster, "The Art of Fetishism," 6-19 in Fetish, The Princeton Architectural Journal, Volume 4, editors Sarah Whiting, Edward Mitchell, Greg Lynn (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992") p. 6.
  9. Mark Wigley, "Theoretical Slippage," 88-129 in Fetish, The Princeton Architectural Journal, Volume 4, editors Sarah Whiting, Edward Mitchell, Greg Lynn (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992") p. 101.
  10. Massimo Carboni, "Infinite Ornament," 106-111, Artforum, September 1991 p.110.
  11. Stephen Greenblatt, "Resonance and Wonder," 42-56 in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, editors Ivan Karp and Steven D. Levine (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press,1991) p.53.
  12. Greenblatt, p.49.

Published in Chihuly Over Venice, Portland Press, 1996.