Thursday, June 01, 2006

All About Eve or the Sorcerer's Apprentice

The NYTimes reports on the copyright infringement case brought by Dale Chihuly against two other artists whose medium is glass:

Mr. Chihuly is in the midst of a hard-edged legal fight in federal court here over the distinctiveness of his creations and, more fundamentally, who owns artistic expression in the glass art world.

Mr. Chihuly has sued two glass blowers, including a longtime collaborator, for copyright infringement, accusing them of imitating his signature lopsided creations, and other designs inspired by the sea.

"About 99 percent of the ocean would be wide open," Mr. Chihuly said in an interview. "Look, all I'm trying to do is to prevent somebody from copying me directly."

The glass blowers say that Mr. Chihuly is trying to control entire forms, shapes and colors and that his brand does not extend to ancient and evolving techniques derived from the natural world.

"Just because he was inspired by the sea does not mean that no one else can use the sea to make glass art," said Bryan Rubino, the former acolyte named in the suit who worked for Mr. Chihuly as a contractor or employee for 14 years. "If anything, Mother Nature should be suing Dale Chihuly."

As with the Jack Pierson case, I feel I know what a Dale Chihuly looks like and would likely consider anything approaching his lopsided, swirling plantlike shapes to be one of his works, at least until I noticed something lacking its subtlety or resolution, so I'm not going to weigh in on the main issue of the case (i.e., whether the other two are infringing on Chihuly's unique expression or not). Although I can't help but point out that in a similar case in 2003 involving other artists who used nature as their subject, the court noted:
"These ideas, first expressed by nature, are the common heritage of humankind, and no artist may use copyright laws to prevent others from depicting them," the court said. But the judges added that any artist might "protect the original expression he or she contributes to these ideas."
What I'd like to explore a bit here, though, is the sort of ego in the art world that reveals itself as a nasty kind of class system, or perhaps just a need to keep the whippersnappers in their place. One of the artists being sued (Bryan Rubino) worked with Chihuly for almost 20 years:

One question unanswered by the suit is why Mr. Rubino and Mr. Chihuly would turn on each other so bitterly. By all accounts, they worked closely for nearly 20 years on Mr. Chihuly's biggest projects, a relationship not unlike partnerships through the ages between masters and the craftsmen who carry out their work.

In court filings, lawyers for the glass artists wrote that Mr. Chihuly would "often ask Mr. Rubino to come up with something for Dale Chihuly to review and purchase for Chihuly Inc."

"Chihuly is not the source of inspiration for a substantial number of glass artwork carrying the Chihuly mark," they wrote.

That relationship -- the "craftsman" and the "master" -- has often been an evolving one. Many so-called craftsmen have merely been younger artists who needed the work. In other words, masters in the making who, given the opportunity, might rise to surpass their "master." But, as has happened down through the centuries, when the employee strikes out on his/her own, the "master" is often full of resentment:

For his part, Mr. Chihuly called Mr. Rubino a "gaffer," a term for a glassblower who labors around a furnace at the instruction of an artist. Asked to assess Mr. Rubino, Mr. Chihuly said, "He was an excellent craftsman" with little vision of his own.

"You think I would ever let Rubino decide what something looks like?" Mr. Chihuly asked.
Meo-o-o-o-ow. Spffft. Spfttt.

I've talked with dozens of young artists hired as assistants to successful artists. Their experience runs the gamut, but usually the successful artists are very generous and supportive of their assistants' careers. They were oftentimes someone else's assistant themselves and remember all to well how that felt. Still there are those artists who translate any success their assistants achieve as a threat and turn bitter or nasty in the face of it. And, of course, I have seen assistants "borrow" rather heavily from their employees for their own work, so it seems there's no shortage of fingers to be pointed here.

There's a parallel in the gallery side of things, where an ambitious young director steals an established gallery's clients and/or artists and sets up their own space. I was recently discussing this with the director of a powerful Chelsea gallery and we agreed that, despite the annoyance, those are exactly the kinds of directors you want in your gallery. The amibitious kind who will make it their business to learn every aspect of your business. Yes, they'll leave and take what they can one day, but while they're working with you, you'll get far more out of them than you would someone just looking for a paycheck.

But I've rambled on long enough...what are your thoughts? Have you worked for other artists or gallerists and found any pitfalls to avoid? Do you have any expericence hiring assistants and can share a few warning signs that you might be heading into All About Eve territory?


Blogger Jordan said...

It's a natural progression for an apprentice to take on some of the techniques and styles of those they work business, in craftsmanship, in art...that's the whole point of learning from someone. The copyright law often does not protect artists. If you are going to take on an apprentice then likely you should expect some of this.

6/01/2006 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I wonder how many artists really consider their assistants to be "apprentices." Look at Chihuly's word choice. He calls his former assistant a "gaffer." Other artists use the word "fabricator." Such terminology doesn't imply a master/student relationship, but an employer/employee one.

6/01/2006 10:39:00 AM  
Anonymous maria said...

Isn't this destiny when the idea guy isn't the maker? The distinction has additional baggage in contemporary culture where "appreticeship" is nothing like the guild systems of, say, the Italian Renaissance. I think the "gaffer" reflects not merely employer/employee heirarchy but the intent to subjugate faber to disegno. This is interesting not because of who actually makes the work but due to the fact that especially where glass is concerned, a volatile medium, control or lack of it resides wholly in the process (or, making). Doesn't that skew the roles!

6/01/2006 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Domenico said...

I once had an assistant who learned everything he knew from me, and that second-rate ceiling painter ended up getting all the credit. Never even thanked me.

6/01/2006 12:09:00 PM  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

I have to agree with Lisa. Mentorship isn't generally spoken of. Its fabricator and all too often the role of 'babysitter'.

6/01/2006 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger barry said...

I haven't finished reading your post yet, but that is the gayest headline I've seen on your blog so far.

6/01/2006 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Jesse said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6/01/2006 12:55:00 PM  
Blogger The Artist Extraordinaire said...

Another thing to mention in this thread is the teacher and student relationship. A lot of popular teachers surround themselves with acolytes. Sometimes they steal, use, develop, the ideas of their students. Sometimes it produces good dialogues, sometimes it is incidious.

I can think of at least one instructor in my art school experience. But that also gets talked up, and people love to spread rumors.

Shit like this probably is also due to the fact that the art world is so competitve and bitter. Everyone is fighting over scraps of food it seems like. There is talk of the insane art boom, but to most people, it is someone else making all the cash. So a little success or recognition sends people off into a frenzy. you get all the "I MADE YOU" and "BEFORE ME, YOU WERE NOTHING"

6/01/2006 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

that is the gayest headline I've seen on your blog so far. know, I realized that as I was writing it.

Guess I'm still reeling from scoring a stupefying 50% on the gayometer test...just trying to get in touch with my inner fabulousness, I guess...

6/01/2006 02:10:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Don't sweat it, Edward. By New York standards, you're no more gay than Charlton Heston. You could throw in a few more Joan Crawford or Judy Garland references without hurting anything.

6/01/2006 03:25:00 PM  
Anonymous danonymous said...

OK guys....I'm stupid....and in the interest of my education in and out of the arts....what makes that a gay headline...or very gay or not so gay.......

6/01/2006 03:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Priit said...

Do you think such "art crime" stories make a good business for newspapers? There have been several in NYT recently. I think many people read these stories with great interest (and amusement).

6/01/2006 03:47:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...


First, just to answer Edward's question, I don't fabricate work for artists anymore. Too much drama. I do have a job helping artists, and I enjoy it tremendously because artists have such weird problems to solve.

But almost every time I have taken responsibility for any aspect of an artist's project, I have regretted it. I have seen behavior that makes Chihuly seem reasonable... there is something about that line between consulting or assisting and taking responsibility that makes normally respectful people act like buttheads.

6/01/2006 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

...I have more to say about this.

As Jesse noted, this dovetails nicely with the Times article about the art maker/art thinker division. ArtPowerlines has a nice piece about the article.

I wrote last week that I think fabricator or philosopher is a false choice, and offered a synthesis. First, it's terribly classist misreading. Chihuly's ability to hire someone does not make him more creative or a better artist. It just means he has more money.

But I am more concerned with the effect this classist misreading has on the rest of the culture. If the kind of thinking that goes into making things is devalued, then where do we as a group get all our problem solving skills, spatial awareness, and deep understanding of Newtonian physics? And if we get all our philosophical kicks virtually and leave reality untouched--if thinkers never have to make anything work--then the usefulness of that thinking becomes more and more limited.

I think it's a good thing that artists have moved past the master/apprentice relationship. But replacing that system with a maker/thinker relationship that devalues the thought inherent in the work just makes the physical world stupider.

6/01/2006 04:15:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Chihuly is doing the guy a favor. Now, it will come out that the assistant is responsible for a lot of Chihuly's look (he has a note from Chihuly saying, "Go ahead and do what you want.") People will be outraged and the underdog will get enough sympathy that he might be able to make a go of having his own body of work in the marketplace. Call it a franchise. There obviously is a market for the stuff.

An assistant with a future will get out of the relationship what s/he needs and leave. A loser will complain that the boss doesn't do enough for them. The artworld looks for people who are self-starting, it is critical. Complainers only hurt themselves.

unedited, gotta go to therapy . . .

6/01/2006 04:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chihuly has weekly meetings where his gaffers and employees make drawings and he chooses which ones to use. This was 5 years ago so I don't know whether things have changed. Anyway, he hasn't blown any glass for years.

6/01/2006 05:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it IS an employer/employee relationship- lets get real folks- when it comes down to whos signing the paycheck, thats what it is. Its business as usual- why is there such romanticism when it comes to an "artists" assistant? why is this different than any other business arrangement? Why is the assistant thought of as an "apprentice"? thats crap. in any case, any employee can rip off their employer in any business- thats the risk of having employees. Chihuly should get over it (as the gay saying goes).

6/01/2006 06:37:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

why is there such romanticism when it comes to an "artists" assistant?

Possible because there's such romanticism when it comes to an "artist".

6/01/2006 07:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Houseofrats said...

I am in the field of glass and I know Dale Chihuly (as most "glass artists" of my generation do). Rubino was under no delusions he was an apprentice--he signed a contract --one, which I believe delineated what would be copyright infringement. For the record, "gaffer" is a standard term and not one Dale would have used as some sort of classist perjorative.

It's easy to make Dale out to be the "bad guy" in this--because he's famous, rich, and doesn't make his work, etc, etc. But I think it might be the other way around here. I think Rubino IS ripping him off to make big bucks of his own. Have you seen the work? It IS a rip off of the "Dale Chilhuly brand" . This isn't two people sharing and "inspiration from nature"! This is out and out stealing. So what Dale doesn't design or make his work himself? Neither does Gianni Versace, right?

You can critisize Dale for relying on his employees for making his own work, but what do you say about a guy who doesn't design his work, but rips off a big famous artist so he can get rich too? At least Dale's employees know what they're getting into from the get go.

6/02/2006 06:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Rebel Belle said...

I always suspected Chilhuly of being a narcissist ass, and now I feel totally confirmed in my suspicions. This guy is FILTHY rich, has worldwide acclaim, and c'mon, everyone knows who he is and what his bowls look like. Okay, someone is imitating him, so what? Rubino only looks foolish in all this, he will never get any acclaim or rewards for having a personal oeuvre, and hopefully he will move on and find his own voice. In the meantime, Chilhuly is an insecure jerk who can't tolerate anyone mugging his limelight. Can anyone imagine Picasso telling Braque he's going to lawyer up if his imitators continues to paint like cubists!

6/02/2006 09:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

From my limited understanding of copyright law, I predict that Chihuly is going to get his ass handed to him in a courtroom, and why he wants to run this experiment in discerning between glassblowing styles with a jury of peers as test subjects is beyond me.

6/02/2006 10:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked with Chihuly through his NY gallery in the early 90s. Chihuly has not been able to blow glass himself since he lost an eye in a car accident about 20 years ago. He said his depth perception was off and couldn't realize the forms he envisioned. This is a very gray area because his assistants/collaborators were encouraged to embellish and get creative. Whose ideas are whose? Not to mention, his rise and "fame" came during the last 20 years when he was not even making his own work anymore!

6/02/2006 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


As I noted in the post, I won't weigh in on whether Chihuly has a good case or not. I haven't seen the other two artists' works and Dale may be right that they're trying to capitalize on his popularity, which rubs me the wrong way. Let a jury sort it out.

I do think that the way he spoke about Rubino displays an obnoxious condecession, though. He didn't just call him a "gaffer"...he said he had little vision of his own. That's a rather mean slap in my opinion.

6/02/2006 11:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

Chihuly is famous enough that he should simply accuse these artists of copying him and let the critics, patrons, & historians be the judge. All artists stand on the shoulders of giants, and I think it is graceless for Chihuly to try to prevent borrowing/emulation/evolution/copying via the courts.

I would have much more sympathy for an unknown artist whose work was being borrowed/emulated/evolved/copied by a more established artist. That's a situation where an artist is really being hurt.

6/02/2006 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Anonymous sez:
Chihuly has not been able to blow glass himself since he lost an eye in a car accident about 20 years ago.

Holy crap does that suck. Now I feel bad for the guy.

6/02/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My question is: Is an artist who does not make any of their own work still entitled to call him/herself an artist?

Think about the distinction between Anish Kapoor, whose visions could never be realized by a single man working alone; and Tracy Emin, whose quilts rely on the hand-made aesthetic of traditional patchwork (which is laden with the idea of authorship), and yet are now made by a team of studio assistants. Who is the artist? Both? Neither?

6/02/2006 02:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Can anyone imagine Picasso telling Braque he's going to lawyer up if his imitators continues to paint like cubists!

Usually, before the 20th Century, we used to have teachers that taught us all sort of crafts and the whole idea was to

imitate them.

Then as you imitated them, some details, or ideas, would slowly evolved and transform the work into your own.

I agree with the person here who said that craft shouldn't have been devalued by the artworld.
That was a terrible mistake.

Idea is the base of art.
But ideas are not enough. Art needs to materialize. And you can throw me a bunch of concept drawings any day but

it will never be worth the same as the full realization of your work.

I am a bit disillusioned by the fact that the artist with the greatest success these days often never touched or even

draw their own art. I mean, I understand the position of an art director, but at least in cinema you get the credits of

every gaffers at the end.

I am also tired of seeing readymades that don't mention the name of their original designer (like Duchamp did with

his urinal).

What about technology ? Sometimes you see art that is nothing but the most simple use of a new technology that

has been designed. I think that is important to evaluate, what Beuys would refer as the archeological history of the

objects that you use in your art.

To come back to the main case:

Imitating and copying are two things. If the artist is starting from scratch.
If he is able to perfectly imitate the work of another without the use of copying
technology (that would include using the same mould or whatever), I don't
think that is exactly an infringement.

If we start pulling laws on imitation (I really liked the cubist example) we are opening one big
can of worms that is not fully understanding of how cognition functions or simply how we
humans are processed genetically.

Our lives are very short and the existence of this universe doomed.
Let's get off our high heels shall we? If people imitate you, feel goddamn flattered,
and use that power you have unto others to make even greater things.


Cedric Caspesyan

PS: and yes somewhere maybe that assistant is simply claiming back his part of the cake,
but if he never fulfill any vision of his own he won't go far so why bother. Is this the sort of sculpture
that I could replicate easily by machines and have it reproduced by the thousands? Than why bother
doing it. It's vomitable decorative bullshit. Maybe that assistant will simply help to reveal the whole kitsch
of this enterprise.

6/02/2006 03:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

ooops...I forgot the quote the guy.



6/02/2006 03:25:00 PM  
Anonymous danynonamous said...

Cedric, I like where you went with the last comment. I was thinking that this blog was becoming a Whine cellar for a while.
I'd like to add a personal viewpoint here as well. There is a difference between the commercial end of art and just plain old art that artists make. If someone is in the business of selling art, then it is also a business, besides any of the aesthetic values it may have. And it brings to mind that I have never heard a financially successful artist complain about how lucky the unrecognized artist is.
BUt there is also the Successful artist who is unknow and unrecognized and that person succeeds in achieving their personal level of mastery and no one is the wiser. There is a place for that as well.
And them there are the art bodegas
aka galleries....just about all of them...whose job it is to reach out to somewhere in the public and sell whatever is stocked on their shelves.
ANd there is nothing wrong with that either. It is a business. However it does get warped when the image of gallery is that of soothsayer rather than bodega.

6/02/2006 03:59:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

this blog was becoming a Whine cellar for a while.


pass the brie, will ya?

6/02/2006 04:39:00 PM  
Anonymous danonymous said...

You have to say cheese first....and I promise I will.
I felt that sounded genuine.

6/02/2006 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger The Artist Extraordinaire said...

Just so people can actually take a look at the defendant's work, here is his website:

It looks like Chihuly doesn't have a leg to stand on. I know you said you wouldn't comment directly on the chihuly case, but I thought actually looking into Rubino's work would be valid.

6/02/2006 06:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree- it looks like he doesnt have a leg to stand on- but Chihuly must feel insecure about his ideas, or lack thereof to go through with this. I dont think hes the bad guy, its just obvious that he needs to go forward, make new things and evolve so that when he gets "copied" its not such a big deal. Everyone who is into Chihulys work will know, and would probably want the original thing anyway. Its not like his business will suffer from it. This is a business...

6/02/2006 07:02:00 PM  
Anonymous houseofrats said...

I don't think the work on Rubino's website is the work in question.

I also have no idea about Dale Chihulys insecurity vis art--nor do I care--but I will say this: LOTS and LOTS of glass artists shamelessly rip him off all the time (I saw a "make your own Chilhuly-style chandelier" booth at the Buyer's Market Show in Philly to give just one blatant example.) He's not suing all those people--he's suing an ex employee for breach of contract.

As for authorship:
It's pretty much nauseating to anyone who struggles to create out of sheer love, sometimes without reward to see someone like Chilhuly raking in the dough without the inspiration or perspiration.
Art has a mystique and romance to it that favors notions of divinely inspired madmen etc etc—but the reality is that an art object must eventually stand on its own—for better or worse-- regardless of the history of what process or the identity/identities of who brought it into being. Ultimately it is a THING and the real relationship is between the thing and its beholder—not its maker.

6/02/2006 07:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Slartibartfast said...

Greetings, Edward!

I had no idea you had your own place. So much for my powers of perception.

Hope you're doing well, and I'll be sure and look around when I'm not recovering from having my other eye lasered. Maybe we can even have an argument, or even a contradiction.



6/02/2006 10:09:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Hey Slarti!!!

Long time no, er, see...Hope the procedure is going well and not too uncomfortable...heard a rumor you're not on ObWi anymore...gonna bring the eponymous blog up and running again?


6/03/2006 09:28:00 AM  
Blogger maharal said...

Fine Art?

What's about my "Amadeo Mogdiliani"?


6/03/2006 07:57:00 PM  

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