All About Eve or the Sorcerer's Apprentice
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:
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."
"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:
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:
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.
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.Meo-o-o-o-ow. Spffft. Spfttt.
"You think I would ever let Rubino decide what something looks like?" Mr. Chihuly asked.
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?