Defining Art

Last weekend there was a highly critical article about the Chihuly exhibit at the De Young that really got my back up. The money quote:

“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.”

I have my own criticisms of Chihuly — primarily that his work can be overly gilded and that commercial success has led to excessive repetition — but there are ways to critique an artist without declaring his work isn’t art. The author’s main arguments seemed to be that the exhibit is a spectacle and not serious enough, and that Chihuly’s work is too flamboyant and decorative to be considered “art”.

The former is more than a little puzzling. Yes, the exhibit is a spectacle and the gift shop is indeed “barnacled” on. But this criticism could easily be made of much modern culture and art, and it is unfair to single Chihuly out. His work is flamboyant and showy, but that just makes a theatrical exhibit seem all the more authentic. On the other hand, despite the spectacle the author claims “educated viewers” will get bored because is not enough intellectual content to hold their interest. That must mean I’m not educated, because there were plenty of beautiful visuals to keep my attention.

It’s also seriously misguided to claim that art must be high-concept. We do have rough categories of fine art, decorative art, craft, and the like, but the lines are blurry at best. Going by the author’s yardstick, we’d have to disregard half of the “history of art”! Dutch and Flemish masters are a good example — the technique is remarkable, but in the end it’s often just a painting of of a dead rabbit, a rich patron, or a vase of flowers. Where’s the intellectual statement there? And yet we don’t question those paintings as art.

Perhaps more importantly than how he defines art is the arrogance of claiming to define art for others. As the resident creative in my family I spend a lot of time defending art, and I think it’s important to take a broad view of it. If it expresses something, even if I don’t like or understand it, it can still be considered art. You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but it’s generally not appropriate to define someone else’s experience. That’s not to say you can’t ever draw a line, but you should draw it as generously as possible.

The entire article felt like a thinly veiled assertion that if the masses like it, it can’t be art-with-a-capital-A. Enough people already question and dismiss art without elitism like this to alienate them further. It occurs to me artists complain art isn’t appreciated, but often they seem to work very hard at preserving image of the starving, misunderstood artist. After all, if the plebeians get it, it can’t be any good.

Michelle Bachelet

Recently Michelle Bachelet, the first female president of Chile, visited California to sign an alternative energy pact and afterwards she spoke at UC Berkeley.

I was disappointed that we heard very little about the renewable energy agreement at the speech. Evidently that discussion happened up at the Berkeley Labs and not on campus as advertised. However, it was still exciting to hear her vision for Chile — despite my cynicism, I have to admit she said all the right things about equitable growth and social justice. There were a few times in the speech when I wondered if she might be persuaded to run our country, too! Her vision sounded more honest and insightful than anything I’ve heard from an American president in my lifetime. She may not be able to accomplish it all, but at least she is acknowledging some hard truths.

The ever-present crew of Berkeley protesters was outside, and they highlighted a particularly thorny issue: Bachelet is committed to pursuing clean, sustainable energy but she skirted around directly stating that developing energy independence may require unpleasant compromises. One of the more viable options for Chile involves building dams in Patagonia. While hydroelectric power is relatively clean and plentiful, damming destroys ecosystems and swallows up untold acres of land. In this case, the stakes are even higher: it will irreparably change a national environmental treasure.

Mad Men


Mad Men will soon be back on AMC for its 2nd season. The setting, a Madison Avenue ad agency in 1960, is so interesting to me because it represents a turning point in advertising. Around this time advertisers started embracing conceptual ideas and humor instead of straight pitches, and watching the Sterling Cooper creative team dismiss these newfangled ideas is amusing. In the pilot, they debate the famous DDB Lemon ad for Volkswagen, and most of them don’t get it. That sets up the whole show — this is a group of old white guys about to be hit by a cultural revolution, and they aren’t going to be able to keep up.

Mad Men can be hard to watch at times, as many plot points center around a sexist, racist society that I am thankful not to live in. That’s not to say racism and sexism don’t still exist (see: Election 2008) but at least I don’t live in a time when it’s practically laughable to hire a woman as a writer. Rumor has it the show will resume two years in the future, which I think will be a good move. It allows the characters to experience cultural shifts and to grow emotionally more quickly.

But setting the serious stuff aside, the art direction alone is worth watching this show for: Sharp suits, perfectly tailored dresses, sleek mid-century furniture, intriguing vintage baubles, you name it. Nothing is overlooked.  (Of course, there are times it’s hard to see all this greatness through great clouds of cigarette smoke!)

Great Moments in Advertising

The best part of having a DVR is skipping commercials, but once in a great while something is intriguing enough to make me to stop and rewind. Most reliably I stop for VW, Apple, and the celebrity Geico ads. My favorite Geico spokesperson was Peter Frampton — a little sad for him, but funny for us — until I saw the Mrs. Butterworth spot, which stole my heart. She turns every comment into something about pancakes, syrup, or glass bottles, and the very best moment comes at the end: when the Geico logo comes up on the screen she says “Oh dear, someone has put a logo over my face.” Blatant product cross-promotion aside, it’s hysterically funny.

I don’t know how effective these ads are in terms of generating sales. On the plus side, I’d guess they’ve created major, durable name recognition. I never forget who the advertiser is, which is certainly something funny ads struggle with. (We all remember herding cats, but do you know what the company was?) On the negative side, they have several entirely different advertising campaigns running simultaneously, which makes them look schizophrenic. Also, while the style of the ads skews young, I am not sure if anyone under 30 even gets the jokes. Do they know who Charo, Frampton, or Little Richard even are?

That said, I stop my Tivo to watch their ads and now I’m blogging about one of them. I’d say that qualifies as effective.

Gardening Ethic

There’s an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle discussing Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison’s new book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. From the article:

“This gardening ethic is very much in danger these days, where the emphasis on cultivation has given way to an emphasis on consumption,” says Harrison, asserting that a Stanford student would be more inclined to inspect another’s backyard on HGTV than to investigate one of the many campus gardens.

“We live in a kind of frenzy of consumerism which forgets that the true source of human happiness is not in the consuming but in the cultivation, in seeing something grow, or caring for something that is not yourself. And I don’t know how much we teach the young this ethic of caring for something that is not yourself. Or even caring for things such as an object or a plant. Consumption and cultivation are at war with each other.”

The idea of a “gardening ethic” is interesting. It’s true that lately I’ve been noticing gardens and plants more, and in turn this is making me feel more connected to my neighborhood and the natural world around me. There’s something to be said for literally taking time to stop and smell the roses.


Zhan Wang’s stainless steel sculpture of San Francisco was an impressive installation, even though it was hard to visually sort a sea of shiny stainless steel and in a few places it felt like the artist ran out of steam and just started throwing in extra tea kettles.

What I like most about it is how accessible it is. Even if a viewer is not interested in the sociopolitical theme, they can still appreciate it visually and admire the ingenuity behind it. Everyone I saw enter the room spent at least 10 minutes looking at it, and some even talked to each other about it. Art that inspires people to become engaged and discuss it with strangers is the best kind.

I also love that once it’s dismantled, the pieces can be reused for another sculpture or be used as originally intended.

Glass Raindrops

The de Young and the Asian Art Museum are arguably the best art museums in San Francisco, although the bar is not as high here as I would like.

The installation shown above is by Kiki Smith, and it was commissioned specifically for this space at the de Young. I didn’t see it overhead when I was below in the room (maybe I was distracted by the upside-down dog planter bed by Chihuly). Rather, I found it by accident when I was in another gallery and became curious about an overlook at the end of the hall. There is a second hanging sculpture that is a part of this one, but the glass teardrops felt very separate to me and I only saw them as a whole in the shadows on the wall. At the time I thought it is not a good sign about a collection when the best thing in it is shadows. However, after some research I learned the artist fully intended the shadow play, so perhaps it’s simply the best piece in the room. It takes a little bit of work to find the second-floor viewing balcony, but it’s worth it to see this piece.


I can’t wait to see this sculpture in person! The city of San Francisco, replicated in stainless cookware. What’s not to love? I especially love the interpretation of docks and piers. From the Asian Art Museum site:

“For his exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, Wang has selected rocks from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, alluding to the nineteenth-century Chinese immigrant experience of mining gold during the California gold rush. Both the actual rocks and their stainless steel versions will be exhibited. The artist will also create a topographic San Francisco cityscape–one of his ‘urban landscape’ series– using steel rocks, mirrored surfaces, silverware, and stainless steel pots and pans.”

I Heart Tastespotting

Tastespotting compiles the best in food blogging from all over the world, making it the ultimate in food porn and a very amusing way to waste a bunch of time. Whether you’re looking for ideas about what to cook or just want to admire others’ creativity and talent, this is the place.

In the “OMG That’s Brilliant” category today, we have a pretzel diamond ring, by Roni Baram of the industrial design department at H.I.T, Israel on the left. Top right we have sugar people, waiting to be knocked into to their watery (or coffee-y, rather) graves from Natasha at Nova Clutch.

And the “Food Worth Drooling Over” category is being represented by the Beef Wellington on the lower right, courtesy of Mike’s Table. My nitpick here is it should be made with brioche, not puff pastry, but who am I kidding? It looks fantastic and I’m jealous. The best story of my childhood is how I requested my parents make me Beef Wellington for my birthday…when I was 4.

Cathedral of Christ the Light

The Cathedral of Christ the Light is being constructed in Oakland overlooking Lake Merritt. I can’t wait to see the final result, especially to find out how much of the exposed structure will remain visible from the exterior.

Considering the amount of concrete and steel in use, this structure is remarkably graceful. I find most old churches depressing and most modern ones charmless. This one, however, is incredibly beautiful and uplifting.

For the architecture lovers out there, the cathedral was designed by the venerable Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.