Show Me the Money: Amanda Palmer and Dale Chihuly

Amanda Palmer, a singer-songwriter, and Dale Chihuly, a master glassblower, are two successful artists who have been the targets of criticism: Palmer for not wanting to pay back-up musicians and Chihuly for over-producing his work. In this article I discuss the controversies dogging them. (Length: 1777 words)

On August 21st, 2012, Amanda Palmer made a lot of people angry. She posted an ad on her blog looking for local musicians to play with her band while they toured. She wanted them to work for free:

Wanted: Horn-y and String-y Volunteers for the Grand Theft Orchestra Tour…We will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.

Amanda Palmer, for those of you who don’t know her, is a singer-songwriter who forms one half of punk-cabaret duo, The Dresden Dolls. The act is Berlinesque, with the requisite Sturm und Drang expressed via chiaroscuro make-up and perverse lyrics. Their music is not for everyone, as Palmer herself has said: the Dolls explore our darker natures, modelling performances on the more depraved aspects of Teutonic life.

The Dresden Dolls
The Dresden Dolls

Palmer has been on my mind lately because of another controversial artist. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is hosting a show by American glass artist Dale Chihuly and even a cursory search on the internet reveals he is a frequent target of art critics. It’s his populist appeal that’s the problem, a problem that can be explained, in part, by the non-challenging quality of his work. It’s pretty rather than thought-provoking, but Quebecers don’t always distinguish decorative from avant garde art, so he’s getting a warm reception here. It’s a fitting response – challenging or not, his work is certainly a pleasure to behold.

The common link between Palmer and Chihuly is money. Both have become wealthy from their art and that has triggered some resistance from critics and fellow artists. It seems that what artists do with their money affects how they are received once they enter that exalted state of artistic success. It’s a treacherous path, as I suspect both Palmer and Chihuly have discovered.

The problem for Palmer was the internet. She’d split from her record label and, reading the landscape of social media correctly, she made a bold move. Instead of selling her music, she published it online for free, encouraging its dissemination in any way possible. Instead of forcing fans to pay, she asked them to contribute. Her strategy worked.

A Kickstarter campaign she launched brought in over $1.2 million when all she was asking for was $100,000. She became an internet phenomenon and was asked by TED organizers to give a talk at their 2013 Long Beach event. In a display of solipsism that got music insiders riled, Palmer stepped onto the TED stage and made her plan sound simple. In truth, it was anything but.

(To see my other articles about problematic TED talks click here  and  here.)

Writing in The New Yorker, Joshua Clover notes that Palmer’s actions create “a set of problems about art and work in an age when the mechanisms for valuing them have broken down.” The internet is making our lives easier, but it’s also changing our ideas about value and ownership, particularly when it comes to intellectual property. Palmer’s defiance — she says she “fought her way” off her record label — adds one layer of romance to her TED talk; her successful use of crowdsourcing adds another.

But Clover’s observations about art go deeper. Musicians were angry because of the romancing of Palmer’s methods — of receiving money and asking for unpaid help. She is another musician taking advantage after all, which makes the situation even worse. However, in a manner requiring some sleight-of-hand, she tried to make herself sound the victim. The end result? Hearing how she bested an unsupportive record label should have felt right, but strangely her talk didn’t have that effect. Instead of appreciating how she succeeded without corporate support, I wondered if she understood her audience was made up of wealthy individuals, many of whom run corporations. But then, I think she probably did. Her Doc Martins and painted eyebrows aside, the narrative she spun was pure Disney, complete with an evil stepmother (her record label) and evil stepsisters (her fellow musicians). I only wondered why she, like a fairytale princess, was telling her story to an audience of wolves.

A Kinkade print
A Kinkade print

When it comes to Dale Chihuly, I had initially set out to write a review of his exhibit at the MMFA. However, when I did a bit of research, I found a substantial body of criticism, some of which mocked his success and pointed out the repetitiveness of his work. I suspect it’s his medium of glass which is partially to blame. While he does wondrous things with it — his chandeliers alone are worth seeing — I did get a sense of repetition in the forms he’s created. One critic likened Chihuly to Thomas Kinkade, the painter whose cloying paintings became staples in bespoke retail outlets, outlets no self-respecting critic would enter without a blindfold. I thought it was an interesting, if savage, observation, and set out to find out more about Chihuly’s work. The comparison to Kinkade, I realized, was really a statement about Chihuly’s own tendency to produce work in bulk.

The question of mass production (and reproduction) of artistic works led me back to an essay I’d read in university, Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin’s focus is primarily on film, but he also touches on how reproduction affects other forms of art. Written in 1935, it’s a text that continues to inspire imitation and controversy. One idea of Benjamin’s seems apt here, particularly when it comes to Chihuly:

Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin

That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of a work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art…by making many reproductions [the process of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. 

This might sound like a simple set of ideas, but what is significant, for the purposes of this discussion, are Benjamin’s ideas about aura and the space “beyond the realm of art.”

In a spin-off essay, “Artwork in the Age of Electronic Mutability,” Krzysztof Ziarek takes the idea of reproduction and its implications further, arguing that:

…this de-aestheticization does not simply mean stripping art of the ‘patina’ of the beautiful but involves more revolutionary disinvestment of art from aesthetics, that is divorced from the very idea that art is constituted primarily as an aesthetic object of experience.

Ziarek describes the point at which an avant garde object of art loses its aura of originality and becomes mere decoration. He uses the term “disinvestment” because digital technology, which gives everyone the power to reproduce things, can diminish art’s novelty and power even more than, say, a printing press. In Benjamin’s terms, an art object reproduced in the aggregate enters a realm beyond art and becomes something less meaningful. Ziarek brings Benjamin’s theory into the digital age, prompting questions like “If I have Monet’s lily pads on my iPhone, will the aura of his original paintings still move me?”

Krsysztof Ziarek
Krsysztof Ziarek

The difficulties experienced by Palmer and Chihuly boil down to one word: authenticity. In Chihuly’s case, it’s the authenticity of his works, which, while visually stunning, are ubiquitous and follow a limited set of templates; for Palmer, the question of authenticity concerns her personal conduct, conduct that is challenging, but in ways not related to her artistry. If good art is meant to provoke thought, then what are we to make of these two? Is it fair to compare them on the basis of how they do their work?

Ziarek comments further on the relationship between art and technology, observing the extent to which technology, with its reproductive functions, has in some ways subsumed and displaced art:

With intensifying social and cultural changes in view, it seems almost inevitable that art would continue to lose its social and cultural status and find itself even further marginalized in relation to techno-scientific, consumer-oriented, and entertainment-driven society…

Has art died or have reliable frames of reference for it simply vanished? One answer is that the privileging of technology over art has created an imbalance that sees corporate interests capturing myriad sources of creativity. Schools, universities, museums and art galleries are increasingly funded by a cadre of ultra-wealthy patrons, patrons who have little interest in cultivating art that challenges the status quo. It’s a state of affairs directly linked to privatization and deregulation, the same economic forces that have destabilized the U.S. Artists are part of a new class emerging from that rubble, an educated and under-employed class known as the precariat. This makes them proverbial canaries in a coal mine — artists and those associated with them are usually the first to suffer from economic downturns.

One of Chihuly's glass shells
One of Chihuly’s glass shells

I think this is the real reason so many musicians responded badly to Palmer’s behaviour. She used her moment on stage to trounce them, which was bad enough, but then she geo-locates them firmly outside the camp she shares with her techie friends. She’s in a cozy environment, but since many artists see themselves as challengers to groups that dominate society and, in turn, culture, her alliance with them, from their point of view, raises doubts about her authenticity. I’m sure that to some she’s like a punk rocker who’s only a punk rocker on weekends.

Dale Chihuly, by contrast, is difficult to place when it comes to the American arts scene. Although he has his supporters — Jeff Koons and David Hockney among them — his prodigious output and willingness to promote himself has won him a host of critics. However, his workaholism is based on need. His struggles with bi-polar disorder are well-known and he admits it’s his work that sustains him. Where he differs from Palmer is in how he spends his time and money. Chihuly is known for cultivating the talent of young glassblowers and also for making large donations of the quiet sort to hospitals, museums and arts groups. Another happy by-product of all his work is that Washington state, where he is based, has the largest population of glassblowers in the U.S. It’s become a haven for artists like him, a fact that points to his generosity despite his discretion.

Is it fair to judge Palmer and Chihuly on the basis of their ethics? Of their behaviour? Is comparing a musician to a glassblower just? It’s hard to be sure, but the question of authenticity, in all its variations, seems appropriate here.

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2 thoughts on “Show Me the Money: Amanda Palmer and Dale Chihuly

  1. Perhaps individuals are up in arms because certain artists have created a new paradigm, an altogether different perspective on how art is enjoyed and consumed. Palmer asked for $100K and got a million? What does that tell you about her audience? It’s huge, and they love her. She did it her way. She wouldn’t compromise her art for a record deal (often labels force-feed commercial stuff… ya think?) We’re living in a new world. If you choose to give away your art, eventually the people who really love it step forward and happily pay for it…will beg to pay for it, because they truly want to support your growth as an artist.

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