A Questionable Year

Tough questions—but no torture—for Jim Compton, Dale Chihuly, Christine Gregoire, and others in 2006.

A Questionable Year

Last week, Seattle City Council member Jim Compton announced he would quit in January. In the middle of his second term, he’s suddenly and unexpectedly decided to head for greener pastures. In Romania.

Even the world’s most kindhearted travel writer, Rick Steves, says Bucharest is a bore. Is the lure of Transylvania’s traditions a temptation in this era of state-sanctioned torture? Is the chance to live at ground zero of the introduction of avian flu to Europe an opportunity too good to miss? Since Seattle is such a “world class” city, and since such a decision clearly cannot be about what Jim Compton thinks is good for Jim Compton, we are left seeking an answer to this question: What is it about serving on the Seattle City Council that makes Romania look good?

This isn’t the only question that needs answering in the coming year.

Dale Chihuly, Seattle’s internationally famous glass artist, is suing two other glass artists in U.S. District Court alleging copyright infringement. He’s claiming they are producing Chihuly-inspired knockoffs— at lower, non-Chihuly prices. This is apparently unacceptable to the pirate-patched entrepreneur. Imitation used to be the highest form of flattery, but with today’s intellectual property laws, it’s often considered the lowest form of thievery. But these guys aren’t being accused of forgery, merely of being overly influenced by the artist.

Chihuly no longer blows his own glass art; he leaves the heavy breathing to his staff these days. So even a “real” Chihuly glass object is already a kind of imitation, a work designed by the Great Man, not made by him.

The question in the case of these unsanctioned copycats is: Have they effectively stolen the glass artist’s signature style? Have these faux Chihulys crossed the line into a kind of sculptural plagiarism?

Those are the questions before the court, but they’re not my questions.

What I’m wondering is: Where does Chihuly get his brass—or glass—balls?

Here’s a guy whose artwork derives from nature. What Chihuly is most known for is his meticulously crafted glass menageries of bubbles, flowers, plants, ferns, leaves, fruit, fungi, sea shells, and the like—not to mention those ugly towers of squiggling form that suggest masses of microbes coupling. Go to his Web site (www.chihuly.com) and you’ll see galleries of Chihuly art objects juxtaposed in botanical settings. Chihuly’s entire oeuvre is the imitation of nature.

Only it isn’t 100 percent imitation, because even the most carefully blown object is a unique, man-made creation. And that unique quality is, presumably, where the value of Chihuly’s art lies. Which brings up another question: Is he really so insecure about his artistic prowess that he believes his work can’t stand comparison with imitators? And if his work can’t, is it really art in the first place? In other words, will Chihuly wind up proving in court that his objets d’art are, in essence, widgets? His critics will be happy for the validation.

If you ask me, Chihuly is lucky the guiding hand of intelligent design doesn’t have an intellectual property lawyer, because if he did, he’d own Chihuly’s ass.

More questions. The Seattle Times reports that the current development boom is so robust that Seattle is running out of booms. Those giant construction cranes that loom over projects are in short supply. Parts of the city’s skyline now resemble Medina at the height of the ’90s dot-com boom, when the ultimate status symbol was a giant crane towering over every new Microsoft millionaire’s home improvement project.

This raises a question. If Seattle is growing so much and so fast that they’re running out of construction cranes, why is the mayor always trying to grease the skids for developers to make things go even faster or higher?

And what’s up with Gov. Christine Gregoire? She’s proposing to dump an extra $38.5 million into public schools to help sophomores pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). Only about half of the class of 2008 is expected to pass the WASL, which will then be required for graduation. The test isn’t working. Kids are failing it, and teachers and parents hate it. Even former Gov. Booth Gardner, who pushed for WASL-like reforms and was appointed by Gregoire to look into the test, no longer believes in it. He recently wrote, “The biggest flaw in our reformed education system is the requirement to pass the WASL to graduate from high school.” So my question for Gregoire is, why are you asking us to throw nearly $40 million of precious public dollars to support a failing educational “reform”?

And speaking of public money, it’s time to pay more attention to Sound Transit. Phase One isn’t finished yet, but already the multicounty transit agency is looking for more big bucks for the next phase. They’ve compiled a $12 billion wish list of new projects—and that doesn’t include interest payments. The agency swears it will pare down the next request for public funds, presumably to a number that will produce less sticker shock than $12 billion—scarily close to the $11 billion figure that blew up the monorail.

Comparisons with the monorail aren’t entirely inappropriate. Seattle’s light-rail project is shorter, is taking longer, has fewer stations, and is much more expensive than originally promised. With that track record, my question isn’t, “Where’s my checkbook?” but rather, “Why are you asking for more when we haven’t even taken light rail out for a test drive?”

Yes, 2006 seems like a highly questionable year already.


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