Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes is a fascinating look at what goes into our beloved glass paraphernalia… I mean, not literally what goes in to it, but rather the history, industry and the artisans that make the ornate and beautiful objects from which we toke. In fact, there’s surprisingly little reference to pot for a documentary about glass pipes—this film is 100% all about the art, though it can’t ignore the fact that the industry remains besieged by archaic drug laws that leave pipes legally precarious, if not technically illegal in some municipalities.
In the beginning, there was Bob Snodgrass, a hippie glassblower who stumbled on a technique that left his pieces changing color after repeated use—this is the brilliant blue that you may have seen bloom over time on a pipe. Bob’s pipes quickly became a hit in the parking lot of Grateful Dead shows, (okay, some stereotypes are true), and pretty soon, merely owning a “Snoddy” wasn’t enough. Bob began to attract apprentices; thus, an innovative generation of glass pipe-makers was borne in Eugene, Oregon.
As techniques and materials diversified, designs became more complex; the psychedelic, mystical hallmark of a simple glass pipe began to flourish into something more closely resembling Art Nouveau—some of them look like they could have been designed by Tiffany. Of course different regions began developing their own styles, many of which eschewed their hippie roots altogether. I’m partial to the irreverent, modern, NYC designs, like the above Warholian Sherlock pipe, and the adorable frosted “honeybears”—a tongue-in-cheek nod to the old DIY classic.
Unfortunately, the rise in popularity of glass pieces coincided with an attempt to extend the war on drugs to the Internet by then Attorney General John Ashcroft. In 2003, armed with a conveniently vague definition of what legally constitutes “drug paraphernalia,” Operations Pipe Dreams And Headhunter ran massive busts on both manufacturers and distributors. Merchandise and assets were seized, businesses were sunk, fines were levied and people (including Tommy Chong!) went to federal prison, all under the premise that selling pipes was tantamount to trafficking drugs. Much of the law surrounding glass pipes remains indistinct, and many glass artists and head shops remain at risk.
A one-of-a-kind piece by famed glass artist Robert Mickelsen
The film’s second conflict is the ambivalence of the glass artists themselves toward the pipe as a subject; some are perfectly happy to be creating a functional object, while others long to work work on non-pipe glass art. Many seem to find a balance by paying the bills with pipes, but do other glass work in their spare time. Attitudes of glass artists who do not make pipes are similarly varied, with one asking out loud, “why does it have to be a pipe?” then acknowledging that his aversion may be snobbish. Like all of the non-pipe making glass artists interviewed, he would never deny the artistry and innovation he sees in so many pipes.
Weed is a drug that lends itself to socialization, specialization and history, and the glass artists of Degenerate Art (many of whom are downright charming stoners themselves), are the perfect guides through the world of pipes. You can watch the film on Netflix, or free on Hulu, here.