Lavish glass pipes embedded with dazzling beads, bright color and shimmering dichroic pieces are so ubiquitous that it’s almost easy to forget there was a time before they were in practically everyone’s pockets.
“Degenerate Art” is a feature-length documentary on modern glass artisans creating something many may construe as “drug paraphernalia.” Aging hipsters and greying baby boomers may still remember the twilight days of the 1980s, when the Protopipe was considered the ultimate in smoking innovations and the Matrix waterpipe was a smoker’s luxury item.
“Degenerate Art” wisely ignores the mass production explosion of pipes, instead focusing on bringing long-overdue credit to the innovators who brought all of this about, such as Bob Snodgrass. He was the man behind the Snoddy and the tie-dyed father of glass pipes. His original innovation of fuming the inside of the clear glass with silver vapor created the illusion of a color-changing pipe. As the pipe accumulated resin inside, it gave contrast to the silver’s multi-hued fractal swirls in a dazzling fashion. For quite a while, all glass pipes were called Snoddys, which shows the status and regard that he held in the pre-mass production days.
Those majestic Sherlock-esque pipes – often called a “Snoddy” – were a sign of social status, of the seriousness of your attitude towards cannabis (i.e. deadly serious) and rapidly grew out of the deeper underground subculture and into the greater public awareness. In only a handful of years, glass pipes would become as common and disposable as a drinking glass.
Like most changes this one came as quick, subtle and unexpected and by the late 1990s no self-respecting smoker below the age of 50 was without a glass piece. By then glass pipes were quite literally flooding in from mass production workshops in far-flung regions like China and Pakistan. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also the truest sign of popularity.
A detour later in the movie recounts the DEA’s Operation Pipe Dreams in 2003, which took down the first manufacturer to bring glass to the common consumer — Jerome Baker Designs— and made the next several years very complicated for a slew of otherwise humble artisans making pretty glass pipes.
“Degenerate Art” is quite thorough in honoring both the past and the present of glass artists, although it may run a bit long for one who is only peripherally interested. It effortlessly frames the birth of glass pipes as a vibrant, artistic expression of the strong and continually-suppressed underground (and almost entirely Grateful Dead tour-networked) cannabis culture of the late 1980s, while still giving the many other important artists and innovators their appropriate recognition. The film’s exploration of glass pipe artistry is an essential document of this important facet of cannabis consciousness unlikely to be trumped in the future.