Houston’s Menil Collection is Texas’ cultural Garden of Eden, rivaled only by its relatives in Marfa. Opened by Dominique de Menil in 1987 with profits from the Schlumberger fortune, it has secured the legacy of the giants of modernism and the sirens of post-modernism, from Picasso and Magritte to Beuys and Marclay. The recent exhibition, Silence, which included a video of a performance of John Cage’s 4’ 33”, is a representative example of its curatorial smarts and daring.
But the self-assurance it took to commission the Rothko Chapel, or build a standalone gallery devoted to Cy Twombly, is long gone, and the current leadership is apparently no match for a little public controversy.
The Menil decided last week to get rid of an installation by well-known collaborators The Art Guys because of festering allegations that it’s homophobic – allegations fomented by former Houston Chronicle art critic, sometimes prostitute and would-be performance artist Devon Britt-Darby (né Douglass Britt; representative statement: “I’m trying to help museums be better whores”).
Well, if not homophobic, insensitive. In a 2011 video blog by Britt-Darby (whicn you can find at the link above), text superimposed on the image says, “No one involved is a homophobe, but the piece was tone deaf given the social context.”
The problem installation is the remnant of a 2009 performance, The Art Guys Marry a Plant, which took place at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and which was part of an exhibition called No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston. The tree was subsequently planted on the Menil’s grounds, and was formally accepted into the collection in 2011.
Rainey Knudson, founder of Texas arts journal Glasstire, is married to one of the Art Guys, and waited out the controversy for months before finally weighing in this week with a sharp indictment of the Menil:
Here is what the Menil is going to say about this decision:
• They want to save the tree;
•They’re worried about vandalism.
Here is the truth:
• They’re tired of the controversy around the artwork;
• They need to raise money for their drawing center and want this distraction to go away;
• They don’t believe in the artwork and are sorry they ever accepted it into their collection.
Knudson spends several paragraphs explaining that the piece isn’t anti gay marriage – it was inspired in part by the belief common in many cultures and religions that some sort of life force connects us all. Yoda is quoted, only partly tongue in cheek. Knudson also reports that the Menil’s director never made any attempt to contact the artists about the work – either to elicit their intended meaning or to consult with them about addressing the controversy – until after a decision had already been made to move the work to a less prominent spot or return it to the artists.
It’s deeply disturbing that a cultural institution – especially one known for its role in promoting provocative work – would cave to social pressure. But the Menil shouldn’t be standing by the work because it’s not meant to be homophobic – it should be standing by the work regardless of the work’s intended message. An art museum isn’t a public school; it’s not a courthouse or a City Hall. Its role isn’t to teach the agreed-upon values of society or to protect or promote civil rights – its job is to present and preserve individual expression, to provide a safe place to engage revolutionary ideas and confront disturbing thoughts.
Artwork will inevitably embody the social norms and fault lines of an artist’s generation – in silent assent or vocal opposition – but likewise it’s not its job to do so. What if the Met were pressured to remove all works of art that are racist or misogynistic? Or simply “tone deaf given the social context”? What cultural heritage could survive our enlightened value system? What would we know of ourselves as people if art didn’t stand at least somewhat independent of the official history?
If an artist is lucky, her creations will be meaningful and valuable enough to someone else that they will outlive her – and even the curators’ notes or artist’s statements that accompanied them. It will be up to a future generation to figure out what a work means, and to that task it will bring its own assumptions, ingrained values and salient conflicts. The Menil, in fact, eschews wall text. From the website’s “History/Philosophy” page: “ ... the Menil believes that a viewer’s encounter with a work of art should be immediate and direct, not conditioned by others’ thoughts and opinions about the work.”
The aspiration for the museum’s leadership should be as high.
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