Sunday,
April 20

 
CULTURE

Divorce, art style

The Art Guys Marry a Plant. Photo by Everett Taasivigen.

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 ( 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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Radio Pa Pa: It's getting gray left of the dial

Jim Beal Jr., of the Third Coast Music Network on KSYM. Illustration by Jeremiah TeutschA few months ago I was stuck in a rush-hour parking lot on 281 North, scanning the FM radio for something decent. Because I was at a dead stop and packing a newly upgraded iPhone with Siri, the personal assistant software, I jokingly asked my phone, “What’s the best radio station in San Antonio?” (Try this for yourself, readers!) Siri answered, “KSYM 90.1.”

I thought this was a savvy answer for a voice-activated piece of aluminum, and I was also a bit ashamed. Why hadn’t I, a former college radio DJ, thought of that? Probably because I don’t associate KSYM’s typical format with what I’d always understood to be “college radio.”

KSYM 90.1 FM is the campus radio station of San Antonio College and markets itself as “your only alternative.” However, if you tuned to KSYM during weekday rush hours, or “drive time” as it’s known in the radio industry, you might be confused. “What’s that old man doing on college radio playing Joan Osborne and Buddy Guy songs?” you might ask yourself. Move up the dial just a bit, to KRTU 91.7 FM, Trinity University’s station, and you could ask yourself almost the same question. “Are Trinity kids really into jazz? Was an essay on John Coltrane part of the application?”

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Shelf Life: Girls girls girls

I went into my viewing of the television series Girls with a good deal of trepidation. I had followed the press – the HBO comedy which premiered last spring garnered a good deal of accolades and some very pointed criticism: It's whitewashed. It’s pretentious. It's just about boring privileged people without real problems.

I felt a lot of pressure to feel strongly about the show, and if possible, to hate it (hating something always seems more fun, anyways).The first episode, centering as it does around the horror of being financially cut off by your parents, did little to assuage my concerns. And Hannah Horvath, (the protagonist, played by Lena Dunham, who also writes and directs the series) didn't seem like a particularly likeable or interesting character. In the first episode, it's easy to see her as a self-indulgent and spoiled young writer, eager to finish a book of self-aggrandizing memoirs on her parent's dime.

“I'm the voice of my generation!” she insists to ol' mom and dad.

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Outlawing the tease

The backstage window of the opulent Gibson Guitar Lounge at Maggie Mae's provides a bird’s-eye view of the holiday revelers below listlessly searching for a transitory home before last call on Austin's famed Sixth Street. Three members of the Jigglewatts Burlesque are sitting serenely around the dressing room enjoying each other’s company with no apparent sign of haste.

Coco Lectric, Goldie Candela and Ruby Joule just completed 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. performances of “Tease the Season.” It's about 1:30 a.m. when the topic of San Antonio's new “underboob” ordinance shimmies its way into an already spirited conversation.

The discourse is, of course, much calmer than it might have been only a decade ago. Social media allowed many of the more outspoken burlesque community members to indulge in personal rants almost as soon as the news hit the street that SA’s City Council had passed an ordinance making it illegal for women to perform in pasties – the traditional hallmark of burlesque – unless they’re working at a registered “sexually oriented business.” (That designation is shorthanded, somewhat hilariously, as SOB.)

Lectric is internationally known for her tassel-twirling capabilities. I witnessed her impressive skill only recently for myself.

“The thing is ... San Antonio is incredibly conservative ... sexually,” Lectric says as she slowly gathers her costumes and tucks them back into her garment bag. “Which makes all of the strip clubs very popular. Which makes all the strip clubs work in San Antonio.”

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Taking back El Mercado

This publication held a public forum in 2011 with developer Ed Cross and Mayor Julian Castro, about two years after the opening of Cross’ downtown apartment building, The Vistana, with its 247 residences almost entirely occupied. Cross, when asked about Vistana renters’ biggest complaint, mentioned the lack of a nearby grocery store. At the time, Castro was promising that someone — somehow — would break ground on a downtown grocery within a year (that was more than a year-and-a-half ago, for those keeping score at home).

The Vistana is located at the corner of West Commerce and Santa Rosa streets, across from Milam Square Park, and catty-corner to Christus Santa Rosa Hospital to the northwest, and Market Square to the southwest. Market Square, as all San Antonio residents know, is home to several mediocre Mexican restaurants and an endless Mexican-themed tchotchke market aimed squarely at tourists. When the city’s marketing gurus branded it as El Mercado, and began promoting it as a the biggest indoor Mexican market outside Mexico, they left some traces of its former identity: signs reading “Farmers Market” still grace one of the buildings.

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