On Institutional Cowardice: The Menil Collection


[Disclosure: I am married to one of The Art Guys. I am not an impartial bystander. Read the following with that in mind.]

It was announced yesterday that the Menil Collection is removing the artwork The Art Guys Marry A Plant from its collection. Practically speaking, this means digging up a small tree and removing some stones and a plaque that surround it from the Menil’s grounds.

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.

[For any readers who don’t know the background of this piece, here is a primer: http://www.theartguys.com/Marry_A_Plant.html + http://www.texasmonthly.com/preview/2012-03-01/feature4 ]

Almost since its inception, The Art Guys Marry A Plant has mysteriously engendered controversy. “Mysteriously,” because the original artwork — the wedding held in 2009 at the Cullen Sculpture Garden at the MFAH, as part of a show at the Contemporary Arts Museum — was interpreted and loudly promoted by a few individuals in Houston as being homophobic and anti-gay marriage. The reasoning for this conclusion has never been completely clear, and the artists who created the piece have repeatedly denied that it is “about” gay marriage (or indeed, that it is “about” anything at all.)

Marry_Plant_Pressphoto

How can this not be about gay marriage?? Look, there are two guys in tuxedos! Photo by Everett Taasevigen

So does The Art Guys Marry A Plant criticize gay marriage, and is it (and by extension, are the artists who made it) homophobic? Let’s ignore what both the artists and the critics have said, and let the art speak for itself.

The following is one of the two readings that were part of the original wedding ceremony in 2009:

From William Clifford, English philosopher and mathematician:

… we cannot suppose that so enormous a jump from one creature to another should have occurred at any point in the process of evolution as the introduction of a fact entirely different and absolutely separate from the physical fact. It is impossible for anybody to point out the particular place in the line of descent where that event can be supposed to have taken place. The only thing that we can come to, if we accept the doctrine of evolution at all, is that even in the very lowest organism, even in the Amoeba which swims about in our own blood, there is something or other, inconceivably simple to us, which is of the same nature with our own consciousness.*

Let’s repeat that last sentence: “… even in the Amoeba which swims about in our own blood, there is something or other, inconceivably simple to us, which is of the same nature with our own consciousness.”

Hm. How does one get from amoebas sharing our own consciousness to a political, moral, satirical or otherwise statement about gay marriage or gay people?

In the context of evolution, amoebas sharing our consciousness sounds quaintly positive and affirming: we are all interconnected, and all organic matter (maybe even all matter, organic or inorganic) shares some life force, some sense of itself. This concept comes partly from ideas around pantheism and panpsychism and it’s one of the central ideas underpinning The Art Guys Marry A Plant. Marrying a tree, a symbolic act that has roots in Eastern and Native American traditions, is a deceptively simple gesture that can be boiled down to “we’re all in this together, let’s take care of each other.” Personally, I think of Yoda describing the Force, but I can also guarantee that the artists weren’t thinking about Star Wars when they made this piece. They were thinking about science, and philosophy, and death, and something closer to this 1997 poem by William Meredith titled “Tree Marriage”:

In Chota Nagpur and Bengal
the betrothed are tied with threads to
mango trees, they marry the trees
as well as one another, and
the two trees marry each other.
Could we do that some time with oaks
or beeches? This gossamer we
hold each other with, this web
of love and habit is not enough.
In mistrust of heavier ties,
I would like tree-siblings for us,
standing together somewhere, two
trees married with us, lightly, their
fingers barely touching in sleep,
our threads invisible but holding.

“Tree Marriage” by William Meredith, from Effort at Speech. © Northwestern University Press, 1997. [via The Writers Almanac].

yoda

“Its energy surrounds us and binds us… you must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes”

 

Here is the truth, which unfortunately has been utterly obscured in the drummed-up “controversy” around this artwork: this piece has nothing to do with gay marriage, and it never did.  

So.

Where does that leave us? A very small, very vocal, handful of individuals in Houston have decided that, regardless of what the artists have to say about it, the artwork is homophobic and anti-gay marriage, and therefore it shouldn’t be at the Menil Collection.

What’s an institution to do?

The Menil Collection is certainly not the first museum to own an artwork that some people don’t like or choose willfully to misunderstand. There are a lot of options in such a scenario, but in a nutshell, a museum can either stand by the artwork (and the artist) and keep the piece, or it can cave and get rid of it.

The Menil Collection has caved. And now they are trying to quietly make this whole situation go away.

From 2009, the time of the original wedding ceremony, to the moment the Menil announced in mid-2011 that they would be accessioning the piece in a dedication ceremony, until last month — all through 3+ years of off-and-on, sometimes frenzied media attention — the director of the Menil Collection, Josef Helfenstein, never once communicated with the artists, either via email, or phone, or letter, or in person. He never asked them what they thought about the artwork, and certainly never lent reassurance that that the Menil would stand by them, as it stands by all the artists in its collection who were “provocateurs” during their time (more on that issue later). In addition, he made no public statement regarding the artwork whatsoever, one way or another. The director was mute.

Finally, in December 2012, The Art Guys were asked to meet with Helfenstein for a meeting in which he announced his decision to move the tree, either behind a building somewhere on the Menil campus, or preferably, off the premises entirely. The Art Guys were asked what they wanted. They said they wanted the tree to stay where it was. Their request was refused, and they were told that the tree would have to go. Given that decision, they asked to have it returned to them rather than be ignominiously hidden behind a building somewhere in Montrose.

Here we have a major museum, once known as the crown jewel in the Texas art scene, built as the legacy of visionary art collectors who were dedicated to the lives of individual artists, as was so movingly demonstrated in the recent exhibition Dear John & Dominique: Letters and Drawings from the Menil Archives. Look at the walls of the Menil Collection. Think of how many of those artists were criticized as shallow, or degenerate, or tasteless, or “provacateurs” in their own time. The Menil Collection was always so inspiring because of the independence and vision of its founders, who had the guts to follow their own taste. They fostered artists with their friendship, patronage and support, building one of the truly great art collections in doing so.

Today, the Menil Collection accepts into its collection an artwork, hosts a moving dedication ceremony for that artwork, subsequently endures a Chinese drip torture of whisper campaigns, letter writing, weeping, and ear-bending of staff and board members, claiming that the artwork (and the artists who made it) are homophobic and anti-gay marriage, and therefore by extension so must be the museum for sheltering such an atrocity. And never once, never once does that museum’s director ask the artists what the work is really about, or make any public statement regarding it.

The Menil Collection has clearly lost its way. Its decision to remove The Art Guys Marry A Plant from its collection is an institutional failure of breathtaking cowardice.

tree

Rainey Knudson is the founder of Glasstire.

Addendum: Beyond a few news items, Glasstire has avoided covering the controversy around The Art Guys Marry a Plant because I, its founder, have a deep conflict of interest, being married to one of the artists who made the piece. But if it had been other artists involved, we would almost certainly have covered the story in depth before now, and I like to think that we would have made the effort to interview the artists and ask them, the people who made it, what this piece was all about.

* Link to the full transcript of the wedding ceremony: http://www.theartguys.com/Marry_A_Plant_vows.pdf

 

Update: two days after the publication of this article, the Menil Collection released the following statement:

The Menil Collection and the Art Guys removed the work The Art Guys Marry a Plant from the grounds where it has been on view since 2011.  The Menil Collection wishes to make clear that it has not de-accessioned the work, nor has it taken any steps toward de-accessioning the work, which continues to be a part of the institution’s collection.

Like any art museum, the Menil Collection reserves the right to relocate works on display or to remove works from display.  After damage occurred to the part of the work that is a living tree, the Menil felt it necessary to move The Art Guys Marry a Plant and discussed this proposal with the artists, who stated that they would instead prefer for the work to be put into their possession. The Menil has honored this request.

The Menil is fully aware of the intense responses that have arisen regarding this work. The Menil has engaged in numerous discussions with parties who have felt injured or offended because the work was being displayed, and parties who have felt injured or offended because the work has been vandalized and might not be displayed. The Menil has preferred to conduct these conversations in private.

The Menil seeks to engage in a vigorous conversation about contemporary works of art and their subjects.  We exhibit sometimes controversial works and organize public discussions of the issues they raise, including same-sex love and gender identity. In this regard, we are proud to be presenting the current exhibition The Progress of Love and the forthcoming exhibition Forrest Bess. [via Texas Monthly]

also by Rainey Knudson

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83 responses to “On Institutional Cowardice: The Menil Collection”

  1. even thou i hate to hear of public art being removed….i am glad this particular piece of public art is gone…..i never found the concept interesting…… if it is not making a stament then it is a very boring piece…..if it was making a statement it was not a very well thought out one. take it out to memorial park and plant it there….let it be of some use….there are a million dead trees there that need replacing!

    1. Really? I’m surprised that with a name like “art for art’s sake!” you would be one of those who feel like this piece has to fit your concept of what art is supposed to be in order to exist. The city is full of art I find uninteresting, but I’d hate to see any of it go away.

      I rather enjoyed this piece from the beginning and I found the controversy disturbing. I always thought the piece was innocently abstract and existential. Now it’s a symbol of how bullies can get their way.

      1. it doesnt have to fit anyones concept of art….FOR ME PERSONALLY…i think its booring and Un original….but that is my own opinion….and if the Menil does not want it on their grounds then it is their perogative to remove it…no matter what the reasoning is….i still stand by my suggestion that it be moved to Memorial Park!

    2. We have a home at URBAN-15 for this wonderful living sculpture.

      The Art Guys have exposed a reality at the Menil that stains all the optimism and inventiveness it once offered the imaginative artist of Texas. But they also exposed the Artificial Intelligencia of the wanna-be arts scene and social engineers.

      Perhaps we are seeing this backwards; perhaps the Museum should be removed from the premises and the tree allowed to remain or perhaps that lovely neighborhood which once graced those streets should be reinstalled as a new artwork.

      We’ll take the tree. http://www.urban15.org. get in touch.

  2. Aghhh. I am so very disappointed in the Menil, such a step seems to negate so many of the things I love about that place. I will miss visiting that little tree. How disheartening… Thank you for writing this article, you handled your bias well.

  3. I am very sorry to see this piece go, and I support the fight for marriage equality wholeheartedly. I have always thought that this piece was not a commentary on that, but rightly surmised that it was a dedication to the wholeness of life.
    I will say that the prior reputation of the Art Guys as social critics may have caused people to misinterpret the action, but enough has been written about it since that everyone in the art world and elsewhere should know what the motivation behind it was.
    Phooey on the Menil for caving rather than supporting the artists and using the controversy to educate rather than encouraging ignorance.

  4. The “OMG it’s a comment about gays” thing is so infuriating. If the two men present make it about gay marriage then ever nude art is about porn. That’s the level of thinking that comes from. I am glad I had the chance to see it while installed and I will write a letter to the Menil asking them to reconsider, as I hope others will too. I found it to be a very peaceful work, and this was post-attack. The tree had new growth. So take that, society.

  5. Now everyone gets an opinion in America even those so contrived and reactionary they give most of us pause asking how such self centered ignorance persists when we should welcome dialogue from all corners; and like most steps taken backwards this one will end as a shameful smudge on the Menil. I have paused several times at the tree and wondered how much better the environment might be for our children and their children if we thought of our relationship to forests as a sort of holy matrimony. X another altar to the forest.

  6. I am disappointed with the decision made by the Menil. The work should have been supported. It’s a shame. “Save the tree” …”protect it from vandalism.” I think this is rather lame and does not make sense considering this controversy and worry have been perpetuated by the Menil, critics and others who may be homophobic themselves, or people with their own agendas. This is a reflection of an increasingly misinformed and uninformed society.(who cares anyway?) This controversy and post-attack, thank you Allison, I find boring and dishonest unlike the artwork which I find interesting and thought provoking. I appreciate “The Art Guys” and their work as well as their decision to retrieve it. The work stands on its own. If I want to know if “The Art Guys” are homophobic or anti-gay marrriage I will ask them or look for work that states it but that really is not the case here. Although I find it difficult to believe the artists did not entertain the thoughts of this interpretation,(that being one point of course), I applaud their efforts. The best artists are “provocateurs” and their work will be clever. What is Art without Affect…decoration? Thanks Rainey.

  7. Well written Rainey! I never understood why the Menil did not use this opportunity to have a conversation about artistic intent, public controversies in art, or any other numerous related topics. Where was the panel discussion? The salon? They chose to forgo intelligent conversation for such a contemptible approach. I am not surprised given other recent choices they have made. I am just disappointed and glad to see it so eloquently addressed.

  8. The Houston art community is a generous, kind, competitive and wonderful place. I owe so many people in it, from artists, writers, gallerists, curators and directors, a personal debt of gratitude I will never be able to repay.
    Loving this community as I do, I think the gravity of this decision by The Menil Collection cannot be understated. This is a very sad and shameful moment for an institution that every artist I know has come to cherish. Regardless of the controversy, regardless of the actors, regardless of the varied perceptions of the quality and intent of the work – The Menil Collection made the decision to acquire a work of art and then allowed a group of individuals to pressure it into removing that work from their collection without comment. I would imagine that every artist in The Menil Collection would be horrified by this decision. And so should every artist in this city.

  9. OK, what was the Menil supposed to do? For them it’s a lose-lose situation:

    Hand the piece back to the Art Guys, saying, “sorry, Guys, we made a mistake-this plant is too hot for us, and it’s not one of your better works, anyway?” Then grin into the shitstorm?

    OR

    Keep the piece on prominent public display FOREVER, getting bigger and bigger as the years go by, a monument, for some, to insensitivity, both on the part of the artists and the institution?

    Bad either way, and I think the Menil has courageously decided to take its medicine up front rather than in installments.

    The problem is the tree. I’m sure the Menil’s got tons of art they would rather not display- in storage. Every museum has. The trick is to keep the skeletons in the closet. If the piece were portable, it would have been displayed for a while, then locked safely away and forgotten, with no bones broken. The permanent, public nature of this piece makes that impossible, necessitating what will, for the Menil, be a painful public drubbing. Best get it over with.

    The Menil’s worst crime is weaselly hopefulness that that whole issue might go away quietly. A forthright press release, even an apology, wouldn’t have made it any better, but it would have made it seem less underhanded.

    The saddest part of the affair is that it paves paradise: the current Menil, however good, is becoming just another museum, subject to the pressures and compromises museums face. It’s not the legendary Menil: an inspired, independent, invulnerable, fairy godmother, beloved for its eccentricities as much as for its taste. We expected better.

  10. Actually, the Menil could leave the tree where it is and just put the plaque in storage. According to Rainey’s article, the Menil is removing the tree from its collection because The Art Guys asked it to instead of putting it in storage. When the Menil ever decides it wants to rotate a painting that was a gift of an artist off view, does it call the artist up and offer to return the gift? It sounds like the insistence that the tree and plaque not be separated is the problem here — along with the Menil’s cowardly refusal to entertain any public discussion of this piece.

  11. Anyone who has spent 5 min with these guys knows there is not a homophobic bone in them. This might be their best work as it has really fucked with people and inspired so much chatter.

    In conclusion, i think this tree should be bronzed and turned into an art car then sold for a few million, give or take, to some asshole oil executive who just got divorced and is trying to spruce up his place because his wife took all his shit. I saw some horrifying galleries on Colquitt St. that could pull it off. That way these guys can buy a great place at the beach and have the last laugh.

  12. I personally have said from the beginning, that the art itself, the words that were spoken at the marriage ceremony, the movement of the plant and the Artists and the entire response BEFORE the dreaded cry from the balcony that the Art Guys supposedly don’t support Gay Marriage, is a pivotal, historical, and genuinely beautiful piece by The Art Guys. In the same way I WILL NOT denounce this piece to an expression of an idea that is hollow and use an acronym to talk about the work for the sake of brevity. it is titled “The Art Guys Marry A Plant” and the backlash and subsequent defacement (on video I am told but have not seen) needs to be discussed…. discussion is important as there are many views. I believe there were unfortunate sinister underlying motives in SOME of the pack that is CON, and that is what is so disturbing to me.I remember you copied me the letter you sent to the Menil. Like a democrat talking to a republican this issue has polarized our community. The conversation is larger now and I wish the civil discourse had taken place instead of someone actually defacing the art not one but FOUR times. it is actually heartbreaking to me as an artist that my friends, Jack and Mike who are continuing for 30 years to have a voice in their work that has seemed to question the state of gravity itself, has been subjected to insults where supposed art professionals are saying the work itself is not valid. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the Surrealists as they were defending their work.

  13. Here’s the thing.
    As an art educator (or art lover/art-love recruiter), there are two very simple and basic ideas to validate and celebrate: the artist’s intention, and the viewer’s interpretation.
    1. THE ARTIST’S INTENTION: When asked sincerely, the question “Why in the hell would someone make this?” is a perfect and fabulous question. It can be the beginning of the discovery of some of the fundamental issues that are being addressed by the artist. The more ridiculous the project seems is often a sign that the artist really, really wants you to go back to that simple question and think about it. Good art question, good art conversation.
    2. THE VIEWER’S INTERPRETATION: While artists write artist statements, and the folks who work with artists write catalogue essays, wall labels, and art reviews/criticism, we have all long insisted that the primary relationship in the whole endeavor is the one between the work of art and the viewer. Indeed, it works best when there’s a bit of enthusiasm, reflection, and self-education on their part but, without some viewer buy-in, art becomes bizarrely masturbatory, and I’m darn sure it would lead to fewer grants, sales, and venues.

    As to the artists’ intention, I have to totally agree with the earlier comment that Jack and Michael don’t have “a homophobic bone” in their bodies. They are super nice guys, but I can imagine either one of them making some goofy comment that could be interpreted as homophobic, in which case I know that they would immediately apologize and explain that they didn’t mean it that way (and probably become best-friends-for-life with the offendee).

    This was not a goofy comment; it was an art work/project/performance of The Art Guys. And the most vocal offendees were not clueless museum-goers or some uneducated relatives from East Texas, but very educated contemporary art lovers. The fact that they were notorious grumpuses on a number of other issues made it pretty easy to initially dismiss them and to start a ridiculous argument.

    But there is a huge difference between “Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way. GET OVER IT” and “Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way, I’M SORRY I OFFENDED YOU, BUT I OBVIOUSLY DID. SO LET’S HAVE A CONVERSATION.” Let’s, for a second, assume that these two or three very vocal offendees represent a large number of offended viewers. Or a small number of viewers that you totally validate. They are viewers. Looking at your art. They are offended. You are actually telling them that they are stupid for not properly understanding your art!

    The homophobic conversation around Jack and Michael is absurd and everyone knows it. The issue is not whether The Art Guys are homophobic (NOT!), or whether their piece The Art Guys Marry a Tree is anti-homosexual (not INTENTIONALLY but, c’mon guys, in hindsight, the timing was a bit off), but why Houston can’t discuss these things in less than polarizing ways with a bunch of well-intended, super nice people! The Menil Collection, the Houston art community (offendees included), The Art Guys! You know we all rock!

    1. Hear, Hear!

      1. Seconded.

        And a question for “The Art Guys Marry a Plant”: if my husband consents . . . will you marry us?

    2. Thank you, Paula. I’m so glad this discussion is taking place on Glasstire, but I also wonder why it isn’t taking place at the Menil. I think we can all agree that the role of an arts institution is not merely to warehouse objects. Historically, the Menil has embraced dialogue on any number of issues, civil rights chief among them. Why not now?

      You can’t tell people whether or not they have a right to be offended by something. You can’t tell artists whether or not they have a right to make something. And we all have our own ideas of what makes a successful artwork. But the Menil should have taken responsibility to facilitate conversation between the artists and viewers in an open public discussion.

      I find it very depressing when these circular firing squads happen in the art community. Being critical and challenging each other is extremely important, necessary and justified. But the overall level of vitriol is not. At the end of the day, the vast majority of people in the arts support similar social and political goals and want freedom and equality for their fellow human beings. There are plenty of groups out in the world who don’t. This doesn’t make the discussion any less important, nor does it mean that having liberal beliefs makes us exempt from being hurtful or insensitive. It does suggest that the Menil could have provided a forum for reasonable people to disagree.

      In initially accepting The Art Guys Marry a Plant into the collection, the Menil asserted its belief in the work. Having it removed says that is no longer the case. How about letting us, the viewers, in on that conversation?

      1. Beautifully put, Kelly.

        1. Thanks!

    3. Could have been a teachable moment – well said Paula.

  14. I’m so sick of the phony how-dare-anyone-call-The-Art-Guys-homophobic outrage, and Rainey knows better than to repeat it. Here’s what I wrote in my original article criticizing the piece that “And it has nothing to do with the country’s hottest civil rights issue, they say, although they both support the right of same-sex couples to marry.” Later in the story, I criticize them for INADVERTENTLY reinforcing the slippery-slope argument against gay marriage.

    Why can’t The Art Guys and their apologists grasp the difference between homophobia and heterosexism and the fact that not being guilty of one doesn’t get you off the hook for the other? The Art Guys gave their performance all the trappings of civil marriage, claimed (wrongly) that they were going to get a marriage license, acknowledged on the record that they were piggybacking off the gay-rights issue, said the interpretation was up to the public, and then, when challenged, tried to rule out the very interpretations they had bragged about courting because it helped promote them. Sorry, but mentioning amoebas in a reading doesn’t negate that. But I get it: family’s family, so Rainey’s going to throw her weight behind the man she married without pausing for a second to question the privilege that allows her to do so but not others.

    1. Geezzzzz, It’s a fucking tree! All of you go raise money and feed the poor!

      1. Trouble is, the Menil said it’s more than just a tree when it acquired it and displayed it with a plaque that signified it as an artwork. It’s an art debate, so we’re having it on an art website, not a poverty-issues website.

  15. I’d say that is bummer. I liked that work, and I liked the tree. Hopefully, it gets a good home. I suggested early on that they try to get a letter of support from Gilbert and George…

  16. Nice. More of the same. What does Josef even do over there? A bummer all around. LOL, or you’ll cry.

  17. We seem to agree that a much better course for the Menil to have taken would have been opening and facilitating public discourse of the issues surrounding this work and its possible interpretations, instead of their chosen course of silence and deaccession. Had they chosen the panel discussion route instead, it may have been the most widely attended and successful to date. Is it too late?

  18. I suppose I shouldn’t be completely amazed that Devon Britt-Darby has the gall to comment on this, but it feels like the slaps in the face from you never stop coming, Devon. How dare you. Your relentless false proselytization has so muddied “The Art Guys Marry A Plant” work that it can’t even be seen for what it was without your bullshit smeared all over it. But I suppose you’re quite excited by the Menil’s decision & are eager to masquerade and get more publicity for yourself through your endless ill-directed tirade over an artwork that has absolutely 100% nothing to do with you.
    No one cares what you think, Devon. It is my sincere hope that no one continues to give you any attention in relation to this issue (or any other, for that matter). You’ve ruined an artwork by artists whom I respect at an institution that I love for mere self-aggrandizement. The Menil is wrong in removing the work from their collection, but your malicious intent is the real villain and I hope that the Houston art community sees you for who you are and what you’ve done and will turn their backs to you.

    1. Spoken like a true Art Guys’ cult lifer — all insults and ill will, and not one fact. How about actually quoting something “false” that I’ve written or said directly and refuting it?

  19. What next for Glasstire? A testimonial from one of the mothers of one of the Art Guys? Move on to different subject. The work suffers from three major faults, it’s offensive, it’s derivative, and it’s bad art.

  20. I agree with Terry and all who suggested public discourse. The tree was not in a good place anyway. Alone, lonely and unseen most of the time unless you knew it was there. I wish the Menil, who I love, would plant it in a better location, say near the Twombly, have a “moving” ceremony with a talk by the Art Guys, say an Artist Eye talk about themselves, the intent and the LONELY tree. We can then watch it “grown into manhood” and become even more. Let’s face it, paintings, sculpture etc once finished and installed, does not evolve. What a great chance to watch a work of art grow!
    Karen Lastre

    1. Do you think it would grow if they moved it to an even more prominent location? After all, it has been attacked and nearly killed once. And the individual who did it is still out there. We can have all the public discourse we want, but when one of the participants expresses his opinion with an ax, I wonder what the point of talking is.

      1. Of the many definitions of art that I have read, one of my favorites is that it is a category of thought, wherein it’s chief attribute is to foment the exchange of ideas – a highly rational act. Lashing out, with or without an ax, is an irrational act. It seems to me that the latter may be avoided if the former is practiced as often as possible.

      2. “After all, it has been attacked and nearly killed once.”

        … but, it did not die!

        1. The tree’s a trooper!

          1. Which tree? The one on the Menil campus with the plaque next to it? Or the one that was in the ceremony, when it wasn’t cooped up indoors at CAMH for five months during ‘No Zoning’?

  21. Will no one think of all the leaves who have fallen? What a missed opportunity to open a dialog about the sun control issues that face this country.

    There are too many details I don’t know… why the sudden marriage? Did the plant need a green card? Was there trafficking involved? Arranged marriage? Was the tree “in a family way”?

    It seems clear the tree has become estranged from the Art Guys. Was there spousal support? Or did the tree just leave the Art Guys for someone with a larger endowment?

    1. If it’s humor you’re attempting, you fell short.

  22. All very queer to me…viva art guise!

  23. The tree should stay and the director of the Menil should go ! Mrs. Menil would never have done this !

  24. Paula Newton made the best point in all this rambling, and she made it in two sentences.

    This post, and all that followed it incapsulate why some people who know little about contemporary art, hate it. A bunch of clickish, know-it-alls typing away hoping to be heard, but who have never created anything themselves.

    The Menil is one the strongest, and well respected institutions. They made a descison, whether we like it or not. We all know it wasn’t an easy decision.

    1. Josh,

      I always feel uncomfortable putting my opinions down in print, so I totally appreciate your support. I thought, though, that part of my point was that there were some very valid arguments from all sides of the table, as well as a lot of folks who feel they’re not being listened to. Calling all these posters “[a] bunch of clickish, know-it-alls typing away hoping to be heard, but who have never created anything themselves” probably doesn’t help the situation too much.
      • “cliquish”: It’s contemporary art. It’s an important and noble effort to try to communicate widely and to be as inclusive as possible, but, Really. It’s contemporary art.
      • “know-it-alls typing away hoping to be heard”: Right on, bro, you and me both! This is a regional contemporary art web site’s blog’s comment section. Kinda goes without saying.
      • “who have never created anything themselves”: I beg to differ here. I am positive that all of the people who have posted above and below have created many beautiful things, and a lot of those creations include art objects.

      I get what you’re saying, though—we’re pompous and insular. My grandmother would be flabbergasted and bored stiff by this entire debate. I think that even most Glasstire followers, Art Guys followers, Hiram Butler followers, and Devon Britt-Darby followers are tired of it. But, apparently, there’s still a conversation waiting to be held. As cliquish as we may be, (Kelly Klaasmeyer said it best, as usual): “Being critical and challenging each other is extremely important, necessary and justified.”

      And, yes, I totally adore and respect the Menil, but their actions, responses, planned responses, and non-responses to this particular issue have been as ill timed as the original piece was. Do I think they’re going to revisit the idea of a public panel discussion on this? Nah.

      So. Any other ideas?

  25. I would also guess that Landeros is as much or more to blame than those in opposition to the work. The Menil already has a ton of Non-archival work in it’s collection, so taking on a work that is a know target of vandalism not mention vulnerable to the kids on fixies and other hazards in the park, is a big commitment, especially if it is to be treated as an artwork in the collection.

    I am sure it was a tough decision, de-accsessioning an artwork used to be a bigger deal, but still, cutting down on vandalism could be seen as reasonable for them right now.

    1. *known target.. Glasstire needs an editing feature!

  26. When watching the discussion around “The Art Guys Marry A Plant”, I am reminded that “The Art Guys Marry A Plant” was a piece of performance art and it appears that the performance is still ongoing. To me, the fact that some individuals have chosen to vilify the “intent” of the performance and then continue to try to impose that view on others makes the art piece much more interesting than I originally thought it to be.

    I have to say that I was a bit confused when I first heard that “The Art Guys Marry A Plant” was being labeled as homophobic and anti-gay marriage. I viewed it as being just the opposite. To me it was quite clear that The Art Guys, in the way that they do, were pointing out the absurdity of the debate over civil marriage rights absorbing so much of our national energy. Trying as hard as I can, I cannot morph this into something homophobic. Perhaps I missed the homophobic undertones because I don’t “understand” artwork … after all, I am just someone who supports artists, galleries, and museums; and buys artwork. Perhaps I lack the imagination to glean the deeper darker meaning buried in this performance. Perhaps I missed this because, based on years of history, I can in no way see The Art Guys doing anything homophobic. Or, perhaps it is because I don’t run around with a huge chip on my shoulder looking for anything that I can label homophobic so that I can display my righteous indignation and appear relevant. For whatever reason, I just don’t see it.

    Most of the comments and statements surrounding this are pure opinion, but there is one clear fact in all of this. That fact is, the Menil made at least one very big mistake. Either they made a mistake by accepting the piece, or they made a mistake by deciding to move/remove it … probably both. Most of the issues surrounding this piece could have been foreseen at the time the Menil accepted it and one would assume that these issues would have been taken into consideration before the piece was accepted. When one plants a tree, it just might grow and get bigger … that is why one should pick a site very carefully. When one installs a piece of artwork that is intended to be rather permanent, some people might not like it and it might be vandalized … that is just part of the deal. Mistakes happen but I do hope that fund raising considerations were not part of the Menil’s latest decision regarding this piece of artwork. That would be their biggest mistake. Basing decisions on fund raising expedients invariably backfire for museums.

    I do feel rather sorry for the poor tree that is caught in the middle of all this after being unwittingly cast as the enduring symbol of this controversy and can only hope that it thrives wherever it end up.

  27. That’s exactly what the Menil had to decide. To or NOT to de-accsession the work. I wish it could have been moved to a more prominate place where it would have been harded for vandals but, it’s really, in the end, not up to us. We are just spoiled, in a good way, by the Menil’s past with us and maybe it’s time we all grew up and smelled the future.

    Karen Lastre

  28. D. B-D. wrote: “Which tree? The one on the Menil campus with the plaque next to it? Or the one that was in the ceremony, when it wasn’t cooped up indoors at CAMH for five months during ‘No Zoning’?”

    The tree that had the top three fourths of it snapped off by some deranged malefactor.

  29. I have been deeply sadden and disappointed by the news and I fear not for the future of Glasstire, its honesty and open attitude will drive it forth. I don’t fear for The Art Guys, they are strong in their art, integrity and empathy, their intentions was art, not offense. I fear for the Menil. As I understand the Menil was a great home for art because of its spirituality and deep knowledge of art and believe in the freedom of the human spirit. There is an easy parallel to the transformation that this institution is experimenting, just next door, the Rothko chapel. Ever since I came to Houston it was one of my favorite spots and I knew it well from numerous visits for it gave me the comfort I needed when I longed for peace. My life changed and a couple of years passed without visiting it and Madame de Menil passed away. When I did go back I was confused. Doors had been installed to “protect” the access; the floors seemed to have a luster that I had no registered before, the walls a grey that was not familiar and the chapel a luminosity that shone on the paintings. Why the make up? What had happened? I stand behind the freedom of art and artists and I feel sad for those who wish to be offended, especially those who claim to understand what art is. I feel their unnecessary pain but do not agree with it. In all feelings of been offended there are many demons that merit examinations in one self and I am not preaching. I could, very unfashionably say: Turn the other cheek but let me quote this instead: “Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it” Rene Descartes

  30. Here’s what Josef Helfenstein told Mimi Swartz: “The Menil Collection and the Art Guys removed the work The Art Guys Marry a Plant from the grounds where it has been on view since 2011. The Menil Collection wishes to make clear that it has not de-accessioned the work, nor has it taken any steps toward de-accessioning the work, which continues to be a part of the institution’s collection.”

    So who’s lying, Rainey? You and The Art Guys, or the Menil?

  31. I’m not sure what we know now–the Mimi Schwartz article has a statement from the Menil that the tree has not been deaccessioned, just moved. It also says that the tree has been attacked at least once more since the original attack. There is either more than one psycho with an ax out there or there is a repeat tree-abuser. That’s disturbing. (At least Uriel Landeros confessed.)

  32. Yes, that is disturbing, Robert. You know what else is disturbing? That the Texas visual-arts website of record would falsely accuse the Menil of de-accessioning under political pressure. Whatever you think of its decision to move the piece, there’s a world of difference between rotating an artwork off view and removing it from your collection.

    The Menil has given The Art Guys permission to store the tree on its behalf. That’s a world away from de-accessioning, and The Art Guys are lying in order to brand themselves as victims, because somehow they’re the only artists whose work should remain permanently on view. For a website of Glasstire’s stature to enable this smear campaign is disgusting. If this is the future of arts journalism, we’re screwed.

    1. To correct the record: Glasstire did not accuse the Menil of de-accessioning the work. We reported the Art Guys had emailed us a statement containing the phrase: “The Menil Collection has decided to remove “The Art Guys Marry A Plant” from their collection.”

      We quoted the Art Guys specifically because corroboration from the Menil was not available. The Menil has not returned Glasstire’s calls.

      To reiterate Rainey Knudson’s disclaimer, above: Rainey is writing on her own behalf, and her views do not necessarily represent those of Glasstire.

      1. Bill, I’m not talking about the post with The Art Guys’s email; I’m talking about Rainey’s post. Are you saying Rainey doesn’t know whether The Art Guys own the tree or the Menil does?

        1. She may know, but I don’t. She doesn’t say in her post whether the piece was deaccessioned or just moved, or removed, or what. There may be different opinions on even this basic fact: the Menil statement I read in the Huffington Post says they still own it. The Houston Chronicle says the Art Guys “were given the option of repossessing the tree – taking it out on long-term loan, you might say. Which they did.” Nobody tells me anything.

          1. There’s a pretty clear distinction between “removed from the premises” and “removed from the collection.” She says it was removed from the collection. It wasn’t, unless the Menil’s lying. And it doesn’t speak very highly of Rainey that she’s not telling you anything. All this talk of insitutional cowardice by the founder of a nonprofit. Maybe she should change the name to Glasshouses.

  33. All dirt and no tree 8~(

  34. How funny that an incredibly benevolent gesture– two artists who have collaborated for decades pledging to care for a plant forever– is met with such knee-jerk, reactionary vitriol from a community that views itself as being accepting and progressive. How amazing that the vandalism of a TREE was a good idea for a protest to anyone.

  35. Bravo Rainey… Elegantly stated…
    An art institution with a stellar reputation for supporting the avant grade…
    Hope they reconsider…
    Burt
    finger

    1. Do you know what it is you’re hoping they reconsider? The Menil didn’t remove the tree from its collection. Rainey’s post is premised on a lie, and Glasstire has left it up uncorrected for four days now.

  36. Full Disclosure: I had my wedding reception at the Art Guys Studio ,,, my wedding was a performance piece at a pawn shop..and after the ceremony we were recognized as legally married and to this day I am still married though I have not slept with this woman in the 21st century… I get health insurance and tax benefits…we care for a child with love and own property… my credit rating effects my wife’s… so marriage to me is real but sexless..two men sleeping together every day for years cannot have community property and hospital visitation rights adopt children…that is fundamentally unfair that the state does not recognize so many other legal advantages that come with marriage for any two people willing to make that emotional commitment
    My marriage even as absurdist performance was legal and real,, I think the Art Guys posed questions about marriage.. I always thought art should do that… we can attack their ideas and whether it was good or bad art but this instant media online is scary to me… Jack and Mike are real people and its chilling to the conversation to malign them forever online as homophobic or bigotted or in anyway question their dignity as real people…Is this the new normal for artist? Again it scares the crap out of me for the future of ideas and those that think them…. (of course I did have a fantasy of that tree on the second floor of the Menil with some art conservator scratchimg his head about storage)

    1. Cheers to that!
      I love the image of the poor prep guys having to spray the thing with water and running to the hardware store when the grow lights go out!

  37. I have very little opinion about the piece itself — I think the “vows” and the apparently intended message are lovely. But in defense of the Menil, if a piece of art conveys a particular message to most viewers, it really doesn’t matter that the artists intended to convey a different message. They failed to do so, and thus that piece failed. That doesn’t make it worthless, of course, but it does make the Menil’s decision to remove it one of artistic judgment rather than capitulation.

    1. I don’t think the Menil was worried about what “most viewers” thought. And it’s questionable whether the piece conveyed a particularly negative or bigoted “message” to most viewers. But it is true that it was offensive to at least a few very loud and influential viewers and apparently also offensive to a mentally unbalanced viewer with an ax. It seems this last viewer is the one who convinced the Menil to move the piece. A triumph for violence!

      1. “A triumph for violence!”

        True … and rather sad.

  38. “if a piece of art conveys a particular message to most viewers”

    Are you really sure what message it conveys to MOST viewers? If so, how do you know that?

  39. I’m dropping int this conversation with a letter I wrote to the Menil a year ago about the piece. My first version of this letter was addressed to the Menil Membership Office on 11/26/2011. I followed it with this to the museum’s Director a year ago.

    Dear Dr. Helfenstein,

    I am writing out of a deep concern. I will not be able to renew my Menil Collection membership in June without attention to this concern.
    I hold my relationship with the Menil as a most important and fulfilling one, exceeding that which I have with any art museum. I have visited the museum frequently over many years. I have been moved to my depths there dozens of times. A knowledgeable art viewer, I cherish the direct experience of art that the Menil fosters, as it was personally voiced by Dominique de Menil. I cherish the Museum and its programs, and join with you as you celebrate its 25th year.

    The Menil, of course, is many things. As its legacy unfolds as a living museum, it must continually refresh and re-interpret its mission for new times. This is healthy, and a reality for all vital art institutions. Of its several missions, a strong advocacy of human rights throughout the world has been no less important than its art programs. This goes back to the beginning of its history, and is best expressed in the Rothko Chapel’s programs. It is entwined deeply in the spiritual and human inquiry that informed the collecting impulse of the de Menils, and the public programs they sponsored.

    In our time, one of the primary struggles for human rights is that for equal rights for gay and lesbian people. Fought in the media and legislatures, same-sex marriage has become one of the key elements in this struggle. It was even proposed by a U.S. President that the Constitution be amended to prohibit such marriages.

    Given this, the acquisition and installation recently of The Art Guys Marry a Plant is disturbing. It was amidst the national debate on same-sex marriage that the Art Guys performed the marriage ceremony of the work’s title. The “marriage” happened synchronously with the passage of Proposition 8 in California. Deeply acquainted as I am with Duchamp, conceptualism, the work of Fluxus, Bruce Nauman, and other antecedents, I can’t discern the intent of the Art Guys’ work. A couple of males dressed in tuxedos undergo a marriage ceremony. Indifferent to same-sex marriage, or a parody? It’s impossible to say. One can ignore such works of art with little to offer. That is changed when the work is acquired by a museum, especially this one. The Art Guys Marry a Plant was intended from the outset to be public art, yet it is completely blind to its historical moment. The Menil Collection is a guardian of the timeless. That does not, however, release it from responsibility to the present. The Menil’s acquisition redoubles the blindness of The Art Guys Marry a Plant. Why the museum made this choice is baffling, but it is done.

    The remedy? For the Menil, and the Rothko Chapel, to sponsor programs addressing Gay and Lesbian civil rights, in the same spirit done for so many other causes. These could include speakers, exhibitions, film programs, panel discussions, or activities shared with the Universities. I will be content when the Menil as a community re-calls attention where its new acquisition clumsily calls it away. I will renew my membership when the Menil undoes the harm it has wittingly, or unwittingly, done to the struggle for human rights.

    1. I am not buying the idea that the Menil has to “atone” for anything. I think they have enough work in their collection by gay artists like Rauschenberg, Johns, Twombly, Warhol, etc. The Menil’s job is show art, and to that end they supported several gay artists work – the recent Silence show was around Cage and Rauschenberg etc.

      I know the whole marriage inequality is frustrating, but most straight people involved the art world not only want equal rights but often idolize gay people (my life would be so different without Cage and Twombly) more than in any other field.
      In fact, the only clear model for the Art Guys in the beginning is Gilbert and George.
      My feeling about them as a unit marrying anything is to solidify the idea that they function as a single artist LIKE Gilbert and George.

      1. - this isn’t to imply that insensitivity or homophobia isn’t possible in this arena, because it certainly is.

  40. David,, I recommend you and EVERYONE weighing in on this entire debate to visit the current exhibition at the Menil on view till March 13 2013, “The Progress of Love” http://www.theprogressoflove.com/. see for your own eyes the commitment to LOVE in ALL of its forms that the Menil and project co-organizers Kristina Van Dyke, former curator for collections and research at the Menil Collection, and Bisi Silva, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos have presented. Yes this focuses on Love in Africa but it is moving and universal. The Statement of the Menil collection’s willingness to explore valid relavant topics such Same Sex relationships and the civil rights there-in, is painfully and beautifully addressed. This current round of programs could be a place place for a larger conversation, not zeroing in on a single acquisition the museum has made. This now seems such a myopic and overwhelmingly judgmental conversation. The largest looming conversation is about Love and the current exhibition and the catalogue speaks volumes. I would again challenge everyone to view the exhibition, and then comment again. No, I don’t work for the Menil, and yes I am a member.

  41. Let’s all show up at the “former site” on Arbor Day, April 26th, 2013, wearing black. It’d be the Lakoff thing to do!

  42. Or you could start this weekend. LOCAL Arbor Day observances – Houston has celebrations and planting days slated for Jan. 19th, Jan. 26th and Jan. 28th. Wear your rent, or torn, garment and plant a tree in honor of ARTISTIC FREEDOM!

    1. Bring a broom, too, in honor of the Maurizio Cattelan piece that has also been rotated off view. Because if ARTISTIC FREEDOM! means anything, it’s that the Menil can’t put anything in its collection in storage. Right?

      1. That would be ownership entitlement, NOT artistic freedom.

        1. BOOYAY!!

  43. Thanks, It is always a good idea to bring a broom when working outdoors. Where will the new trees be planted? Perhaps all over town, we need trees everywhere any way.

  44. 27th Annual Arbor Day Celebration

    Arbor Day 2013 will take place at 8:00 a.m., Saturday, January 26, 2013. Please pick up your gloves and shovels and join volunteers from across the city as we plant thousands of trees in city parks. Long a local tradition, this year’s Arbor Day celebration is another step to Re-Plant Houston following the drought of 2011, which caused many tree deaths in our beloved Urban Forest. Planting will take place in Hermann Park, Memorial Park, MacGregor Park, Montie Beach Park, De Zavala Park, and Tuffly Park.

    Volunteer pre-registration is required.

    To volunteer at Hermann Park, please contact dkerr@hermannpark.org.

    To volunteer at MacGregor Park, please contact Jessica@treesforhouston.org.

    To volunteer at Memorial Park, Montie Beach Park, De Zavala Park, or Tuffly Park, please contact H.P.A.R.D.’s Volunteer Coordinator at oneika.shelby@houstontx.gov or 832.395.7280.

    During Arbor Day 2012, nearly 2,000 volunteers planted 25,000 trees in four parks most heavily affected by the drought: Hermann Park, Memorial Park, Mason Park, and MacGregor Park

  45. I do not presume to comment on the private negotiations between artist and institution that resulted in this work; nor the artistic merit of the project itself; nor the need for a community dialogue about said project. These issues have been clearly delineated by several of the commentators here on this site.

    What I would like to do is raise a relevant but different question. What is the role of the private vs. public institution? Is the Menil Collection a Private entity? If not, READ NO FURTHER.

    If it is a private institution, then are Private Institutions held to the same standard as Public Institutions? What are the ethical responsibilities involved in either? Are they the same or different? Does a private institution hold any accountability to the public for the decisions made “in-house”? If the piece is held in a Private Institution on Private Lands, public trust aside, what do they owe the public?

    For example, if I am a private collector who purchases a work of art, do I have the legal authority to destroy said work if I chose? I would guess that I could but ethically I would assume that an individual collector, like an institution may own a work of art, but implicitly are holding, as good stewards, the work of art for the public trust.

    The Menil is a wonderful museum and it’s importance to the community is clearly visible in the passionate discourse and sense of community ownership that Houston feels towards it… but if it is a Private Entity, right or wrong, does the public have a say in it’s operations?

    1. No one questions The Menil’s right to do as it pleases with its private collection. But The Menil does not operate in a vacuum. Without its generously open doors, it serves none of its original, intended purpose. Without artists, the community in which the collection resides and the greater general public, The Menil is a beautifully designed closet housing works of art. This “backlash” appears to have arisen from a discordance between the public’s understanding of the mission and spirit of The Menil – as espoused by its founders and current leadership – and the events which have taken place. It is additionally confounding considering the fact that the Menils were known for their close personal relationships with artists, without whom…. The manner in which recent events have occurred, or that they’ve occurred at all, simply is not in the spirit of the founding or stewardship of the collection, as intended. A re-dedication of the spirit of The Menil could prevent it from eroding into just another antiseptic art institution.

  46. If “this piece has nothing to do with gay marriage, and it never did”, then why should the Art Guys be in a museum like the Menil or the CAMH in the first place? What kind of meteorologist doesn’t know which way the wind is blowing? What kind of conceptual artist doesn’t know which direction the world is turning?

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