The Alamo

by Michael Bise July 27, 2014

Port Arthur, Texas is the End of the Line for Oil That Would Travel Through the Proposed Keystone XL PipelineTexas is the best place in the world to be an artist right now and Houston is the sharpest edge of the cultural blade. There’s talk about Texas, Dallas and Houston in the art world: low but undeniable murmurs of art communities and economies that allow for the production of culture. But I think these discussions miss the larger point: America is over, and the last stand of our compromised, imperial American identity is being staged here at the bottom of the nation. Two centuries later and we’re back at the Alamo.

We’re the black heart of energy production in this country, where hard layers of tar lie just beneath carefully combed sand. Oil refineries pump massive corrosion into the sky all the way down I-45 to Galveston and I-10 to Port Arthur. To our east, on the Louisiana side of the gulf, we can see oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill drift lazily over the surface of the water. America’s war on humanity for the acquisition of fossil fuels has kept The Middle East on fire since the end of WWI, and a bandit in a cowboy hat with a gun has always been on the front lines.

Today the war is for oil, but with the entire state of California dry as desert bone and the last citizens of Detroit appealing to the UN, the next war will be for water. Texas is well-situated for that apocalypse. Thirty aquifers rest under our feet and the Edwards Aquifer is one of the most prolific in the world. It allowed the Alamo mission to be established in San Antonio. New Braunfels and San Marcos survive today because of it. Decades of withdrawals have dramatically reduced the potential supply, but you don’t have to imagine how easily oil rigging can and is being modified to plunge deeper into the earth in pursuit of water.

We’re at the shit end of the country in education and health care. The drive from my house at 290 and Tidwell to the galleries and museums where I make my living is a surreal tour through a flat landscape of black, brown and white poverty that ends in a valley of bizarre, wild wealth. I see in my daily drive the ways in which the creative class has abandoned an oppressed working class for more esoteric pursuits, pushing people without hope into the strong arms of gangsters who conjure the magic dust of Jesus Christ to release them from their bondage.

There’s always an enemy on which to project fear born of this desperation. Here in Texas, our fascist dandy Governor Rick Perry has given the disenfranchised plenty of sacrificial lambs: women, Mexicans, South Americans, sick children, and gay and transgender people. If they sound familiar they are, because fascists aren’t original — the scapegoats remain the same.

I recently made a trip to Maryland for a wedding that took place at the Strong Mansion, about an hour outside of Baltimore. Built by Gordon Strong, a Chicago businessman, at the height of the Great Depression, it is the platonic image of a southern mansion. As I wandered through its Neoclassical paintings, its framed, yellowed documents and its period furniture, I sensed in a tangible way that our country and its industry began there, in that part of North America. I imagined the laborers who built the impressive house. Maryland is beautiful and was home to many Native American tribes like the Yaocomico and Shawnee. We are a people built on a foundation of genocide.

Driving from that mansion back to Baltimore, where the economy is a war waged street by street, I think I understood for the first time in a visceral way that all civilizations fall. I had a sense that the battle for culture on the East Coast has already been fought and the humanists have lost. In twenty more years, poor artists won’t be able to live in New York. There will be no kids staging scenes. Jeff Koons won. His truly magnificent objects are emblems of the decimation of workers, the death of unions and rising poverty. They stand as monuments to a new social order in art in New York and the East. Koons has had his finger on the death rattle of this country since he floated his first basketball. He’s not our Warhol. He’s Warhol’s decaying Dorian Gray.

We pushed our way to the West Coast first for gold, then for land, killing whoever and whatever we needed to move forward. Those who made it to California built a utopian funhouse mirror reflection of what had already been lost in the colonies. We built Hollywood to create the image of ourselves that we needed to see and imagined ourselves as something we never were. Warhol’s first solo show couldn’t have happened anywhere but in Los Angeles. And it’s hard not to believe in prophecy when Rauschenberg, perhaps the greatest artist of our decline, the artist who showed us the corpse of Abstract Expressionism and the imperial promise it came to represent, came from the oil-drenched hellhole that is Port Arthur, Texas. He must have been born with it in his blood.

I’ve been making art just long enough to believe that great artists are either Jeremiahs or John the Baptists. They either rail against the decline or trumpet the promise. Here we are on the third and final coast: Texas artists. All the money seems to be coming here to rest at last. We pushed across the ocean and then we pushed across the country to the next ocean and now we’re sliding down into the gulf. There is no history in Houston. No crumbling brownstones, no art deco bungalows. We tear everything down and rebuild to the beat of the ebb and flow of the fossil-fuel market.

Here, where thick, swamp heat comes off black gulf water I see the sharp separation between poverty and immense wealth that we have helped to create in virtually every place on this very small planet. We live in the eye of this storm; a place every artist should want to live. So what do we do? What things should we make?


(Photo: Port Arthur, TX. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty)



Rainey Knudson July 28, 2014 - 08:44

Koons is to Pop what Rococo was to the Baroque: the last, absurdly mannered gasp.

Ted Kincaid July 28, 2014 - 08:52

Absolutely awesome, Michael!

Kerry Inman July 28, 2014 - 10:23

Michael! So dark!
But so good. Will be interested in hearing answers to your questions.

sue July 28, 2014 - 10:34

I don’t know what you should “make,” but I’m pretty sure it isn’t self-indulgent essays.

Jenni-Beck July 28, 2014 - 11:10

Sue, I’m afraid you missed the point. I read this as a call to action.
Thank you, Michael.

Sarah Schellenberg July 28, 2014 - 11:50

I enjoyed this, but, man…it’s going to take a couple of reads. Thanks, Michael.

michelle marie engelman berns July 28, 2014 - 12:28
my favorite history, is drunk history.

Carolyn July 28, 2014 - 13:17

“All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.”

W. B. Yeats, “Lapis Lazuli,” .

Emily Peacock July 28, 2014 - 14:08

Someone once told me the more specific we are in our work the more general it becomes.

Also: Oil-drenched hellhole is a perfect description of Port Arthur. (As I too was born and raised there!)

HJ BOTT July 28, 2014 - 14:52

A staggeringly exceptional portrayal, Michael. Thank you. Yes, this is the last frontier even if Roberta Smith thinks otherwise.

David Miller July 29, 2014 - 09:23

Agreed, HJ. Exceptional. Maddening and exhilarating, Michael.

earl staley July 28, 2014 - 17:56

I paint because I can do nothing else and Houston has allowed me do it and show it and celebrate down here at the end of the world because Houston is full of hope for freedom of expression with no concern for what is currently the new thing and to celebrate our particular individual regionalism

ACTS July 28, 2014 - 21:11


Loli Fernandez (-A Kolber) July 28, 2014 - 21:58

I loved it but the name The Alamo…I am not sure.

xtaforster July 28, 2014 - 23:41

Houston is the revolutionary city.

Justin Hunter Allen July 29, 2014 - 11:49

Houston is the sharpest edge of the cultural blade
Houston is the sharpest edge
Houston is

You spelled Dallas wrong :^|

Michael Galbreth July 29, 2014 - 17:03

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass

Many of the points made here are true and inarguable. Humans face some very serious problems, The United States, Texas, and Houston included. But America is not “over.” This is just silly. And it’s false.

The north American continent still contains more fresh surface water than anywhere, it has the richest soil, and the world’s largest, most navigable river that feeds that land and urban centers deep within the continent. It also has the world’s best and most accessible sea ports. No other geographical location on this planet comes close to the natural resources of North America and specifically The United States. It’s got to be somewhere, and it happens to be here. This is all fact. And this is not to mention the topics of energy, technology and medicine, among others, all of which The United States leads the world.

Like it or not, The United States will dominate the world – economically and culturally – for the foreseeable future.

(All the recent speculation of China’s world dominance is short sighted. Because of the reasons cited above, and others, China will eventually fizzle just like the Japan bubble of the 1980’s.)

Even so, it would be a fool’s folly not to recognize that there are serious issues – social, political, ecological, educational. The cultural landscape does indeed seem bleak when Weird Al Jankovic commands the number 1 spot on Billboard and Marina Abramovic, the so-called “grandmother of performance art” does idiotic dances with Jay Z.

But the Cuyahoga River is no longer in danger of burning, everyone can sit anywhere they please on the bus, and soon everyone will be able to marry whomever (if not whatever) they wish.

One of the best things about living here – that is Houston, and Texas, and The United States – is that one can freely and openly agitate, agitate, agitate regardless of their political leanings. That’s a very good thing. Thanks for the thunder and lightning, Michael.

And finally, Jeff Koons is not the bogeyman.

The end.

Felipe Contreras July 31, 2014 - 16:25

Well put Michael…..Galbreth

Peter July 30, 2014 - 12:48

Great Frederick Douglass quote, and great response. Happy to live in a world with both Michaels.

Katie Mulholland July 30, 2014 - 21:08

I grok this.

I add:
“Discontent is the first necessity of progress.”
Thomas A. Edison

And I apologize for such a lengthy comment, but I promise it will be thought provoking.
There is opportunity to come to Texas, push the bullsh* aside, and make a name for yourself no matter where you come from…. Just like anywhere else in the United States.
It’s just easier and more affordable to work here.

I came back to Houston in 2010 at the suggestion of an art school friend who spent some time working here. I read a lot about it in art history textbooks- but apparently I misread something. When I got here and settled in- Houston was anything but awesome. This place sucked art-wise… I met a lot of unprofessional people, saw a lot of lazy art, a lot of MFA art that looked like unoriginal throwbacks happening everywhere else in academia of the US, the university’s BFA program sucked, our grant options were “ok” at best… and our museums were not impressive for a city this big that prides itself in supporting the arts (Menil excluded). The museums were the worst part- especially after spending several years living in Cincinnati and NYC.

Eventually, I realized that this city is surprisingly affordable and easy. I began to see it for what I wanted from it- unlimited potential. I began to love it. I quit b*ching so much and started doing something. What I have done may not add up to a lot, but at least it’s more than most people do. I began putting together some shitty shows, writing some so-so articles, making some dumb art- anything that would help me make this city suck less for me. Then I began to meet other 20-something-yr-olds from all over the world that were doing and thinking the similar things in this city. This is what I didn’t read in art history books: Texas, as it turns out, is what YOU make of it.

These are the people that are doing things in the name of change. The younger, unestablished, or recently BFA/MFA grads. Not to say older or established artists aren’t, because some are. What I am saying is that you can’t (always) see the mountain if your standing on top of it. And there’s a lot of folks with a lot to say (& nothing to do) that are standing on top of it.

However, I can assure you younger Houston artists are taking care of things for themselves because no one else will- just like those that came before them throughout the 70s, 80s,90s,and 2000s. And those before them. They are improving upon ideas that manifested in Houston’s past. Changing the Texas art landscape. They are starting new project spaces, looking for new means of funding, building out their own studios to use with their friends, and hosting residencies. Not reinventing the wheel- but creating better wheels. It sounds like small steps or playing “house”, but in reality more of this is needed.

Essentially this DIY attitude is the seed for change, and it is already here. It’s been here. And my generation is not the first or the last to carpetbag their way (back) into the Texas art-wilderness. *see fellow carpetbaggers- Rachel Hecker, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Ryan Hawk, Dennis Mcnett, Mark Flood is back, The Art Guys ^^^ etc etc. all for different reasons, but they are working here now, all the same.

Each generation has new problems to solve- which brings forth progress. When folks become content, progress stops.

I am thankful to see that Houston does have people of all ages and careers that are in touch with what’s needed here. It’s good to read a little banner waving on the Glasstires. 🙂

Katie Mulholland July 30, 2014 - 22:03

yikes- apologies for the terrible grammar.^^^ It’s been a long day.

John Zambrano July 30, 2014 - 17:30

I think we should make nothing at all. Let’s make love and go tango dancing with our confusion. Let’s participate in life.

Gary Michael Porter July 30, 2014 - 18:56

If I have to choose between issuing a jeremiad and trumpeting the promise–to be or not to be–I choose the trumpet.

You ask what can we do.

Another well-spoken Texan, Lady Bird Johnson, who was an eye-witness to much of the death and destruction of the last century, came home to Texas and planted flowers.

“Some may wonder why I chose wildflowers when there are hunger and unemployment and the big bomb in the world. Well, I, for one, think we will survive, and I hope that along the way we can keep alive our experience with the flowering earth.”

Garry Reece August 4, 2014 - 17:55

Very nice piece. But point of order Mr. Chairman, America was built on genocide and FREE labor. Must not ever forget that.

Bill Goldberg August 4, 2014 - 20:45

Michael Bise,

I enjoyed your post; it reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s ode to Chicago. Once upon a time, all Chicago school children were required to commit this to memory.

Wealth creation is a messy thing, more messy in China than here. At least we don’t have to wear masks to be outside.
And as hogs and tools helped to create the Art Institute in Chicago, energy certainly funded the Menil Collection (you know what Schlumberger’s business is), the MFA (check who the buildings are named after) and Houston’s cultural infrastructure.

And Jeff Koons is a brand name who appears to be a safe bet for those who want portfolio diversification and to move money out of their country and into well-furnished New York apartments.

Michael Bise August 5, 2014 - 18:33

Bill Goldberg,

Thank you very much for your comment. I know the poem, if not by heart.

I do know the foundation of all culture is built on hogs or tools or rocks and dirt of one form or another.

As a new friend recently said to me, we (young people I suppose) live in a thin space between the failures and triumphs of our national past and the seemingly inevitable foreclosure of our future.

Thank you again for reading and taking the time to comment.


Rainey Knudson August 8, 2014 - 13:46

The CAMH is doing a show this fall of 3 Houston artists: Debra Barrera, Nathaniel Donnett, and Carrie Marie Schneider. Kudos to the CAMH for devoting the upstairs gallery to more shows of local artists that aren’t big group free-for-alls. It takes guts for museums to depart from the safe, sanctioned shows that everyone else is doing (and which the CAMH was guilty of in the past, when you often knew that whatever was at the New Museum would be here in 2 years).


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