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How Not to Handle an Art Controversy

Earlier this month, the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, removed a small oak tree from its sculpture garden—a story of little to no note, right? But just as the mighty oak grows from a tiny acorn, from that oak sapling springs a tale of art controversy of massive consequences. The tree, the physical residue of The Art Guys’ 2009 performance piece titled The Art Guys Marry A Plant (shown above), in which the two tuxedoed artists “married” the plant, drew complaints of anti-homosexuality nearly from the beginning. After receiving critical heat and withstanding physical vandalism to the tree itself, the Menil Collection decided to uproot the oak in question in hopes that making the tree disappear would make the controversy itself disappear. But in their attempt to appease the work’s critics, a new wave of criticism is washing over the Menil. The twisted two-year tale of The Art Guys Marry A Plant might take new root as a textbook case of how not to handle an art controversy.

Salon’s Peter Simek neatly describes the entire story from beginning to end in tragic, sometimes excruciating detail. As Simek points out, the ceremony suffered problems from the very beginning. Staged in June 2009, The Art Guys Marry A Plant fell nearly a year to the day after California Proposition 8 won a place on that state’s November 2008 ballot and won more votes in that election, thus overturning a California Supreme Court ruling and banning once more same-sex marriage in that state. The sight of The Art Guys, aka, Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, walking down the aisle in tuxedoes and trailing a plant behind them as their betrothed quickly triggered memories of anti-gay marriage arguments. The Art Guys Marry A Plant,Houston Chronicle art critic Douglas Britt wrote in a review “inadvertently reinforces the ‘slippery slope’ argument that if we let gays wed, next we’ll allow people to marry animals, and so on.” Finally, here was art even Rick Santorum and his “man on dog” theories could love, or at least it seemed.

Post-ceremony, the optics only got worse. As Simek also points out, The Menil planted the offending oak “just yards from the Rothko Chapel, which, during the 1980s, was the site of many memorial services for many people who had died of AIDS-related illnesses.” Britt the “slippery slope” critic staged a counter-performance he titled The Art Gay Marries a Woman, in which he (an openly homosexual man) married a woman. As the museum and its critics continued to ignore and/or talk past one another, the situation degenerated further into the physical vandalism of the tree, which can honestly be called the one unquestionably innocent party in the whole episode.

But who are the guilty parties? The Art Guys contend that the work was never meant as a comment on same-sex marriage and that they harbor no anti-gay feelings. Unfortunately, the Menil Collection seems to have denied The Art Guys a chance to make their true intent (or lack of intent) public. Rainey Knudson (who discloses right away her marriage to one of The Art Guys and who is thus not a disinterested party) contends that The Art Guys “have repeatedly denied that it is ‘about’ gay marriage (or indeed, that it is ‘about’ anything at all.).” Knudson lays it all out as plainly as possible: “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.

Confronted by what Knudson describes as “[a] very small, very vocal, handful of individuals” the Menil Collection’s put the tree on ice, that is, hidden it away in storage rather than de-accessioning it and removing it from the collection entirely. Out of sight, out of mind, hopes Houston’s Menil. “What’s an institution to do?” Knudson asks, before calling the Menil’s choice “institutional cowardice.” (Knudson also suggests that the Menil’s fears over losing funding for their drawing center played a part.)

“[N]ever once, never once does that museum’s director ask the artists what the work is really about, or make any public statement regarding it,” Knudson accuses most pointedly. (The Art Guys’ avowed lack of any message for The Art Guys Marry A Tree or any of their works might present a problem in explaining the work to the message-hungry public, of course. That message void, which others quickly filled, might have inadvertently contributed to the problem from the beginning.) Having a personal relationship with the artists, Knudson would certainly be in a position to know their role (or lack thereof) in the museum’s actions, so I tend to believe her. The Menil’s handled the whole affair horribly by ignoring a central responsibility of any cultural institution—to embrace rather than flee from controversy and transform it into a “teachable moment.” If only the Menil had brought together Britt and other critics with The Art Guys to discuss the work in an open forum. Why not even invite Rick Santorum just to bring the whole spectrum of opinion to the table?

It strikes me that the Menil’s decision showed a caving in to political pressure, but also, perhaps more troublingly, a crisis of faith in the ability of the public to engage in valuable discourse over an artwork that speaks to one of the major issues in American society today. How do you handle an art controversy? I’m not sure if there’s an all-purpose answer to that question, but I think erring on the side of trusting in the humanity and sensibility of the people—those whom museums and other cultural institutions serve—might be a good start.

[Image:The Art Guys. The Art Guys Marry A Plant, 2009. Wedding ceremony in the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, Houston, on June 13, 2009. Cosponsored by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo: Everett Taasevigen. Image source.]


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