UPDATE: It’s worth noting that I warned the Menil Collection both publicly, in this article posted this article posted Nov. 8, and in a follow-up voice mail to a museum spokesman, that some Houstonians were suggesting harming The Art Guys’ tree. The Menil ignored my warnings.
Then, on Thanksgiving Day, I pulled off and documented a guerrilla action that should have made perfectly clear how vulnerable the tree was to physical assault.
This, too, the Menil ignored, in keeping with its response to all criticism of its accession of the tree, a living — now probably barely living — artifact of the performance The Art Guys Marry a Plant.
The fact that it was so easy for one or more vandals — and, in all fairness, we can’t yet be totally certain s/he or they were from the art community — to perpetrate this cowardly action tells you everything you need to know about how seriously the Menil took The Art Guys Marry a Plant. The Menil, which had rejected the accession previously, accepted it into its collection earlier this year as quietly as a thief in the night, in stark contrast to the orgy of publicity that had accompanied The Art Guys’ “engagement” to the tree in 2009. The Menil was counting on so few people noticing or caring that the museum could have it both ways, humoring its new curator, Toby Kamps, and patrons Nina and Michael Zilkha — the latter is a Menil trustee — to whom the tree was dedicated, while hoping most people in Houston would say, “Eh, what’s the big deal about adding another tree to the Menil campus? It’s just a tree.”
The Art Guys’ plaque, of course, is doing just fine.
SECOND UPDATE: On a Facebook discussion of the incident, artist daniel-kayne, who’s based in Houston except when he’s not, says pruning the broken section of the tree — i.e., most of it — will allow the tree to live. (He grew up clearing an acre of land along with his brother, so he knows whereof he speaks.) So that’s a silver lining. But the question persists: What does the Menil do next? Keep letting an artwork that it has affirmed as being worthy of its connoisseurship and standards get damaged? If the piece’s vulnerability hasn’t been demonstrated by now, then what will it take? Again, this incident highlights what a thoughtless decision the Menil’s accession of this thoughtless conceptual artwork was.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: What a lousy piece of news to return to my Miami hotel room to read: Someone has destroyed the the tree The Art Guys pretended to marry in 2009, which quietly entered the Menil Collection in June and prompted my wedding on Nov. 18 to Theresa “Reese” Darby.
Now is as good a time as any to quote from an essay I was working on shortly before embarking on this road trip:
When I heard in September that The Menil Collection, where Kamps now works, had quietly planted the tree on its campus in March, accepted it into the collection in June and was planning a November dedication ceremony, the last thing I wanted was to reheat my 2009 criticisms with an added dash of vitriol.
I also knew deaccessioning — the process of removing a work from a museum’s collection, which is rightly governed by strict ethics codes — wasn’t and mustn’t be an option. Nor could vandalizing, harming or killing the tree — a toxic distortion of the principles of civil disobedience that too many rightfully angry people suggested.
There were also issues of artistic and curatorial freedom at stake. Though I’ve harshly attacked The Art Guys’ piece and the museum’s acquisition in language that hurt plenty of people’s feelings — just as the Menil’s acceptance of the tree broke the hearts of some of its most ardent admirers — if curators and artists can’t have the freedom to get things wrong, we might as well burn down the museum.
Make no mistake: Destroying an artwork you don’t approve of differs from destroying a museum only in scale. This is a shameful, cowardly act that only makes a bad situation worse.
Two questions for the Menil immediately come to mind: If the tree is a Duchamp-style ready-made, can/should/will the Art Guys and the Menil replace it with another one, or is the abstract entity known as The Art Guys a widower? That is, how important was this specific tree to the piece?
And if the Menil does replace the tree, how will it uphold its responsibility to protect this artwork in its collection?
Some readers may find this reaction surprising given my public, even guerrilla, lambasting of The Art Guys Marry a Plant. But the same values that prompted me to criticize the piece and the Menil’s accession of it make me angry at this senseless, destructive act.