Media roundup: Responses to the Menil Collection/Art Guys tree vandalism

8 Dec

Since, despite what blogger Robert Boyd of The Great God Pan is Dead — fancy! — describes as my vanity, I only got around to setting up a Google alert on myself last night, I may be missing a few posts here or there. If so, you know where the comment button is, though I’m not sure you know how to use it. (Background on the ongoing saga of The Art Guys Marry a Plant here, here, here and here. If you’re new to this blog, probably the most concise intro is here.)

Reliable Narratives. Advertising photo for Devon Britt-Darby, 2011. Jpeg taken from an upcoming XTube video.

CultureMap editor Clifford Pugh, unsurprisingly, got the scoop. Pugh was one of the best in the business during his days covering the waterfront for the former Houston Post and the shadow-of-itself Houston Chronicle, which probably explains why Chron laid him off during the March 2009 massacre. (Less impressively, Pugh parrotted the Menil’s feeble attempt to link the planting of the tree to the recent drought. As I wrote in a draft of an as-yet-unpublished essay, How marrying a woman made an honest gay man of me, “If you care about the trees that Houston has lost, plant groves, not kisses on the backsides of Nina and Michael Zilkha — the latter is a Menil trustee — to whom the tree is dedicated.” I’ve never met Nina Zilkha, who is Michael Zilkha’s wife, not his sister, as I mistakenly assumed when I first met him.)

In Miami for the art fairs, I was next with this post, which I initially wrote in the Sunday morning wee hours — dinnertime, as Miamians call it — and updated twice in rapid succession after catching a few hours’ shut-eye. I bashed the vandalism as “a shameful, cowardly act that only makes a bad situation worse” before conceding in an update that “we can’t yet be totally certain s/he or they were from the art community,” though I long ago lost count of the number of people who threatened, with varying degrees of jest in their tones, to chop down the tree. I also turned up the heat on the Menil:

“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,” I wrote, before recounting my various warnings, both public and private, to the Menil Collection about the obvious lack of protection being given to an artwork the museum claims is worthy of its once-high standards. (This point would get The Great God Pan’s goat, as we’ll see below.)

Glasstire’s Bill Davenport had the best photos of the damage to the tree, which is now basically a stump but apparently will survive.

Next up: The Houston Press’ Meredith Deliso finally put a few teeth into her previously beyond-bland coverage and was good enough to quote my denunciation of the vandalism and the Menil’s lack of security for the tree, though apparently too busy or proud to deal with my request that she call me Britt-Darby, not Darby, on second reference. (Hey, at least she didn’t accuse me of being on meth in the headline, marking an improvement over Richard Connelly’s recent coverage of my departure from the Chronicle. Connelly refused to undo the smear in the hed but did deign to quote my denial in an update at the bottom of the story, which he knows as well as I do almost nobody will notice. In an email, he admitted to somehow missing my reference to the Zilkhas in the video “rant” he embedded in his own post, despite the fact that I mentioned them both verbally and in captions. Way to keep journalism alive and kicking, Connelly!)

The attention from Pugh and Deliso may have been what forced the Chronicle, on it’s embarrassingly named entertainment site, 29-95.com (Houston’s lattitude and longitude — get it? Get it?) to bust out a five-paragraph recap that did acknowledge my post-Chron existence but not the Menil’s failure to protect the tree. The Menil must have recently purchased an ad at the Chroincle, where every other sentence in the features newsroom is a noun, a verb, and advertising. No one at 29-95 wanted his or her name attached to this story. Can you blame them?

Meanwhile, by far the best place to find real discussion of the damage to the tree was Facebook page, where a range of thoughtful responses, including dissents from my point of view, played out in an actual — gasp! — critical dialogue about art in Houston.

Boyd, to his credit, paid attention to that dialogue and drew on it in what has, sadly, been hands-down the best local critical response to the tree vandalism. Read the whole thing.

It shows the drawbacks of working without an editor — it’s the Menil Collection, Robert, not the Menil Museum, and artist daniel-kayne hyphenates (and possibly still lower-cases his name, though Facebook probably doesn’t allow that) — but also the advantages: Other than yours truly, Boyd is the only writer with the stones to call out the Zilkhas by name. That alone makes the post a must-read.

His interpretation of why I’m on this road trip is oversimplified but reasonably well grounded in what I’ve actually posted, which is admittedly confusing for the uninitiated and the initiated alike. (Unfolding artworks-in-progress can be like that.)

Here’s where Boyd gets it flat-out wrong. After recapping my recap of my warnings to the Menil about the possibility of damage to the tree, he writes:

I hope readers will see how scuzzy this is. Britt’s repeated (and sometimes intemperate) criticism of the piece was what put it into the news. Warning the Menil that it might be vandalized and demonstrating how in a video shown on a public forum was an invitation for someone else to vandalize it. This is a strategy used by anti-Muslim bigots (for example) who warn about how a new mosque in a neighborhood might be vandalized and it would just be better if it weren’t there. I don’t equate Britt with anti-Muslim bigots, but he has to accept the possibility that his words and guerrilla video may have given someone ideas. His anger at this action therefore seems frankly insincere.

Sigh. For the umpteenth time, it’s Britt-Darby, not Britt. It’s fine to clarify for readers that I was previously known as Douglas Britt, but I am now Devon Britt-Darby and will be legally changing my name to reflect that after the road trip and divorce are finalized. The simplest way to address the naming confusion is as Davenport did, in a Glasstire post whose headline, like Connelly’s also suggested I’m currently on meth — by calling me “Devon Britt-Darby, né Douglas Britt.” See how easy that is? (Full disclosure: I am a collector of Davenport’s, having spent $72 on two of his painted liquor/beer bottles at Glasstire’s booth during the Texas Contemporary art fair.)

More importantly, Boyd’s analogy to anti-Muslim bigots, and its implication that I incited the tree vandalism by criticizing the Menil accession and making art in response to it, is flawed. A better comparison would be with hackers who inflict benign attacks on corporate security networks to point out their vulnerabilities. The problem with his anti-Muslim bigots analogy is not that it’s inflammatory — hey, I called vandalizing the tree a Taliban-style response! — but that it distracts attention from whose real responsibility the tree’s safety is: the motheringfucking Menil’s. The Menil is the museum, not me. The Menil, by virtue of its accession and permanent display, says the tree is an artifact of a great artwork, not me. And how has the Menil treated this allegedly great artwork? By making it a sitting duck for vandals. I repeat:

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.

If my willingness to marry for social sculpture, lose my job in this economy and set out on the road as a 42-year-old escort — advertised age yet to be determined — as another form of social sculpture haven’t convinced Boyd of my sincerity, I can only ask that he stay tuned.

But I won’t comply with his suggestion that I stop going shirtless, which, believe it or not, most clients prefer. If Boyd wants me to put more clothes on, he can hire me to do so.

Reliable Narratives. Advertising photo for Devon Britt-Darby, 2011. Jpeg taken from an upcoming XTube video.

I’m not suggesting that we have sex, mind you. Escort rates are for time only. Whatever goes on between consenting adults during that time is up to them.

UPDATE: Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City serves up a recap of the whole affair that’s so good it reminds me why she was my third choice for a bride. Thanks for the wonderfully cohesive summary, Paddy, and for turning me town. If I’d had to fly you and your boyfriend down for the wedding, it would have made financing this trip a lot harder. And I wouldn’t have met the best random wife a gay could ask for.

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