Molly Glentzer fluffs the Art Guys
For the Houston Chronicle’s postmortem on the Menil Collection’s removal of The Art Guys Marry a Plant from its campus — but not from its collection, despite what you may have read on Glasstire — ace reporter Molly Glentzer plays stenographer to Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, serving up this fawning, one-sided account of the controversy that sums up an anonymous, shadowy group of critics’ alleged interpretation of the piece without identifying or quoting one of them. (I never described the performance as “a parody of same-sex marriage.”) Nor does it report the fact that not only did The Art Guys lie when they wrote Glasstire that the tree and plaque had been removed from the museum’s collection — the Menil had decided to rotate the work off view and let The Art Guys store it off-site on its behalf, but retained ownership — but that Galbreth’s wife, Glasstire founder and executive director Rainey Knudson, posted a diatribe falsely accusing the Menil of de-accessioning the piece that is still on the nonprofit website’s homepage. (Moments ago, Knudson wrote that she stands “by the spirit and letter of my article.”)
While Knudson continues the scorched-earth part of The Art Guys’s brand war, seeking to inflict maximum embarrassment and fundraising difficulties on the Menil as punishment for their humiliation, Glentzer busies herself burnishing the duo’s victim status and good-guy brand. (There’s money at stake, after all: The Art Guys are trying to sell their brand.) After mentioning the No Zoning catalog’s assertion back in 2009 that “(The Art Guys) hope their wedding guests will shape the meaning of this provocative union,” Glentzer lets loose with this howler:
Maybe, in hindsight, they wish that last sentence hadn’t been printed. Some people thought “The Art Guys Marry a Plant” was just silly. The scrappy little oak could have just disappeared quietly into someone’s yard after that, where it might have flourished in spite of the drought and enjoyed a quiet life of shading humans and sheltering squirrels and raccoons.
She doesn’t say whether “the scrappy little oak” that withered for months inside the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston during the five-month No Zoning run is the same “scrappy little oak” that got planted at the Menil, but never mind. What’s really outrageous about Glentzer’s suggestion that the tree could have “just disappeared” is that it ignores the well-documented fact that, although Massing said during our original interview that somewhere “deep in the woods” might be the tree’s best destination, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Rice University and the Menil had already rebuffed The Art Guys’s attempts to give them the tree. (They had already been trying to give the MFAH the tree when we talked but said it didn’t look like it was going to happen.)
A few paragraphs down comes this whopper:
Massing said they want to return to their older methods – “more ArtGuysian in attitude” – when it was all about the fun of investigations, research, trial and error, and “doing things out in public, away from the paradigms of galleries and museums.
“The ‘Marry a Plant’ project was very much about all that,” he added. “But there’s great pressures on the art world.”
Huh? The ‘Marry a Plant’ project was performed in the sculpture garden of a museum with a $1 billion endowment — the same museum The Art Guys hoped would permanently plant it there. They also sold wedding cake toppers in the gift shop of the museum across the street and had the tree-planting ceremony on the grounds of yet another museum (during which they made a point of thanking every current and former director of every institution that had come into contact with the piece). I guess by that definition, my wedding on the stage of a gay strip club was inside the gallery-museum paradigm. The Art Guys’ desperate longing for institutional acceptance at any price is partly what made this performance’s inclusion in No Zoning — a show that, come to think of it, was supposed to be about Houston artists “doing things out in public, away from the paradigms of galleries and museums” — so ill-conceived. Also, if they actually had done the piece “out in public, away from the paradigms of galleries and museums,” not only would less controversy accompanied the performance, but it would have died down once it was over.
As it happens, I pointed out in my original article the fact that this piece didn’t measure up to previous ArtGuysian actions. Read the bulk of my criticism below, and you’ll see that I didn’t call The Art Guys or their piece homophobic, but objected, first and foremost, to their insistence that it was a real wedding and their claim to blur the gap between art and life. I also pointed out that the piece inadvertently reinforced the slippery-slope argument. The word ‘inadvertent’ should indicate to any literate person that I understood this was not their intention. I was pointing out failures in carrying out their intentions, not accusing them of evil intentions.
“This is an actual wedding,” Galbreth insists. “This is not a pretend wedding. When the Art Guys do things, it’s the real thing.”
Usually, that’s true. For the 1994 behavior work Bucket Feet, the Art Guys really did walk 10 miles through downtown with buckets of water attached to their feet. For Blow Through Town (1995), they actually took to the streets with leaf blowers, blowing piles of debris across a 15-mile stretch of the city. And they’ve vowed that their wives won’t get to keep so much as a teaspoon of their ashes if Forever Yours sells.
For their big fat not-so-gay wedding, the Art Guys are playing it straight. The vows and format will be as traditional as possible. An ordained minister will officiate, and he’ll only address the Art Guys, because trees can’t talk and the Lorax hasn’t been invited. After all, one “fairly simple read(ing)” of the piece that Massing suggests is that it’s “an acknowledgement of man’s existence and how it bumps up and interacts with nature.”
But there won’t be a marriage license, because the Texas constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which voters passed overwhelmingly in 2005, leaves no wiggle room for quirky exceptions, spelling out that marriage “shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.”
As for the sapling, it’s not moving in with either of the Art Guys, who plan to plant it in a location to be determined — Massing says he thinks somewhere “deep in the woods” might be the best place — with or without a commemorative ceremony and plaque.
Press releases notwithstanding, this “behavior” doesn’t blur the boundary between art and life. It draws a bright, bold outline between art and Galbreth’s and Massing’s lives, at any rate. The same federal government that recognizes the Art Guys’ trademark also recognizes their real-life marriages to women.
But when it comes to the boundary between this artwork and the lives of gay and lesbian couples — even those in states where gay marriage is legal — the piece blurs it much more effectively. As far as Uncle Sam is concerned, their unions have no more legal standing than the Art Guys’ marriage to a tree. Of course, it also inadvertently reinforces the “slippery slope” argument that if we let gays wed, next we’ll allow people to marry animals, and so on.
If I thought The Art Guys Marry a Plant was “a parody of same-sex marriage,” I would have led with the “slippery slope” point and dropped “inadvertently.” But in order for The Art Guys to head off damage to their brand, they’ve spent the last few years working overtime to brand others as PC bullies so they can rebrand themselves as victims. Their lie about the ownership of the tree is the latest iteration of that branding campaign, and they’ve enlisted the statewide art website — a nonprofit, at that — and Houston’s newspaper of record to do their bidding for them. The institutional rot at the Menil is nothing compared to that at the tag-team of Glasstire and the Houston Chronicle.