Note: This is the first in an occasional series of excerpts from a draft of an as-yet-unpublished essay that I originally intended for the Houston Chronicle, my former employer. It turned out to be too long to fit anywhere in the print edition, but my editors were willing to consider posting it on 29-95.com, the Chronicle’s entertainment website, with changes I was unwilling to make. The fact that I was unwilling to make those changes, however, does not mean I don’t think the essay could use some improvement, so I welcome feedback from readers. References to dates such as “last week” will make more sense if you consider the draft was filed shortly before Thanksgiving. — Devon Britt-Darby
I drank like a fish at my bachelor party. Even tipping the strippers and flirting with the bartender couldn’t quiet my jitters. If you’ve ever married, you can probably relate, although my bachelor party was a tad unusual in that the moment it ended my wedding began.
Well, there was one other twist. My betrothal to Theresa “Reese” Darby, while legally binding, was a performance-art piece called The Art Gay Marries a Woman that included a vow “to refrain from any major purchases until the divorce is finalized.”
Held at Tony’s Corner Pocket, my favorite gay bar, one of its aims was to highlight the absurdity of Texas and U.S. marriage laws. It was an experiment in using the one marriage right American gay men universally share — to marry whichever women will say yes to us — as a weapon to get the marriage rights we don’t. Gay men have been marrying women since long before there was a word for “the love that dare not speak its name,” but in most cases we’ve done so in ways that reinforce inequality rather than fight it.
Could art provide another way?
The piece’s roots date to 2009, when — just as the debate over marriage equality was at another boiling point — the Houston conceptual duo of Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing known as The Art Guys staged a mock wedding to a live-oak sapling in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. Though I knew neither the artists nor Toby Kamps — then senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, which commissioned The Art Guys Marry a Plant — are homophobes, I found the piece breathtakingly tone-deaf.
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.
But nor was the solution that many of Galbreth and Massing’s detractors — and, ironically, perhaps the Menil itself — would have preferred: to deny The Art Guys the oxygen of publicity by ignoring the acquisition. My least favorite thing about the Houston art scene is its dearth of voices willing to speak honestly on the record about topics that need to be thrashed out. If we don’t care enough about our museums to fight over them, I repeat: Burn them down.
Could art provide another way?
That’s what I was at Tony’s Corner Pocket on Friday to find out. I had already been surprised many times over by what an emotional roller-coaster ride trying to find a bride had been. Between them, the first several women I asked had gotten feedback from boyfriends or fiances, attorneys, bosses, friends and even parents before sending their regrets. I didn’t get around to asking everyone on my list because, again to my surprise, each rejection — from women with whom I have zero romantic or sexual chemistry — hit me so hard it took a week or more to recover.
I was wracked with self-doubt every step of the way. Yet every time I contemplated copping out — saying that accumulating rejections had been enough — someone reminded me why I was doing this.
Sometimes that someone was one of the women who had rejected me. Jen Graves, art critic for The Stranger, a Seattle alt-weekly, who is engaged to marry Yonnas Getahun in the spring, believed in the piece so much she polled her readers on whether she should reverse her decision. (My supporters cast the most votes but failed to muster the necessary supermajority.)
In another critically important case, it was a longtime friend, Christian Chiari, with whom I worked as a telemarketer back when I first started taking continuing education classes at Massachusetts College of Art and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the mid-1990s. Though he wasn’t an artist — or at least didn’t call himself one — from the very beginning he participated in my work, going on to collect it and even finance a project I thoroughly botched during a self-destructive period. Not once has he reminded me that I still owe him $5,000. (Editor’s note: That tally has risen by at least $900 since the draft of this essay was filed shortly before Thanksgiving.)
But he reminded me of the power of art just a few days out before my wedding, when Reese and I had found each other and were finalizing our decision on whether to go through with getting the marriage license, then the wedding.
Christian was already a successful businessman in 1999, when in a seemingly random move, he was ordained as a minister because he “knew it would come in handy someday.” He insisted on flying here from Norfolk, Va., on three days’ notice — he’s spent more on my wedding than I have —to marry me off to Reese, summing up the reason with perfect concision: “Art is important.”
Even so, I got cold feet so many times last week it’s a wonder I didn’t catch hypothermia.
Part 2 is here.