The Art Guys double-down on the stupidity

20 Dec

CultureMap’s Tyler Rudnick endured a god-knows-how-long b.s. session with The Art Guys to bring the world these deep thoughts about the recent vandalism of the tree they pretended to marry, only to outsource its care to the Menil Collection, which didn’t take its safety any more seriously than they did:

“There’s an irony to this protest that doesn’t seem to get discussed,” (Jack) Massing said. “If you have a group of people trying to get their rights under the law — and I totally believe in equal marriage rights — trying to violate someone else’s right to make art seems like odd choice.”

I’m glad I didn’t read that with a mouthful of coffee. Don’t look now, Jack, but I discussed that irony at length in this post two weeks ago, which quoted a draft of an essay that was originally intended for my former employer, the Houston Chronicle, but which I’ve been posting in installments on this blog instead:

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.

The title of the post called the vandalism of the tree a “Taliban-style response,” which I’d think most people — Massing apparently not included — would agree suggests that the vandal(s) lacked respect for The Art Guys’ right to make art.

Back to the CultureMap story:

“We do stuff in public contrary to a lot of social norms,” (Michael) Galbreth said. “In some ways we ask for criticism like this. But we always do our work in an open and self-critical way. We’re not asking anyone to do anything. We’re just inviting them along to watch.”

In fact, The Art Guys haven’t shown a whiff of self-criticism and have rejected others’ criticism of The Art Guys Marry a Plant as invalid, despite claiming from the outset that the response to the piece would shape its meaning. Don’t believe me? Look no further than the end of the story:

Long a suspect in JFK’s shooting, Louis Steven Witt was brought before a U.S. House committee to explain why he was the only person in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 carrying an umbrella. For years, conspiracy theorists speculated on Witt’s involvement, going so far as to suggest his mysterious black umbrella was equipped with a gun. In the end Witt claimed it was only a simple act of protest about Joseph Kennedy’s actions at the start of World War II.

Galbreth sees similarities with that situation and the criticism of the Marry a Plant piece.

“You can’t just assign these meanings to things, these sinister meanings that don’t exist,” he said. “It’s not fair. You can’t put a gun in the umbrella.”

Leave it to Galbreth to say it’s “not fair” to assign meanings to an artwork, particularly an artwork whose meaning was supposed to be shaped by the public response to it. Well, I suppose that’s consistent with making a social sculpture that asks viewers to ignore the social context in which it occurs. As for comparing himself to Witt, let’s not forget Galbreth didn’t mind the gun being put in the umbrella shortly before they staged the mock wedding in 2009:

The Art Guys Marry a Plant has nothing to do with the country’s hottest civil rights issue, they say, although they both support the right of same-sex couples to marry.

“I don’t even care about that,” says Galbreth of the gay-marriage issue. “It doesn’t even warrant discussion. I’m happy that the issue is out there because it helps promotes us, in a crude sense, when the people mistakenly think that it’s a political gesture, which to my mind, it’s not.”

Notice that even before the “wedding” I identified The Art Guys as marriage-equality supporters and pointed out that they said the piece wasn’t about gay marriage. Further down in the same story, I quoted Massing’s suggested reading of the piece — that it’s “an acknowledgement of man’s existence and how it bumps up and interacts with nature.”

I did say the piece “inadvertently reinforces the ‘slippery slope’ argument that if we let gays wed, next we’ll allow people to marry animals, and so on.” Doesn’t the word “inadvertently” should make clear that I wasn’t accusing The Art Guys of doing anything “sinister”? Or is assigning meaning to words — including my own — now also to be deemed “unfair” in Galbreth’s world?

Even that criticism was secondary to what has always been my primary objection:

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.

Nothing they said then or have said since addresses how the interpretations they’ve offered — acknowledging how humans’ existence “bumps up and interacts with nature” or the wedding as a marriage between two abstract entities — square with their claim to blur the boundary between art and life. No, we’re all just supposed to join the Menil in accepting the piece as a successful “social” sculpture with no connection to the society in which we actually live.

Just like we were supposed to take Menil curator Toby Kamps’ word for it when he commissioned the piece for No Zoning, a Contemporary Arts Museum Houston exhibition that celebrated the city’s “art permeability” and artists’ ability to bring art into the unlikeliest nooks and crannies, that a CAMH-commissioned piece performed in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, one of the richest museums in the country, embodied the spirit of that show.

Just like we were supposed to take Galbreth’s word for it when he insisted: “This is an actual wedding. This is not a pretend wedding. When the Art Guys do things, it’s the real thing.”

Not lately it isn’t.

Meanwhile, I can only repeat what I asked two weeks ago:

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.

Notice I said “thoughtless,” not “sinister.” The Art Guys keep falsely complaining about being falsely accused of sinister motives because they don’t want to deal with the real issue with their piece: that it was poorly thought out, which is the meanest thing you can say about a conceptual artwork.

3 Responses to “The Art Guys double-down on the stupidity”

  1. J.V. December 21, 2011 at 8:36 pm #


    I would be very interested in your reaction to this:

    ‘On 29 November in Houston, Hiram Butler, an out art historian and gallerist, was verbally assaulted and physically threatened by the straight art duo Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing who go by the tag The Art Guys. They called him a “a coward and an evil fuck” and accused him of being “an unhappy homosexual.” When he ordered them off his property they stepped up the intimidation and he had to call the Police. Butler has been one of the more outspoken members (gay and straight) of the Houston art community who have found The Art Guys insensitive (at the least) and provocative or worse (in the meanest explanation) after their recent decision to marry a tree.’

    It’s a bit more detail than what’s in the CultureMap article you linked to. It’s not clear to me where this info came from. My source for this info is from this page:

    Do you know anything more about this…?

    • reliablenarratives December 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

      J.V., I saw that article moments after this post; in fact, I posted a few comments on it, the gist of which I may repeat on this blog. I reached Butler this morning but he declined to comment. I agree that the post could have made its sources clearer. Maybe they got a copy of the police report that CultureMap says it obtained?

  2. J.V. December 22, 2011 at 1:56 am #

    Wow, great discussion in the comments over there. Sorry I missed it earlier, and thanks for the pointer.

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