Monday, September 10, 2012

Devon Britt-Darby Speaks

Robert Boyd

Art podcaster Bad at Sports has put up an interview with Devon Britt-Darby (née Douglas Britt) that is worth listening to but also disappointing. Mainly disappointing because it is pretty old. It was recorded shortly after Britt-Darby was fired from the Houston Chronicle (for rather complex reasons). Texas Monthly ran a fairly detailed story on the whole thing (which you can read if you register for the site). But to give a brief recounting, The Art Guys did a performance in which they "married" a tree for a group show at the CAMH. This bothered Britt, the Houston Chronicle's art critic, because it seemed to trivialize the very real struggles around gay marriage rights. Later, at the behest of the commissioning curator, Toby Kamps, the Menil Museum bought it (Kamps having moved over to the Menil in the meantime). The piece had a dedication ceremony in November, 2011. To protest this, Britt married a woman named Reese Darby in a perfomance called The Art Gay Marries a Woman. This marriage took place the night before the dedication of the tree. Britt-Darby (as he was called after his wedding) covered the tree obsessively on his blog, and in a related move admitted to his past as a meth-addicted male prostitute on his blog. He decided to go on a road-trip of self-discovery. He asked the Chronicle for a leave of absence. They told him he could quit and reapply for his job when he came back. He didn't quit, so they fired him.

Anyway, there's more to the story--way more. The tree itself was attacked and seriously damaged, for example. (And Britt-Darby's replacement at the Chronicle on the society beat turned out to be a blogging stripper--totally irrelevant to the matter at hand, but an amazing coincidence, you have to admit!)

The only innocent victim in this whole affair--the Tree, post vandalism

So Britt-Darby was in New York on his road-trip when he met up with the Bad at Sports guys. Chris Sperandio introduced him to them and kibitzed the interview. Britt-Darby is kind of a motormouth here, but he tells his side of the story. It comes off as a still-raw wound. Sperandio even suggests, as politely as possible, that Britt-Darby might be in the midst of a nervous breakdown. (The Art Guys also shared that theory when they spoke to me about the incident.) That's what I don't like about it--I think an interview now, almost a year later, would be more interesting. Britt-Darby wouldn't be so in the heat of the moment, and he could approach the sequence of events with a little more reflection and calm.

For example, some of his suppositions come off as paranoid. He believed that the ceremony at the Menil was kept hush-hush because of the controversy, and that the November dedication date was specifically chosen in order to lower the profile of the event. But this doesn't make any sense on the face of it. If they had wanted to keep things quiet, they wouldn't have had a dedication event in the first place. It's not like they have events for every art acquisition. By having a dedication event, they were doing just the opposite from what Britt-Darby supposes--they were drawing attention to the tree. And they picked November because the Art Guys wanted Lawrence Weschler to speak, and he was coming through Houston on a book-signing tour in November.

Also, it comes off as a tad unself-aware that Britt-Darby is continuously attacking the Art Guys' ego and inflated sense of self-importance (while maintaining that they aren't all that) during a period in which he is repeatedly posting videos of himself online (usually showing off his gym build) and engaging in attention-seeking performances. Pot, kettle and all that.

But that's no reason not to listen to the podcast. It's quite interesting, and Britt-Darby's defense of his performance was eloquent and moving.

The part of the tree that got cut off



  1. I think you're forgetting that the Menil does indeed trumpet acquisitions it's proud of. The way it publicized its joint accession with the Dallas Museum of Art of the Mauricio Cattelan piece, for example, stands in stark contrast to its hush-hush approach to the tree acquisition, which was only noted in a members' bulletin.

    And we're still waiting for the panel discussion the Menil told Texas Monthly it was considering having. The Menil has never been shy about furthering discussions of artworks in its collections -- except in this case.

  2. Surely if the Menil had wanted to sweep it under the rug, they wouldn't have had a public dedication in the first place. They certainly wouldn't have had one with Lawrence Weschler and James Surls speaking.

    The fact that they promoted their co-acquisition of a Mauricio Cattelan more is an apples to oranges comparison. Mauricio Cattelan is widely considered to be one of the world's most important living artists. The Art Guys, not so much.

  3. We agree on your assessment of the Art Guys' relative unimportance. But the Menil, at least up until now, has insisted that their piece is so important it can't ever be put in storage, which is not how they've treated works by undeniably major figures. They've even rejected proposals to effectively deinstall the piece by putting the plaque in storage and let the tree just be a tree because it would violate the piece's 'integrity.' (That topic alone seems worthy of public discussion, leaving aside the civil rights issues Toby Kamps wrote that the piece stirs up in the No Zoning catalogue.)

    So it's too important to put away, but not important enough to merit the debate Kamps claimed to welcome in 2009.

    As for the ceremony with Weschler and Surls, that was supposedly what completed the artwork. So not having it wasn't an option once they acquired it.

  4. By the way, you don't have to be a Texas Monthly subscriber to read Mimi Swartz's article (which has a number of factual inaccuracies but is the most thoroughly reported summary of the events leading up to the tree's vandalism) -- you just have to register with the website.