Many years ago in Cambridge, I had the pleasure of meeting the esteemed former New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff. The lecture she’d delivered that night at Harvard was so inspiring that I decided I was going to become a critic as well. In a hopelessly naïve gesture, I went up to her after the talk and asked if she could explain my next move. “Well,” she said with a sigh, “the first thing to remember is that you’re going to have to conduct your education in public.”
Many decades later, that advice continues to ring true, and it’s particularly applicable to the contemporary blog. Gone are my fact-checkers, my editors, my copy desk, my headline writers and photo editors. Or rather, now I am all of them. This isn’t big news to anyone who started in print publications and moved to blogs. In my case, I continue to play both fields, writing for newspapers and trade publications as well as websites.
The theme of this week’s blog is so unwieldy that I couldn’t possibly cover it thoroughly within the “confines” of this ever-scrolling page. “Don’t write in a way that forces readers to click for too long,” I’m learning that lesson. With this delayed lede, however, I’ll proceed and try to convey a current crisis in Houston’s critical culture.
A few weeks ago, the esteemed art critic Douglas Britt left Houston Chronicle. As I understand the situation, he requested a leave of absence to pursue an independent art project and his request was denied. Last I heard from my colleagues at Houston Chronicle, his position was open and the paper was interviewing candidates.
Britt now goes by the name Devon Britt-Darby. You can read all about his situation at his own blog, Reliable Narratives, http://reliablenarratives.wordpress.com/.
Britt-Darby’s blog features a video diary in which he speaks candidly to the camera and is usually wearing a hat and a pair of underpants. He has a nice body, very muscular and appealing, but his face looks weary. Frequently he discusses his experiences as a methamphetamine addict and a prostitute, as well as his current art projects.
In the recent period of Houston’s art history, the duo known as The Art Guys (or, as they are sometimes called, The Art Guise) created a work titled Art Guys Marry a Plant. In my estimation, The Art Guys are sort of like the poor American cousins of Gilbert and George, without any of the real irony. Their work has been conceptually weak, more for the folks who flock to Blue-Man Group performances. Nonetheless, their finished piece on marrying a plant is held in The Menil Collection and was vandalized a few weeks ago. Prior to the near-destruction of the tree (installed outdoors by the Rothko Chapel), Britt-Darby married a heterosexual woman as an art project in response to Art Guys Marry a Plant. The ceremony was performed in a Houston gay strip-club.
All of this (my summary is bare bones, but coverage of the events is all over the web) points to a significant problem in Houston’s critical culture. From the perspective of the reader and Britt-Darby’s fellow critics, it really hurts to lose such a prolific critic over what seems like a ridiculous series of events. This is because there is hardly any critical culture within Houston.
I am grateful to my editor at Houston Chronicle, Molly Glentzer, one of the few people in the city with whom I can engage in a rigorous discussion about dance. The gifted photographer Lynn Lane (whose work has appeared in several of my columns) is another. There are many arts writers in the city, of course, though their work is often limited to advocacy journalism. In this way, they are more like press agents and certainly not critics.
I am aware of the contradictions in this brief reportage. At some level, The Art Guys Marry a Plant is extraordinarily significant in view of the events it has provoked. People do really care about the piece. I hesitate to interview Britt-Darby, since I fear his narcissism would dominate the conversation. Being indifferent about The Art Guys, I haven’t bothered to contact them.
This blog began because I saw a profusion of artistic activity inTexas that wasn’t being captured in the international media. That said, I need more critic colleagues here in the Lone Star state. If anything, I’d like to have some friendly arguments about the meaning of these recent events. Despite what anyone thinks of Britt-Darby’s current activities, he is a wonderful writer and critic, and I’m quite sorry that his work won’t be found in Houston Chronicle. The difference between his blog and his work in Houston Chronicle arises from the lack of an editor, but this is a problem most every blogger faces.
Hopefully another accomplished critic is ready to take his place, and to conduct his or her education in public. I’d appreciate hearing your comments, since I’m still conducting my own.