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A Town Without Critics

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,  

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.

The Arts Guys Marry a Plant (photo: Everett Taasevigen)

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.


  1. Who knows what the Houston Chronicle will do? Still, since Britt-Darby’s last piece, they haven’t published any art criticism that I know of. Given the presence in this city of any number of potential freelance critics, that might say something about the importance of art criticism to the Chronicle. But it may also mean that they are having a hard time finding anyone local to step up.

    But it’s hard to get people to write about art in Houston. I don’t know why. Art writing positions–ones that actually pay money–go vacant. (It seems to me that I’ve seen the Houston Press advertise for an art writer several times in the past few months.) One of Houston’s best critics, Michael Bise, is sidelined as he waits for a heart transplant (it sounds like a clumsy metaphor, but it’s true).

    I’m always asking artist friends of mine to write. I like the tradition of the artist/critic. But they always have reasons not to write–time pressure, fear of expressing an opinion in a small, close-knit artistic community, lack of writing chops, etc. I was speaking to a friend of mine who had just written some art criticism as a personal project–and it was a difficult experience for her. She felt that she had to research her subject like an undergrad, and that the result was therefore informative but stiff. She did all this research because she felt she lacked sufficient erudition to just sit down and write. This kind of fear infects many local would-be critics–even people who are fully capable of expressing a well-reasoned opinion about art in conversation.

    More than a dearth of venues, I think a dearth of confident writers is Houston’s main problem when it comes to art criticism.

    • Appreciate your thoughts. The fear of expressing an opinion in print is real, one never really overcomes it and I think this is why Anna Kisselgoff told me to expect that I’d “learn” everything quite publicly. Of course, in Boston the community was smaller but there was a profusion of critics. Our size means that there should be more critical voice. How can we cultivate confident critics? I should mention also for purposes of clarification that I have a freelance contract at Houston Chronicle and have never met Mr. Britt-Darby in person, but know him only through his writing.

  2. Tedd…I’m so happy to see this article. After our conversation, I couldn’t stop thinking about the need for strong critical discourse within any community and that need definitely resonates high in the world of art/dance/theater/music. One thing that I have found myself missing in Houston is exactly that…strong critical writings in our local publications. The arts community of Houston is one that is truly fantastic and supportive in so many ways, it would only be strengthened further by a greater community of critics as well.

    One thing that is troubling is that there is so much great work that is coming out of our city and it isn’t being seen on an international level. As a community and individuals we need to push this to become more of a reality. We are currently the third largest arts district and second largest theater district in the country. Houston is by no means a cowtown when it comes to the arts yet when people think of Houston, oft times they don’t see our city in that light and don’t look to us for the arts.

    I am thrilled to have seen in Art Forum Magazine that two of the shows from the Menil were listed in the Top 10 shows of the year, with the “Upside Down/Arctic Realities” being ranked in first place and the Walter De Maria “Trilogies” being ranked number seven.That is exactly what needs to be seen globally more often. The fact that the Helmut Newton show originated in Houston is another fantastic moment in Houston’s art history this year.

    I’ve enjoyed your writings since I have arrived in Houston and am honored to have had my work grace your pages a few times. I look forward to many more conversations and reading your poignant articles. Glad that you are here and bringing issues such as this to light!


  3. Yes, those of us who write criticism certainly grow up in public, in a way few others do. Your desire for collegial contact is understandable since in Boston where you spent much of your career, there is a pretty active network of writers an critics to jabber with. It is in the DNA of the place.

    Houston, I think many thinkers and writers are strangers in a strange land, one reflecting its own Texas and Bible Belt culture which infuses so much of its public life.

    Cities beyond NY, LA, Paris etc.(even Boston) find it hard to get their top artists recognized for the innovators and geniuses that they are.

    I suppose if I were in your shoes, I would have to adapt an attitude of either total tenacity or move myself to a place with richer soil.

    • I’ll go for the tenacity. The paradox is that Houston IS richer soil, in a literal sense. There is an extraordinary amount of money spent on the arts in this city. Much more opera than in Boston, for example. Houston Ballet has one of the very finest dance buildings in the country, and the museum scene (there is actually a “museum district” here) is much more forward-looking than Boston. As Mr. Lane points out, we have the second-greatest number of theater seats in the country. I am just waiting for the critical culture to catch up. The mention of the Bible Belt culture seems to apply more outside of the big cities (Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio) than within them, it isn’t affected my arts experience here in any particular way. Thanks so much for commenting.

  4. Thank you for this article Tedd. It brings up a great topic of conversation for our community. The comments you have received are likewise thoughtful and insightful. I agree that one of the areas that would help Houston receive recognition in the International arts community (as it deserves) is strong critical discourse from a variety of educated individuals.

    That being said, we also need to export our work more effectively to other cities nationally & internationally. You pointed this out in your Culture Map article on Dec 31. Touring is challenging economically. I hope regional funders can begin to understand the importance to Houston of exporting our best home grown art. The city has been very good at importing good work to Houston, it is time to show the outside world the interesting work we are doing right here. Exporting our best will assist in building the reputation of the city as an international player. This would positively reflect on Houston, which in turn would assist the economic infrastructure of the city.

    When I say we need to export, I should clarify that I specifically am thinking specifically of the smaller & mid-sized art organizations and individual artists. The big five (Houston Ballet, Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Alley Theater) do have the resources to gain visibility outside of Houston. But there are many others that represent the entirety of our arts scene that should be seen outside as well.

    I am delighted to see that you are going for tenacity (rather than departure). As I often say to my students, “Stay the course!” Happy New Year. KS

    • The recent appearances of Houston Ballet in New York are an intriguing case study in critical perceptions outside the community. Your comment is important, since many folks outside Texas have little or no idea how much sophisticated work is going on here. Exporting it is an important part of the strategy in the years ahead.

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