Homophobia in the Arts

The number of gay teens bullied is on the rise in America as are the number of suicides. This reckless attitude towards the LGBT community by artists is their prerogative, but a public institution really should know better.

The issue of homophobia is not something you would expect in the art world, however a recent 'work of art' in America prove this is not the case.

The following article was written with Texan born Dr Michael Petry whose book Hidden Histories: 20th Century Male Same-Sex Lovers in the Visual Arts showed there are many practices within the art world that keep openness at bay.

Recent cases include the misleading signage at many Rauschenberg exhibitions, which mention his marriage and child but not his long-term sexual partnerships with Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns (amongst others). Twombly himself prevented the Tate from including that information at his retrospective in 2008.

While internalised homophobia amongst older members of the LGBT family is bad enough, outright hostility in the art community still happens and is unacceptable. As in the following case.

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.

Their performance The Art Guys Marry a Plant was seen by many as an opportunistic and offensive riff on gay marriage in the USA, which is hotly contested by conservatives and the religious right.

According to Douglas Britt, who interviewed the duo for the Houston Chronicle, Galbreth told him: "I don't even care about that [the gay-marriage issue]. It doesn't even warrant discussion. I'm happy that the issue is out there because it helps promote us, in a crude sense, when the people mistakenly think that it's a political gesture, which to my mind, it's not" adding that the issue was "a mechanism for us to crudely piggyback on." As Britt wrote: "The work inadvertently reinforces a 'slippery slope' argument that labels gay marriage as a gateway to allowing people to marry animals and other non-human partners."

In the end The Art Guys decided that they would offer the work to the Museum of Fine Arts as a permanent piece, and were turned down, as did Rice University and the Menil Collection. But when Toby Kamps the curator at The Contemporary Arts Museum who had commissioned the work, moved to the Menil Collection, he decided they should take the work.

Their antics were seen as offensive by many in the LBGT community, but as Butler stated; it is perfectly fine for artists to be outrageous or even stupid and offensive, but public institutions do not have that luxury. Unfortunately the Menil Collection, under Kamps, accepted the tree on 19 November 2011 in a public dedication ceremony.

In the future I am sure the Menil will feel ashamed at their participation in such a fiasco. What made this all the more offensive was that the tree was planted next to the Rothko Chapel on the site of the Carter Menil Human Rights Awards, an area traditionally used for LGBT memorial services for people who have died due to AIDS related illnesses in the 1980s when many churches refused to do so.

Showing their total lack of understanding of the anger they have caused, the duo held a reception in their studio featuring an exhibition of their works called Mountains Out of Molehills. The tree was slightly damaged (the top broken off) and many in Houston believe it was the artists themselves who did it in order to generate even more publicity.

The artists know well the many silly arguments put forward by opponents to equality, that gay marriage will lead to marriage between people and animals as well as adults and children and inanimate objects. Trees for example. Marrying a Tree fell into the hands of opponents of gay marriage as a political gift.

On a more tragic level, the number of gay teens bullied is on the rise in America as are the number of suicides. This reckless attitude towards the LGBT community by artists is their prerogative, but a public institution really should know better.


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