Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994

think that the act of looking elevates or enlightens us, we
accept the privileged status of art. Not everyone is en-
gaged by mere looking, however. Plenty of art viewers-
especially nontraditional museum goers-long for some
form of context. Failure to provide context often makes art
seem pure, unsullied by the political, social, economic, and
personal forces which so dearly do inform it. It protects
the status of art at the expense of understanding. And, it
blocks the only thing which could guarantee public fund-
ing: public demand.
Dominique de Menil writes of viewing art objects with the
passion and eloquence one might expect from such an
experienced and privileged collector. In the forward of The
Menil Collection's catalog, she writes, "I hesitate to write.
Events, people, situations and works of art most of all are
always beyond what may be said of them. Language re-
stricts, limits, impoverishes._Perhaps only silence and love
do justice to a great work of art." This said, she has gen-
erously opened the doors of her collection to the public,
who can experience Surrealism, Brice Marden, Yves Klein,
John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, and others without a
word of wall text to mar their rapt communion, to explain
the joke of Magritte's "A Vintage Picasso" or the random
fun of the "Box of Replicas of Natural Crystals" displayed
with the Surrealist Manifesto. However, those who seek
meaning are not readily prepared to enjoy anti-meaning.
Until recently, not so much as a brochure was supplied
with the Menil's spectacular exhibits-instead money was
poured into the production of expensive coffee-table
books. In 1991, a Menil employee explained to me "Mrs.
de Menil's philosophy": people can come and look at the
art, and if something catches their eye, "they can go and
research it."
Certainly, I do not mean to suggest that art cannot be en-
joyed or appreciated sans text, but such appreciation, es-
pecially in the case of Modem, Abstract, or contemporary
art, comes more "naturally" when one is familiar with the
external concerns which inform the work-de Menil herself
had her portrait painted by Max Ernst during her youth.
Therefore, people with little or no "cultural capital" (as the
term is defined by sociologists) do not experience the mu-
seum in the same way that those who have it do, all "phi-
losophies" aside. We do, after all, learn to appreciate art,
even down to the systems of representation that we as-
similate (Ceci est une pipe). As the Menil Collection (and it
is not alone) assumes that art appreciation is a natural
faculty, so does Philip Johnson, the architect of Mrs. de
Menil's house: "I only believe in self-education, in the in-
dividual going to art if he needs it. The function of the mu-
seum is to satisfy a deep natural want, as deep and natu-
ral as sex or sleeping, for looking at pictures." Which leads
to my next point. We know that education brings individu-
als to art. But what of art going to individuals?
When the MFAH ventured into the Third Ward to interview
its denizens (and so disingenuously put their survey an-

Furthermore, when asked to name a living artist, the re-
spondents most frequently answered "John Biggers," a
prominent and successful African-American artist whose
work has consistently spoken to issues and concerns fac-
ing African-Americans. That simple fact makes it easy to
see why PRH would at least initially hire black artists. They
are not serving the artists as much as they are serving
their constituency by beginning on comfortable ground.
And, at least initially, it is important that the ethnicity of the
artists mirrors the ethnicity of the community, because it is
the best way to show such a community that PRH is rele-
vant to them. While the MFAH struggles to attract Third
Ward residents to the Museum District, PRH pours its re-
sources into the community, building and exhibiting right in
the heart of the neighborhood. Its programming, in which
artists are asked to include people from the neighborhood
in their artmaking, assumes that one exposure to an art-
ists' process is worth a thousand trips to look at art on a
wall. Furthermore, PRH's plans seem perfectly contextual-
ized to the neighborhood-they include services and tran-
sitional living space for teenage mothers, a cafe, a class-
room devoted to conflict resolution, weekly domino games,
and perhaps workspaces where tools will be available to
community members. In this way, Project Row Houses is
taking a giant leap in arts education. Educators know that
teaching is easier when material is relevant, when the
learning process is engaging, and when there is an incen-
tive to learn.
To those who criticize PRH as a "racist" program, I would
say that PRH deserves to be recognized for the advanced
entity it is: not an extension of "affirmative action," a term
which seems ultimately, as one critic said, to mask en-
trenched exclusions, and not a showplace for "African-
American art," invoking categories in the same way that
the "The Museum of Hispanic Art" or "The Museum of Art
of the Pacific Islands" does. Instead, PRH seeks to weave
art into the cultural fabric of the Third Ward community, in
much the same way that is was woven into the life of Do-
minique de Menil. In the end, this is good for the arts in
many ways. On the demand side, a mercenary eye will
note that PRH will increase public demand for the arts, the
one sure way to increase public funding for the arts. And
on the supply side, PRH will help young African-Americans
assimilate their artistic histories and grow. As Judith Wil-
son put it at a College Art Association conference, "In the
absence of knowledge about the Joshua Johnsons, Ed-
monia Lewises and Charles Ethan Porters [and, I would
add, Adrian Pipers] who preceded them, young black art-
ists are doomed to repeat a drama of assimilation vs. al-
ienation from U.S. culture, which they might bypass or ex-
perience less acutely if they knew they were not the first
artists to face such dilemmas."

swers and Polaroid portraits on display in the museum), it
leaked that many have never set foot in the MFAH and
can name few artists beyond the most canonically famous.

9

Huerta, Benito; Ballou, Chris & Loftus, Kelley. Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994. Houston, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228036/. Accessed April 19, 2014.