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Incest Is Wrong

The MFAH shamelessly hops in bed with the Houston Texans

Art purists may say, "Why do a show about football?" predicted Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Peter Marzio, standing in front of a 20-foot diptych of photos depicting buxom, scantily clad cheerleaders at the press preview of "First Down Houston: The Birth of an NFL Franchise." The exhibition presents 86 images of the Houston Texans taken by Robert Clark over the course of the team's first year. The show's photographs could easily pass for a special-edition game program for the Texans, a team that is -- not coincidentally -- owned by MFAH trustee Bob McNair. Yes, you read that correctly: This show promotes a franchise owned by one of the trustees of the MFAH. What Marzio should have said is "People with ethics may say, 'Why do this show about football?'"

These two "aw shucks" former football players (McNair played high school ball, and Marzio attended Juniata College on a football scholarship) were meeting about the sculpture for the Houston Texans' mascot when they hatched their plan for "First Down." The way McNair tells the story, it sounds like a scene from some 1940s film with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney scheming to put on a show in Judge Hardy's barn. McNair said he was thinking of documenting his team's first year. Marzio thought it was a great idea and, according to McNair, said the way to do it would be to get a "world-class photographer" and "do this up in world-class fashion."

Gosh golly gee, they could even do a show at the museum!

According to the back cover blurb of the accompanying catalog, viewers will receive a "penetrating and intimate look into the world of the Houston Texans." I don't see what the hell is penetrating and intimate about this show. It feels like a hipper-than-average commercial shoot.

If only Clark, a photojournalist for National Geographic and Sports Illustrated, could have addressed the culture of the sport, as well as its marketing and commercialization, in an honest and incisive way. If only he could have approached the project with a Diane Arbus knack for strangeness, or at least some point of view that transcended run-of-the-mill sports photography. But Clark is a court toady who seeks only to gratify and glorify. As evidence, look at the show's ten-foot image of Bob McNair kneeling in Reliant Stadium. Children under 18 should not be allowed to witness this colossal act of fellatio by the museum. At the preview, a smaller image of the same photograph described him as caught in a "reflective" or a "spiritual" mood. That image and caption have since been removed.

Clark took 30,000 photographs in the year he spent with the Texans, and 86 were selected for the show. According to Marzio, the "museum would only have done this if we had total access and no censorship." Okay, what exactly is there to censor? Team members in the showers? (Actually, that might have made the show a little more interesting.) It's not like they're staging the My Lai massacre in Reliant Stadium.

There are images of football players practicing, football players sitting in the locker room, football players on the field. There are Vanity Fair cover-manqué images of football players leaping for studio shots that display their athletic prowess. A smattering of "wacky and rabid fans" photos feels fairly forced, given the recent provenance of the team. We have a ways to go before we rival Cleveland's "Dog Pound."

In other images, there's self-conscious gravitas, grandeur and God. One shot shows the tape on Billy Miller's wrist with "Philippians 4:13" inscribed on it. The passage reads, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Clark also has a Mapplethorpe-esque fixation with the flesh and bodies of black players. In contrast, a shot of McNair and general manager Charley Casserly shows them in the Founders Suite with stemmed glassware and a plate of grapes.

But once in a while, Clark stumbles into artier territory. One of the shots shows a blond cheerleader high-kicking with an expression of crazed zeal on her face. (The exhibition labels identify the cheerleaders by only their first names. Apparently this is NFL policy.) In a particularly creepy scene, one Diane Arbus would appreciate, we see grinning good ol' boys Bob McNair and Jerry Jones. And a nice close-up shot of Fred Weary, Guard shows him smiling with closed eyes and a Breathe Right strip across his nose.

Many of the more redeeming photos are tucked into the accompanying catalog, which boasts 225 images and a nice layout. This whole thing would have been a lot less embarrassing if the project had been limited to just a coffee-table book.

The walls of the exhibition include quotes such as, "I am very impressed with how this organization has been put together from top to bottom. I don't know how it could have been done any better." It's from Gil Brandt of NFL.com. What an informative and objective source. While we're at it, why don't we get Bill Gates to tell us how great Microsoft is? The ass-kissing continues with a quote by none other than Bob McNair himself: "We don't want to be America's team, we want to be Texas's team."

"First Down" also features a lengthy promotional video that looks a lot like a commercial. There is a museum bench placed in front of it for your viewing comfort. This exhibit takes advantage of every crass opportunity possible.

The show's comments book contains remarks from some enthusiastic fans. A lot of them mention how "hot" David Carr is and add inscriptions like "Texans we LUV YA! Stay motivated!" Also: "I am the ultimate Texans fan! I never miss a game and I  David Carr! I also  photography so this couldn't get much better. Texans rock Houston! David rocks!" The majority of comments, interspersed with kids' drawings and teenage graffiti, are positive. But some viewers were not quite as swayed by the exhibition: "Strictly commercial -- an ad for this business! Not art," opined one. Another quipped, "This is an art museum, not a sports bar! Next you'll rename the museum MFAHooters."

Of course, there's also the attendant merchandising, something that has become commonplace at practically every museum exhibition in the country. At the gift shop, we find a host of Texans paraphernalia: Texans checkers with helmet-shaped playing pieces, "Fan Face" masks that apparently save you the bother of actually using paint, bobble-head David Carr dolls, football-shaped serving trays and the pièce de résistance, a T-shirt-shaped coozie that says "First Down" on the front and "MFAH 1" on the back. All of these splendid gifts are sold by slightly embarrassed museum employees.

Boil down the MFAH's rationale for putting on this show, and the message is this: An exhibition about football will lure the city's beer-quaffing, crotch-scratching lumpenproles into the museum. But too often people assume that there's some huge chasm between people who like art and people who like sports -- you know, the old high school stereotypes. Such base pandering to the supposedly lowest common denominator only reinforces an off-putting impression of elitism.

The real rationale behind this exhibition is a craven, greedy desire to service trustee Bob McNair, get some scratch from him for the museum and advertise his business. An NFL franchise is a business. The Oilers, er, Titans are a case in point. Obviously, the departed team -- and all the others, with the exception of the Packers -- are not civic entities, however much team owners try to perpetuate that myth.

The point isn't that football has no place in the museum. The point is that crap vanity exhibitions have no place in the museum. Football is an integral part of American popular culture, permeating everything from politics to art to religion. It is, for example, in the envelope-pushing work of Matthew Barney. The art star/former football player has integrated a host of sports and football references into his multimedia art. You could make a fascinating show exploring football in art and culture, but this ain't it.

Happily, people are more discerning than the MFAH thinks they are. Each time I've visited the show (more often than anyone in their right mind should), it has been desolate. Even on three separate Thursday nights when admission is free, and the museum's open until 9 p.m. -- a free show about football! that should really bring them in!-- I didn't see more than a handful of people wandering through. The museum's MoMA show, however, has been consistently packed. Good programming wins out.

At the press preview, Marzio said that this was an exhibition that "probably could only happen in a city like Houston." Sadly, that may be true. The city identified with Enron's corporate shamelessness is also host to this small-scale display of nonprofit shamelessness. Marzio, who received a $1.7 million bonus in 2000 and laid off longtime employees in 2003 -- after reassuring them months earlier that there would be no layoffs -- has been quoted as telling his colleagues they'd be well advised to "learn their lessons from the for-profit sector." Maybe he should be more selective about which for-profits.

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