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It’s been a little more than a month since the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum is a project of one Alice Walton, tenth-richest person in American (worth about $21 billion, give or take) and one heir to the indecently large Wal-Mart fortune.

Given the Wal-Mart connection and our bizarre love-hate relationship with the company, I was expecting a lot of criticism of  Crystal Bridges from advocates of worker’s rights and a lot of derision from mainstream art people and I was disappointed on neither count. The opening was greeted with protests from the Occupy Movement and organized Wal-Mart workers, who were then mocked in an embarrassingly fawning puff-piece in Forbes.

A Model of the Crystal Bridges Museum

The art world has been dismissive because Ms. Walton is, apparently,  little more than a rich dilettante who simply went on a buying spree to fill a museum that was nothing if not a vanity project. Sounds a lot like how New York ended up with the Museum of Modern Art to me, and no one has pointed out how Crystal Bridges is different. Of course, there’s been some backlash against the effete snobs from the East Coast from the Arkansas loyalists, some even repeating the stupid, self-congratulatory mantra that the South is the REAL America and is in all ways culturally superior to the rest of the Nation.

Yes, the Waltons got rich on the backs of exploited workers, not just here but in third-world sweatshops from Taiwan to Sri Lanka. Interesting, but not really the point. The money comes largely from foundations, Alice Walton’s and Wal-Mart’s, mainly. They could have given it to the workers, I suppose, but they weren’t going to and no one could make them. What a lot of Wal-Mart haters fail to realize is that we have no one to blame but ourselves for the size of the Walton family fortune. SOMEONE is buying all that cheap imported bullshit from them. SOMEONE aided and abetted their destruction of Main Street and independent retailers. I have never seen anyone shopping at a Wal-Mart store at gunpoint. The Wal-Mart story is quintessentially American; they had a competitive advantage and exploited it. Capitalism 101.

So…New Yorkers can complain all they want when Walton buys Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library’s collection, at an auction, through a sealed bid, but the fact remains that the Library put it up for sale.

Kindred Spirits (Asher Durand - 1849)

We can all shake our heads in disgust when Walton’s dirty money buys Norman Rockwell’s iconic Rosie the Riveter, even though the result is that the painting will now be forever available to anyone who happens to be passing through Bentonville.

Rosie the Riveter (Norman Rockwell - 1943)

Me, I’m planning on spending a day at Crystal Bridges if I ever find myself in Arkansas for any length of time. Yes, the building is gaudy to the point of tastelessness, and yes, the money that built it and paid for the art that resides there is a monument to an economic system that dangerously unbalanced. I know these things. I know how hard it is to work for Wal-Mart, having spent the longest 8 months of my life in their employ in Bozeman, Montana a few years back.

I will go because art is meant to be seen and the paintings that now live in Bentonville are American treasures of the highest order. I will go to see the work of George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Cole, Charles Sheeler, Benjamin West, Mary Cassatt, and all the others because that’s what the paintings are for. And I will continue to work to change the system that created the wealth that financed Crystal Bridges in the first place. This time, I will leave the complaining and derision to someone else for a change.

Excavation at Night (George Wesley Bellows - 1908)

Update: 12/22/2011: The tempest continues! Bloomberg’s Jeffery Goldberg leads the charge on behalf of social engineers and bleeding hearts while “Culturegrrl” Lee Rosenbaum of the ArtsJournal defends the museum. Even after reflecting on what I’ve written here earlier, I can’t seem to buy the argument that Walton should have handed her money to Wal-Mart employees instead of bankrolling Crystal Bridges. These links are a good “point-counterpoint” on the arguments.

I don’t think it matters whether or not Wal-Mart workers, or at least the ones Goldberg talked to, don’t care about art. It’s a phony argument.

One Comment

  1. Well said, Rick!

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  1. […] 5) Some Thoughts on American Art and Hating Wal-Mart (December 19th) […]

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