Awe… M’art

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With all of its localized shenanigans, it’s important to take a step back and see what big-picture Big Box looks like:

The brand-new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the small northwest Arkansas city of Bentonville is the creation of Alice Walton, the daughter of the late Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), the largest retailer in the world.

Alice Walton, who is worth about $21 billion, has achieved her dream of building a top-tier museum that unabashedly celebrates American art in the American heartland. Crystal Bridges, in many ways, is an aesthetic success.

It’s also a moral tragedy, very much like the corporation that provided Walton with the money to build a billion-dollar art museum during a terrifying recession. The museum is a compelling symbol of the chasm between the richest Americans and everyone else. In 2007, according to the labor economist Sylvia Allegretto, the six Walton family members on the Forbes 400 had a net worth equal to the bottom 30 percent of all Americans. The Waltons are now collectively worth about $93 billion,according to Forbes.

Touche, monsieur. But what say you of the art?

But many of the paintings in Crystal Bridges hang in eloquent rebuke to the values of the company that has made the Waltons so very wealthy. Three paintings, in particular, struck me as especially pointed commentaries on the perverse values of Sam Walton’s heirs.

The first was Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits,” one of the greatest paintings to emerge from the Hudson River School. It celebrates the friendship of the painter Thomas Cole and the poet William Cullen Bryant, who are portrayed standing in an enchanted Catskill gorge.

“Kindred Spirits,” bought by the Walton foundation in 2005 from the New York Public Library for an estimated $35 million, is, in the words of the critic Rebecca Solnit, a tribute to “friendship freely given, including a sense of friendship, even passion, for the American landscape itself.”

It’s really worth re-acquainting oneself with the Saint-Just, Cardinal de Rohan and Charlotte Corday.

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