A Southern Art Treasure Hated by the Elite

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Recently by Butler Shaffer: A Breach of Contract


When I heard the learned astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

~ Walt Whitman, When I Heard the Learned Astronomer

My wife and I recently took a trip to northwest Arkansas to visit relatives. While there, we went to the Crystal Bridges art museum in Bentonville. Focusing its collection on American artists — from the colonial period to the present — this museum is the creation of Alice Walton, the daughter of Wal-Mart's Sam Walton. Works by such artists as Winslow Homer, Gilbert Stuart, Asher Durand, Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O'Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson, Norman Rockwell, Jackson Pollock, and Thomas Eakins, among numerous others, provided more than 400 paintings and sculptures that occupy the museum's 50,000 square feet of galleries.

Ms. Walton's project bringing great works of art to the Ozarks has received universal praise, right? No? While it seems to be greatly valued by local residents, the aesthetic wing of the institutional establishment has managed to get its designer fabrics into a twisted knot and to find a troublesome pebble in their Jimmy Choo's. Jeffrey Goldberg — writing on Bloomberg.com — characterized Crystal Bridges as a "moral blight" and a "moral tragedy." Other critics complained that Alice Walton was using her money to buy paintings that should be kept in their home (i.e., eastern establishment) cities, rather than being taken to (gasp!) the backwoods of Arkansas. In speaking of Crystal Bridge's $35 million purchase of Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits," the New York Times art critic, Michael Kimmelman, treated the sale as akin to demolishing Penn Station! I can imagine some members of the art establishment comparing all of this to the Burt Lancaster film, The Train, in which World War II Nazi generals try to steal European paintings.

Jeffrey Goldberg wastes little ink outlining the basis for his moral outrage. His indictment is laid at the feet of Alice's father, Sam Walton, a more recent entry into that vaguely defined category identified in Matthew Josephson's 1934 book The Robber Barons. A close reading of this work reveals Sam Walton to have committed the same "sins" as his predecessors: beginning as a small five-and-dime retailer in a small town, he managed to turn his company into a multi-billion dollar enterprise and, worse yet, to insist upon controlling his own wealth. That's it! Such is the "wrongdoing" of which the anti-capitalists have railed against the successful for centuries! Where the "robbery" occurred in all of this is rarely identified. While some of these men employed the powers of the state when it was advantageous to them to do so, the bulk of their great fortunes arose in the marketplace rather than through the ministrations of the state. Like the modern anti-capitalists who urge successful business people to "give back" to the community — implying that their wealth has been wrongfully taken from others — it is enough that the wealthy have sizeable sums of money and can be forced to disgorge it on behalf of purposes favored by the anti-capitalists!

One cannot understand the anti-Wal-Mart hysteria without addressing the two major themes of the attack: [1] as I mentioned above, Sam Walton personifies the capacity of creative men and women to become very successful in a free market economy. What Wal-Mart critics are fearful of acknowledging is that this company's success has been due to customers, suppliers, and employees engaging in voluntary transactions with one another for their mutual self-interests. Such behavior underlies what used to be thought of as "the American dream," a state of mind that has since been redefined as a "government entitlement," and/or a "winning lottery ticket." Sam Walton represented how individuals can mobilize their own energies to serve their own purposes. Collectivists cannot live with that image.

[2] Wal-Mart has been strongly condemned for maintaining an opposition to labor unions organizing its employees. (For purposes of full disclosure,the law firm with which I once practiced represented Wal-Mart in its labor policies and that was the section in which I worked.) Labor unions, with the backing of the federal government, are a destructive force that employ violence — and the threat thereof — to obtain benefits at the expense of non-union workers and, ultimately, the economy itself. The consequences of unionism can be found by visiting the communities that now comprise the "rust belt" of America. Sam Walton had a continuing opposition to unions, an attitude that helped to make Wal-Mart as profitable as it is.

Artistic expression has long been valued for its appeal to aesthetics, intuition, and the emotional and spiritual dimensions of what it means to be human. But, like schools that help students develop an intellectually grounded capacity for self-directed learning and analysis, such qualities tend to be monopolized by members of the institutional establishment. Great art is to be housed, and great schools provided, in the great cities (e.g., New York, Boston, Philadelphia). People in the "sticks" are expected to satisfy themselves with curious forms of amusement — rather than art — and to have schools that will train their children to perform the work necessary for the institutional order.

But now comes Alice Walton with the audacity to bring some of the greatest artwork produced by Americans out to the (gulp!) hinterlands, the boondocks, the sticks. Not only that, she has chosen to house these works in a beautiful series of connected buildings, located in a ravine served by a running spring. When I first saw this facility, my mind kept racing back to the poet Goethe's definition of architecture as "frozen music."

I have long been annoyed by the elitists who refer to the faceless others they contemptuously characterize as "Joe Six-pack." I have asked audiences of people whether any of them think of themselves in such a collective, dismissive way. I have never had anyone admit to such an identity. But for members of the institutional, corporate-state establishment who insist upon pretending that they give a rodent's backside for the well-being of ordinary people, what is transpiring at Crystal Bridges must engender shivering paroxysms. The day we visited, there were at least as many people present as we would encounter at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. There was no admission fee at Crystal Bridges, thanks to a gift from Wal-Mart (do you suppose the company will get credit for such a policy, or only more condemnation for encouraging attendance by "ordinary" people)?

At the top of my list of Broadway musicals I cannot stand is Camelot. I wonder if the east coast establishment elitists have occasion – as they contemplate the specter of Crystal Bridges — to hum the song from that musical "What Do the Simple Folk Do"? I can tell you something of what we saw there: people arriving in pickup trucks with license plates from Missouri or Arkansas; people wearing Oklahoma Sooners baseball caps; others with T-shirts that read "Don't Mess With Texas." I saw no evidence of designer clothes, most people probably having selected their wardrobes at Target or Wal-Mart!

But this multitude of diverse individuals did seem to enjoy their experiences at Crystal Bridges. I overheard a number of thoughtful questions and comments, indicative of the museum's capacity for helping others to expand their consciousness. I was reminded of the cartoon I once saw in Omni magazine. An artist was on the street working on a very abstract painting. A passerby asks him what the purpose of his painting was, to which the artist replied: "to get people to think." "To think about what?," the passerby inquired. "See, it's working already," said the artist.

When people who live in what the institutionalists regard as "fly-over" country begin asking questions that are discomforting to the ruling elites, the established order is in trouble. Crystal Bridges is another example of the decentralization, the centrifugation, taking place in our world, helping to reduce society to a human scale of organization. Perhaps this museum will help people to discover dimensions to their lives that have heretofore been confined to the great palaces and pavilions in the great cities. A warning of the coming changes may be found in letters Alice Walton received from two children who had visited this wonderful museum. "We thought that was for rich people," one commented, while another wrote "we didn't know they would let us in."

What citadels of power can withstand the questions of children?

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, and Boundaries of Order. His latest book is The Wizards of Ozymandias.

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