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,
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.
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
Train, in which World War II Nazi generals try to steal
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!
understand the anti-Wal-Mart hysteria without addressing the two
major themes of the attack:  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.
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.
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!
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.
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."
of power can withstand the questions of children?