It isn’t that, when Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton purchased Asher B. Durand’s 1849 painting Kindred Spirits last year, she got the state of Arkansas to pass legislation specifically to save her taxes — in this case, about $3 million on a purchase price of $35 million. It isn’t that the world’s second richest woman and ninth richest person (according to a Forbes magazine 2005 estimate) scooped the painting out from under the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had banded together to try to keep it in a public collection when the New York Public Library decided to sell it off. It isn’t that Walton will eventually stick this talisman of New England cultural life and a lot of other old American paintings in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Walton family museum she’s building in Bentonville, Arkansas, the site of Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters — after all people in the middle of the country should get to see some good art too. It might not even be, as Wal-MartWatch.com points out, that the price of the painting equals what the state of Arkansas spends every two years providing for Wal-Mart’s 3,971 employees on public assistance; or that the average Wal-Mart cashier makes $7.92 an hour and, since Wal Mart likes to keep people on less than full-time schedules, works only 29 hours a week for an annual income of $11,948 — so a Wal-Mart cashier would have to work a little under 3,000 years to earn the price of the painting without taking any salary out for food, housing, or other expenses (and a few hundred more years to pay the taxes, if the state legislature didn’t exempt our semi-immortal worker).
The trouble lies in what the painting means and what Alice Walton and her $18 billion mean. Art patronage has always been a kind of money-laundering, a pretty public face for fortunes made in uglier ways. The superb Rockefeller folk art collections in several American museums don’t include paintings of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre of miners in Colorado, carried out by Rockefeller goons, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles doesn’t say a thing about oil. But something about Wal-Mart and Kindred Spirits is more peculiar than all the robber barons and their chapels, galleries, and collections ever were, perhaps because, more than most works of art, Durand’s painting is a touchstone for a set of American ideals that Wal-Mart has been savaging.
It may be true that, in an era when oil companies regularly take out advertisements proclaiming their commitment to environmentalism, halting global warming, promoting petroleum alternatives, and conservation measures, while many of them also fund arguments against climate change’s very existence, nothing is too contrary to embrace. But Kindred Spirits is older, more idealistic, and more openly at odds with this age than most hostages to multinational image-making.
Kindred Spirits portrays Durand’s friend, the great American landscape painter Thomas Cole, with his friend, the poet and editor William Cullen Bryant. The two stand on a projecting rock above a cataract in the Catskills, bathed like all the trees and air around them in golden light. The painting is about friendship freely given, including a sense of friendship, even passion, for the American landscape itself. In the work of Cole, Durand, and Bryant, as in the writing of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, you can see an emerging belief that the love of nature, beauty, truth, and freedom are naturally allied, a romantic vision that still lingers as one of the most idealistic versions of what it might mean to be an American.
Cole was almost the first American painter to see the possibilities in American landscapes, to see that meaning could grow rather than lessen in a place not yet full of ruins and historical associations, and so he became an advocate for wilderness nearly half a century before California rhapsodist and eventual Sierra Club cofounder John Muir took up the calling. Bryant had gained a reputation as a poet before he became editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post and thereby a pivotal figure in the culture of the day. He defended a group of striking tailors in 1836, long before there was a union movement, and was ever after a champion of freedom and human rights, turning his newspaper into an antislavery mouthpiece and eventually becoming a founder of the Republican Party (back when that was the more progressive and less beholden of the two parties). He was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln and of the projects that resulted in New York’s Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum — of a democratic urban culture that believed in the uplifting power of nature and of free access. Maybe the mutation of the Republican Party from Bryant’s to Walton’s time is measure enough of American weirdness; or maybe the details matter, of what the painting is and what Wal-Mart and its heiress are.
Kindred Spirits was commissioned by the wealthy dry-goods merchant Jonathan Sturges as a gift for Bryant in commemoration of his beautiful eulogy for Cole, who died suddenly in 1848. Bryant left it to his daughter Julia, who gave it in 1904 to what became the New York Public Library. It was never a commodity exchanged between strangers until the Library, claiming financial need, put it and other works of art up for sale. So now a portrait of antislavery and wilderness advocates belongs to a woman whose profits came from degrading working conditions in the U.S. and abroad and from ravaging the North American landscape.
Maybe the problem is that the Crystal Bridges museum seems like a false front for Wal-Mart, a made-in-America handicrafted artifact of idealism for a corporation that is none of the above. The museum will, as such institutions do, attempt to associate the Wal-Mart billionaires with high culture, American history, beautifully crafted objects — a host of ideals and pleasures a long way from what you find inside the blank, slabby box of a Wal-Mart. One of the privileges of wealth is buying yourself out of the situation you help to make, so that the wealthy, who advocate for deregulation, install water purifiers and stock up on cases of Perrier, or advocate for small government and then hire their own security forces and educators.
Walton, it seems safe to assume, lives surrounded by nicer objects, likely made under nicer conditions, than she sells the rest of us. I have always believed that museums love artists the way taxidermists love deer. Perhaps Alice Walton is, in some sense, stuffing and mounting what is best about American culture — best and fading. Perhaps Crystal Bridges will become one of the places we can go to revisit the long history that precedes industrialization and globalization, when creation and execution were not so savagely sundered, when you might know the maker of your everyday goods, and making was a skilled and meaningful act. One of the pleasures of most visual art is exactly that linkage between mind and hand, lost elsewhere as acts of making are divided among many and broken down into multiple repetitive tasks.
Perhaps she could build us the Museum of When Americans Made Stuff Locally by Hand for People They Knew or perhaps that’s what Crystal Bridges, along with the rest of such institutions, will become. Or Walton could just plan to open the Museum of When Americans Made Stuff at some more distant date, though less than half of what’s in Wal-Mart, sources inform me, is still actually made here — for now. The world’s richest woman, however, seems more interested in archaic images of America than in the artisanry behind them.
Walton has already scooped up a portrait of George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale and paintings by Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper for her museum. That museum, reports say, will feature many, many nineteenth-century portraits of Native Americans — but it would be hard to see her as a champion of the indigenous history of the Americas. The Wal-Mart that opened last November in Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, is built so close to the Aztec’s Pyramid of the Sun that many consider the site desecrated. The Wal-Mart parking lot actually eradicated the site of a smaller temple. “This is the flag of conquest by global interests, the symbol of the destruction of our culture,” said a local schoolteacher. Thanks to free-trade measures like NAFTA, Wal-Mart has become Mexico’s biggest retailer and private-sector employer.
Imagine if Walton were more like Sturges, supporting the art of her time. Imagine if she were supporting artists who actually had something to say about Wal-Mart and America (and Mexico, and China). Imagine if, in the mode of the Venice Biennale or the Sao Paolo Biennale, there was a Wal-Mart biennale. After all, Wal-Mart is itself China’s seventh-largest trading partner, ahead of Germany and Russia and Italy; if it were a nation, it would be the world’s nineteenth biggest economy. If it’s on the same scale as those countries, why shouldn’t it have its own contemporary art shows? But what would the Wal-Mart nation and its artists look like?
Rather than the open, luminous, intelligent architecture Moshe Safde will probably bestow on Bentonville, Arkansas, imagine a shuttered Wal-Mart big box (of which there are so many, often shut down simply to stop employees from unionizing) turned into a MOCA, a museum of contemporary art, or better yet a MOCWA, a Museum of Contemporary Wal-Mart Art. Or Wal-Art. After all, Los Angeles’s MOCA was originally sited in a defunct warehouse. You could set the artists free to make art entirely out of materials available at Wal-Mart, or to make art about the global politics of Wal-Mart in our time — poverty, consumerism, sprawl, racism, gender discrimination, exploitation of undocumented workers.
Imagine a contemporary artist, maybe with Adobe Photoshop, reworking Kindred Spirits again and again. Imagine that Cole and Bryant are, this time, standing not on a rocky outcropping but in, say, one of the puzzle and art-supply aisles of a Wal-Mart somewhere in the Catskills, dazed and depressed. Or imagine instead that it’s some sweatshop workers, a little hunched and hungry, on that magnificent perch amid the foliage and the golden light, invited at last into some sense of democratic community. Imagine paintings of Edward Hopper’s old downtowns, boarded up because all the sad and lonely people are shopping at Wal-Mart and even having their coffee and hot dogs there. Imagine video-portraits of the people who actually make the stuff you can buy at Wal-Mart, or of the African-American truck-drivers suing the corporation for racism or of the women who are lead plaintiffs in the nation’s largest class-action suit for discrimination. Against Wal-Mart, naturally.
Imagine if Alice Walton decided to follow the route of Target with architect Michael Graves and commissioned some cutting-edge contemporary art about these issues: videos and DVDs you could buy, prints for your walls, performance art in the aisles, art that maybe even her workers could afford. Imagine if Wal-Mart would acknowledge what Wal-Mart is rather than turning hallowed American art into a fig leaf to paste over naked greed and raw exploitation. But really, it’s up to the rest of us to make the Museum of Wal-Mart, one way or another, in our heads, on our websites, or in our reading of everyday life everywhere.
Rebecca Solnit’s Tomdispatch-generated Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities is out in a new and expanded edition. Her other recent books include A Field Guide to Getting Lost and, with Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]