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Wal-mART
Terrific Rebecca Solnit piece in Sunday's LA Times Currents section on the Asher B. Durand painting, "Kindred Spirits" (photo of painting here), and the contradictions between its subject matter and the business practices of its current owner:

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 of $35 million. It isn't that Walton — the world's richest woman and thirteenth-richest person (with a net worth of $18 billion, according to Forbes magazine) — 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.

...The trouble lies in what the painting means and what 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 L.A. doesn't say a thing about oil. But something about Wal-Mart and "Kindred Spirits" is worse, perhaps because, more than many works of art, Durand's painting is a touchstone for a set of American ideals that Wal-Mart has been savaging.

"Kindred Spirits" portrays Durand's friend, the great 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 means to be an American.

Cole was almost the first American painter to see the possibilities in American landscapes, to see that meaning could grow 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's 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. He defended 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. 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.

"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 up for sale last year. So now a portrait of antislavery and wilderness advocates belongs to a woman whose profits came from degrading working conditions and 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 billionairess 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 environmental deregulation, for instance, then install water purifiers or stock up on cases of Perrier, and those who advocate for small government hire their own security forces and send their children to private schools.

Posted by aalkon at February 20, 2006 9:37 AM

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> a host of ideals and pleasures
> a long way from what you
> find inside the blank, slabby
> box of a Wal-Mart.

> a made-in-America handicrafted
> artifact of idealism for a
> corporation that is none of
> the above.

These passages bring a suspicion that this is all about looking down on the little people. Wal-mart has problems, but they've brought a whole lot of goods within reach of people who wouldn't have had them otherwise. If you don't admire those goods, DON'T BUY THEM. Wanna know a secret about all those Mom & Pop stores Walton is said to have displaced? They were heartless PREDATORS....

Futhermore it's been argued that Wal-Mart, by insisting on standardized and effective inventory control with all of its vendors, did more to spur the microcomputer revolution than Bill Gates.

It's interesting to the think that rich people use art as a place to hide wealth.

Posted by: Crid at February 20, 2006 2:30 AM

The painting won't be on display in DC or NYC but will be seen by the people of Arkansas who have a greater connection to the work than all the stuffy blue noses in Manhattan. Bravo for Alice Walton.

Posted by: nash at February 20, 2006 9:23 AM

My only problem with Wal-Mart is when it abuses eminent domain.

Posted by: Pirate Jo at February 20, 2006 11:10 AM

Quite frankly, I am tired of the habitual degradation of Wal-Mart. If you don't like them stay out of their stores. As for all of those people jumping on the bandwagon of abuse of their employees, It is a free country and those people chose to apply and remain employed. I think the biggest generator of disapproval is Jealousy (Why didn't I think of building a retail empire and drive down prices of common goods for the average man and make a billion bucks?). As for Alice spending all that money on a piece of art, If she wants to spend 42 million on an ink pen I think she should. Lets not forget all of the humanitarian work that this company has done since its inception. Hurricane Katrina comes to mind. Lets grow up people and quit being a bunch of cry babies. My only complaint with Walmart is that there isn't one located close enough to my house!

Posted by: keith at February 21, 2006 10:05 AM

-My only complaint with Walmart is that there isn't one located close enough to my house!-

And there's the rub. You cannot walk to a WalMart; you have to drive. The American car culture is not going to last much longer, and sooner or later (probably sooner) we're going to have to work to recover the town-centered business structures that have been lost to the WalMartization of our country. And those "Big Box" types of businesses will collapse in a heartbeat as soon as the reliable supply of cheap oil ceases to exist. WalMart and the others are extremely vunerable, with their 5000 mile supply lines, to even mild fluctuations in oil prices, like the one we're about to experience (it's back up toward $70 a barrel). All this could play out in the next decade, and then where will the average person turn to for cheap goods?

Posted by: Joe G at February 21, 2006 12:02 PM

Correction, for the moment:

"Crude oil for March delivery today added 1.4 percent to $60.70 in New York after rebels in Nigeria attacked oil facilities, halting almost a fifth of the country's output."

Point being, the biggest oil fields left in the world are in politically unstable countries, or owned by people who more or less hate us.

BTW, WalMart didn't create these circumstances, they just exploited it better than the competition. Their gain, our loss.

Posted by: Joe G at February 21, 2006 12:44 PM

> we're going to have to work
> to recover the town-centered
> business structures

There's no possible, possible way you could know this to be true. You can fear it if you want to... I agree with you that a lot of things that have been done to the landscape aren't pretty. But it's silly to say that in the big picture/longer view, this-or-that model is the one that must apply. We just don't know what the future will bring. People are smart, free economies are even smarter. Even if there's another Great Depression or Dust Bowl, people will survive.

> All this could play out in the
> next decade, and then where will
> the average person turn to for
> cheap goods?

1. Are you moving to a place in the mountains with a shotgun? 2. Are you really that frightened of bargains? You're like that Thomas Frank guy ("What's the Matter with Kansas?"): You're not afraid of unchecked corporate power, you're afraid of COMMERCE.

PS- PJ's right about eminent domain. Never, ever forget that it was the left side of the SCOTUS bench that bungled Kelo.

Posted by: Crid at February 21, 2006 1:02 PM

1. Are you moving to a place in the mountains with a shotgun? No.


2. Are you really that frightened of bargains? Huh?

What I'm talking about is a profound lack of sustainability. I'm talking about a living arrangement that is not only ugly, but incredibly wasteful, and harmful to both the environment and the psychology of the people who have to live there. I don't consider what has happened to the American landscape to be much of a bargain. I'm not saying that people won't survive, just that the future is not likely to be, as Kunstler puts it, "just like the present, only moreso." I do occasionally worry about the direction we're headed, but for the sake of my own mental health and happiness, I have to let that go and try to look at things logically, which is to say that people are resourceful and we will come up with answers to the various challenges, and perhaps be better off for it in the long run. The short run's probably gonna be tough for a lot of people, though. You can hope that "interesting times" won't occur in your lifetime, but hoping for a particular outcome is as equally ineffective a behavior as fearing it.

Posted by: Joe G at February 21, 2006 1:32 PM

> What I'm talking about is
> a profound lack of
> sustainability.

So you're afraid of change: You're on the wrong planet. NOTHING is sustainable. Our quality of life from 1997 couldn't be 'sustained' either. Nor could 1897's. Who'd want it to be? I have no idea how people will be heating their homes in two hundred years, but no one pictured a life as long and rich as this one in 1806, either. We

> a living arrangement
> that is not only ugly

Speak for yourself.

> but incredibly wasteful

"Efficiency" is the FIRST refuge of scoundrels, especially technocrats. Last big nation to try to make a go of it was the Soviet Union... Didn't work out. Remember "Five Year Plans?"

> for the sake of my own
> mental health and happiness,
> I have to let that go and
> try to look at things
> logically

Well Jeez Louise, sorry to wake you.

> You can hope that "interesting
> times" won't occur in your
> lifetime

You can do more than that.

Posted by: Crid at February 21, 2006 5:53 PM

Is misrepresenting other people's positions what you do for fun? I see no reason to continue this.

Posted by: Joe G at February 21, 2006 6:53 PM

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