A few people have asked me why I never sought to become a "fine" artist. For the answer, first see this article
, where we learn the startling news that six members of the Walton family have more money than the bottom 30 percent of all Americans. Yet Wal-Mart can't afford to give its employees a living wage or medical benefits.
Next, see this New Yorker profile
of Alice Walton, who is setting up an art museum in Arkansas. Naturally, lots of people in the art world are practicing their puckering in anticipation of the day when their lips get in range of her ass. She successfully lobbied the state to let her buy a $35 painting by Asher Durand without paying $3 million in taxes.
“I know the price of lettuce. You need to understand price and value. You buy the best lettuce you can at the best price you can.”
Next, check out Rebecca Solnit's piece
on Alice's little project:
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.
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.
For me, the problem with Walton's purchase of the Durand is not the work's status as a piece of classic Americana. What bugs me is that this is a painting about transcendence
-- about the elevation of the spirit. If Walton actually cared about the spiritual, she'd make sure that Wal-Mart employees got fairer treatment.
Wal-Mart could easily -- easily
-- pay its employees $12 an hour
. (Most workers at WallyWorld earn less than $8 an hour.) Instead, Wal-Mart is rolling back health benefits
# The New York Times reports that starting in 2012 all future part-time Walmart employees who work less than 24 hours a week on average will no longer qualify for health insurance plans.
# Walmart is also cutting its contributions to employees’ health savings accounts by 50 percent, and premium increases range from 17 to 61 percent.
I wonder if Alice, with her billions, will ever get her claws on my favorite Durand? It's called God's Judgment Upon Gog.
It's an apocalyptic work, somewhat in the John Martin vein. This image depicts a scene from the 39th chapter of Ezekiel, in which vultures and ferocious beasts swoop down on the kings of this earth. Those kings thought they would always be be protected by their armies and their wealth. Here's where they get their comeuppance.
If you click on the link, you'll get a much better view of this painting. I know you'll want to savor the details, such as the lions and tigers who tear into the mighty and the proud. There are lots and lots of these big cats. They're hungry. And they're not in a mood to show mercy.