Crystal Bridges, while not the best art museum I have ever been to, is the best art museum within 150 miles of Fort Smith, Arkansas. It is clearly the best art museum in Arkansas. And it had a lot going for it.
(1) An excellent building
(2) Beautiful surroundings -- the Boston Mountains are among my favorite landscapes, and the museum includes biking, hiking, and walking trails, plus playgrounds for kid, plus a skate park
(3) A nice cafe with very good food: healthy food available, and none of the food very toxic
(4) Medium to excellent art. I liked the modern art quite a bit, and the pop art selection, while small, was just great. The 19th century had a few really good pieces among a lot of mediocre works; the 20th century was better.
(5) There are a number of rooms, like the Walk-in Art Studio, and the Art Education room, set up for people (kids, yes, but adults are encouraged to engage as well) to mess around with art -- to paint, to learn how art is created, to see what artists do. I can't tell you how much I liked that part.
(6) All through the museum, scattered at random, are little rooms like sitting rooms, living room areas, beautiful little spaces looking out on the Boston Mountain landscape, with comfortable chairs and sofas, and tons and tons of art books and art education books, for you to sit around and rest between exhibits and read about what you've been looking at -- the books are keyed to the exhibits around you. Again, wow. What an amazing idea. And the books are at all levels: kid level, adolescent level, adult, graduate level.
(7) It's free. That means a lot in Arkansas. Unless you live here, you can't know the level of poverty many people face. Getting to the museum is going to be a hurdle of most people in the state. If they had to pay an entrance fee, even a small one, it would be a deal-breaker.
So why am I complaining?
Art generally comes from oppression. That's a given. (We often tell our kid, who wants to be a graphic artist, that we need to start beating her more and locking her in a few closets.) Art is the language the oppressed use to speak the truth when they can speak it no other way. This is why when people say they don't like political art I just laugh at them. Holy crap. As if there were any other sort of art. (And this is why parents forbid children -- the very first oppressed class -- to lie: because what is lying, after all? It is the child's way of using the only art he has, or she has, the art of language, to fight back.)
On the other hand, once art is created, what happened to it? In some societies -- on Le Guin's Urras, for instance, and among those at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith -- the artist gives or trades the work to his friends, for small favors or work in return. (We have paintings on our wall that we got from artists we know in exchange for teaching them writing or grammar.)
But in large, capitalist societies, where the Gini Coefficient is wholly unbalanced? Well, art, like everything else, ends up the property -- exclusively -- of the obscenely wealthy. Artists end up owned by the wealthy. Artists (often) end up being controlled by the obscenely wealthy. (Since if an artist isn't saying what the wealthy want to hear or see, they won't pay for it, and if they don't pay, it doesn't get done. Think contemporary mainstream movies, publishing houses, television, music prior to the internet.)
Alice Walton, the Forbes article claimed, with her largess, makes OWS look foolish.
Well, this is not the case. True, I am glad she built Crystal Bridges, and glad she did the things she did right. I am also glad, as they point out, that she did not spend the money on jet planes or baubles instead, as she very well could have.
But, despite what Forbes claims, she did not do everything right.
Here is what she did wrong: she built her museum on the misery of others. As I walked through those beautiful rooms, as I ate a lovely salad in the sunlit cafe, as I painted with my child in the wonderful art room, it was hard for me to swallow the bitterness in the back of my throat, the knowledge that all this was possible because Alice Walton had amassed a huge fortune by thieving the wages of literally millions of women and men; by working them long hours in horrible conditions, with few or no benefits; by wearing their bodies out and then firing them when they could work no longer; by underpaying and overworking the poorest and most desperate in our society; by driving down wages at factories all over our country, and, in effect, forcing other companies to exploit their workers as well, if they wanted to sell to Wal-Mart -- as many must, in order to stay in business.
Doing this, and then building an art museum? If Alice Walton and those like her had not systematically destroyed the American economy over the past 40 years, we'd all be taking our kids to Paris and Chicago and New York. We wouldn't be so fucking poor that Crystal Bridges is the only museum we've been able to take our kid to in the past three years.
Who builds the art museums if not Alice Walton, you ask? (As Dr. Skull asked me, while we were arguing about this over our Autumn Salad and tea at lunch in the lovely cafe.)
We do. Think of the National Art Museum, in DC. Taxpayers build an art museum, or anyway they can, if they have enough money -- if the 1% haven't taken it all. Why should we be dependent on the whims of the wealthy, who might build a museum, and might buy a jet plane instead? Art is a necessity, just as education and health care are necessities; and frankly it is very unlikely that the obscenely wealthy are going to fund true art -- subversively art. (Why would they?)
The People's Art Museum must be funded by the people!
So while I did enjoy my visit to Crystal Bridges, no, I cannot support Alice Walton's endeavor 100%, and I do not believe, despite the contention of Forbes Magazine, that she makes those DFH look silly. Quite the contrary.