`Alice Walton obviously doesn’t need any help from the likes of me in gathering famous American paintings for her new museum at Bentonville, although art criticism IS one of my specialties. That would be what the art world calls the higher criticism; none of that low stuff, spanning the pickup rear-window little peeing boy and dog poker games, for ol’ moi. I could tell the patroness some useful things — for example, you shouldn’t call your docents “associates” — but novice collectors need to learn from their mistakes, else they tend to lose their enthusiasm.
Also, I’ve held back because I know Ms. W. wants only masterpieces, and my special area of expertise, High Criticism though it is, is one step down from that. At least one. Sofa art, by the so-called starving artists, is my field. Old barns, viny cottages, covered bridges, leafy lanes with bluebirds on the fenceposts — these I know about, and can expound upon, but I understand that they aren’t what Crystal Bridges or Crystal Balls or Crystal Gayle or Krystal Hamburgers, whatever name they settle on for the museum, is all about.
Ms. W. is buying pictures for millions of dollars, perhaps billions, and you shouldn’t have to pay more than $12 for one of the living-room landscapes that I know about. And most of that is for the frame. Bastards have daubs of paint on them that you can cut yourself on.
But even though we’re talking apples and oranges here, esthetically speaking, and though cantankerous, jaded old Higher Critics like me and Sister Wendy should just step back in such situations and let the newcomer art keepers make their gaffes, I still feel obliged to offer a couple of pearls of advice concerning the crystalline entity, whatever its name is. Dilithium Crystals maybe. Or quartz. Or Alice’s Restaurant. Or Pow Zoom.
One, even if your museum is wall-to-wall masterpieces, you need to mix in a small amount of local color, local character, in order to situate the collection properly, to make it feel at home. If her Crystal Meth, Crystal Palace, Crystal Blue Persuasion, Billy Crystal, whatever, lacks that defining element, Ms.W. might as well have left the costly pictures in New York, where more people could see them and murmur appreciatively.
If they’re going to fit in here in the Arkansas wildwoods, they need to hang with some of the homeys.
Don’t get me wrong now. I don’t mean paintings on crosscut saws or gourds or churns. I don’t mean paintings that romanticize outhouses. I don’t mean paintings on black velvet of Elvis serenading the crucified Jesus. Nothing by the numbers. No taxidermy, no potpourri. Nothing involving glue and macaroni. It should be fine and not folk, absolutely.
But there WILL need to be hospitable works, set-a-spell works, works with a Southern accent, that the sorehead New York critics are just about guaranteed to call hayseed, chortling bitterly.
An Andy Warhol multi-hued Marilyn Monroe is going to feel so much better with one of Roller Wilson’s gussied-up apes to keep her company. Jamie Wyeth’s colossal pig will waller much more contentedly if he’s exhibited in what would amount to the back yard of the Arkansas Traveler as painted by Edward P. Washburn and popularized by Currier and Ives. Thomas Hart Benton’s wiggly landscapes are great Ozarks relaxers and it would be shamefully neglectful not to have at least a half-dozen of them in a museum in a town and county named for that painter’s kinsman with the same moniker.
There are purists who will shudder at the thought, but I wouldn’t mind seeing this process of acclimating the American masterpieces to their new home in Arkansas taken one step further. I mean, do you think Emanuel Leutze would really and truly care if we yanked that ridiculous three-cornered hat off the Continental Commander crossing the Delaware and replaced it with a hog hat? The hog hat would bridge regions and centuries, and would give him some protection if he fell and hit his head on a gunwale or one of those Little Ice Age floes, which in the painting he is very much in jeopardy of doing, standing up like that in a moving boat. Jeez, what was he thinking? A hard hat is what he really needs, but it would lack the symbolism, and be a mere expedient. And probably yellow.
Two, be careful in your purchases. Even if you can afford to blow a billion or two learning this art game, try to avoid the risky plunge. Those drips and smears might indeed be a Jackson Pollock, or by an elephant named Jackson Pollock. Remember Mrs. Rockefeller’s red pole. And the wooden Indian the Arts Center here got stuck with.
If an artist’s name is vaguely familiar, that’s not good enough. Recall President George H.W. Bush, in a tribute to the famous boats and ocean artist Winslow Homer, calling him Homer Winslow. Alice Walton shouldn’t be buying any pictures for her museum by an artist named Homer Winslow. Or by one named Moses Grandma. It’s her money but she might also want to pass on Whistler’s father.