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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Crystal Bridges turns 10

by Philip Martin | September 5, 2021 at 1:48 a.m.

This column is adapted from one that originally ran Nov. 20, 2016.

Growing up far from centers of culture in a family of average or less than average means, you generally do not get to spend your junior year abroad.

The American prospectus of equality promises opportunity, not advantage. All of us are born into our own circumstances, with our own particular set of qualities. You can be born with a mouthful of silver or a crack addiction, into a loving family or a den of dysfunction.

This does not mean you are less a citizen, only that you will have to work harder to achieve the kind of life and lifestyle advertised in the brochure. You will have to overcome obstacles to participate fully in the world, to enjoy its wonders. Maybe you have to exhaust the resources of a small-town library; maybe you have to exploit the patience and good will of a heroic teacher or two.

Maybe you will have to, as I did, discard the advice of a well-meaning high school guidance counselor who suggests something more "practical" than a liberal arts education.

When you're from a podunk town, you get your mind expansion where you can. Mass media and social media--popular culture--can be as much an equalizing force as a homogenizing one. You can lose your accent by watching newscasters, you can copy the styles of cool kids in cool places. You can see that somewhere out there are other members of your tribe, dissatisfied with the sustaining boredom of making a living.

But there is a difference between apprehending art in books and electronic media and standing in its presence. Awe doesn't travel well across platforms, and every copy is further removed from what is real. Sometimes shock is mingled with disappointment (if you've ever tried to view the Mona Lisa at the Louvre maybe you know what I mean), but more often beholding a great work is humbling. There is something about being in a room with art that expands and ennobles the spirit.

This is why Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is so important.

The museum, famously founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton, turns 10 years old Nov. 11. It's still young and, as every living thing should be, a work in progress. Yet it is already established as one of the world's great showcases for the best products of the human imagination.

It is not insignificant that the museum is in Bentonville, near the geographic center of the nation, firmly and defiantly in flyover country, near cow pastures and remote from any sizable urban entity.

Some might draw an analogy to a mission church in a heathen wilderness, but to do so would be to underestimate the hearts and heads of common folk. For people everywhere are hungry for what engages and sustains the life of the mind. People everywhere respond to beauty and relate to the complicated and confusing array of emotions evoked by the man-made stuff we call art.

People have different ideas about the usefulness of art. Some consider it a luxury. Others see it as a "nicer thing" that makes the world more pleasant. A painting can complement a sofa, a movie might reassure us that our lives fit into some larger narrative about the essential goodness of the world.

In times of trouble, the usefulness of great art can be a tough sell; people facing economic and social insecurities tend to seek the palliative, to find solace in the comfortable (and comforting) lies of the decorative and kitschy, to choose pretty pictures that remind them of a wishful past they only believe they can remember.

When I first heard of Crystal Bridges, I thought I knew what it would be.

I envisioned a repository of common images, a storehouse of familiar unchallenging works. However well-intentioned, I thought it would provide a few great examples and much middling kitsch. I expected Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter" and Charles Willson Peale's portrait of George Washington, the same sort of curated excellence one encounters in the Smithsonian or the National Gallery. I expected it to be a no-harm, no-foul situation, a solid, stolid institution specializing in certified civic taste. I expected something polite and safe.

On our first trip to Crystal Bridges, I did not expect to be transfixed by George Bellows' "Excavation at Night" (1908) or John Singer Sargent's remarkable "Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife" (1885) or Arthur Dove's "Moon and Sea II" (1923). I expected Americana, not America.

We visit Crystal Bridges every few months. I'm always impressed not only by the seriousness and strength of the exhibitions but by the people churning through the galleries--some in overalls and cargo shorts, with cellphone cameras and dangling earbuds.

You will see bored teenagers popping gum by John Baldessari's "Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear) Opus No. 132." You'll hear giggling, and the hushed reverence of someone stopped cold by Mark Rothko's "No. 210/No. 211 (Orange)."

Growing up some distance from centers of culture in a family of average or less than average means, you do not always have the opportunity to be brought face to face with a miracle of human ingenuity--of connecting with other imaginations across time and space.

Crystal Bridges is not the sort of theme park it might have turned out to be, not a vulgar mountain Xanadu crammed with indiscriminately collected treasures. It is a serious and intelligent institution that respects the community that harbors it as well as those who travel to it. It is an essential destination for anyone interested in American culture and history.

A place like Crystal Bridges might empower you to imagine a way in which you can situate yourself in the world. It is a place where you might find models and instructors, some long dead yet still vital.

Growing up some distance from centers of culture in a family of average or less than average means, a place like Crystal Bridges might save your life.

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