The latest edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations contains 46 gems from the pen or throat of Winston Churchill. Of these, among the best known is his 1939 characterization of Russia as “a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma.”
Churchill’s neat tripartite apothegm fairly flew into my mind the other day as I contemplated certain aspects of the process by which Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits will be translated-in the manner of the Holy House of Loreto, but with Mammon doing the work once reserved for angels-from this thriving and borborygmic metropolis to Bentonville, Ark., there to hang in a new museum to be built by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.
Ms. Walton cannot be criticized in any way. She has played by the rules, won the day with a $35 million sealed bid, and has comported herself with uncommon grace in the aftermath. There will be mean-hearted spirits who will say this is payback: no Wal-Mart for Queens, no Durand for Manhattan. Pish-tush to that. But for the rest of it, this is a sorry affair: As Churchill might have put it, a scandal spiced with social climbing and served up in a crust of chickenshit.
The scandal is that the painting is leaving the city where it belongs. I wrote about all this a month ago, and it requires little reiteration now that the dirty deed is done. The New York Public Library has asserted that it needed to sell the picture in order to raise funds for book and manuscript acquisition. I find the arithmetic unpersuasive, although I suppose it’s possible Ms. Walton’s $35 million could be handed to a hot-shot hedge-fund manager of the sort the library’s trustees routinely invest with, the sort I dare say we can expect in quick good time to be joining the NYPL board, and the money will henceforth grow at the rate of 35 percent compounded per annum, which seems to be the benchmark return for hedge funds other than the ones I invest in as a principal or fiduciary, the hedge funds in which the guy across the dinner table always has his money. If this happens, the NYPL will, in 20 years’ time, be in sufficient funds to buy Wal-Mart-if it hasn’t itself already been turned into one by a hard-nosed board keen to show that museums and libraries can be run like proper businesses, a category that not so long ago included the likes of Tyco and Enron.
As for the social climbing, I find it interesting that this is the second of two rather dubious undertakings by leading Manhattan cultural entities to which the name Marron can fairly be attached. The first was the much-criticized display at MoMA of a boilerplate collection of art now belonging to UBS, which Donald Marron, an advisory director of UBS and a former vice chairman of MoMA, put together at PaineWebber before and presumably after its sale to UBS. The second, of course, is the disposal of the Durand by the NYPL, of which Mrs. Donald Marron is board chair. The couple has therefore in a short space of time achieved a Daily Double of institutional philistinism, you might say; no mean feat in that echelon of Manhattan striving-for some reason, I think of it as “Guardiolaland”-inhabited by the sort of people Dickens characterized as “the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain.”
Finally, the last ingredient: the chickenshit. By which I mean the part played-or rather not played-by The New York Times in all this. This was a fight in which The Times would have been thought to have a dog-in a role it seems very much to fancy for itself: as arbiter and guardian of the city’s essential cultural resources. But no: Not until the Monday after the sale to Ms. Walton was announced did The Times sally forth, keening and rending garments in a piece by chief art critic Michael Kimmelman.
Chickenshit, I thought when I read this, and that’s exactly what I called it in an e-mail to Mr. Kimmelman, from which I excerpt the relevant passage:
“I read your piece in today’s NYT about ‘Kindred Spirits’ with interest and mounting outrage. Where were you when there still might have been time to stir up a public or establishmentarian fuss that might-might-have kept the picture in New York? That’s what I was trying to do in The New York Observer three weeks ago, and Francis Morrone in the Sun a week before me. But our pulpits aren’t bully enough. Yours very well might have been. And for The Times to come whining in after the fact is the worst kind of chickenshit journalism, not to mention an abject abdication of the public trust that you people on 43rd Street are always talking about.”
Mr. Kimmelman’s reply, which I am not at liberty to print, was measured, defensive-and no response at all. Case closed. As Maurice Baring observed: “If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom he gives it.”
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