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Greene: Beyond Bunting

07/07/11 7:55AM By Stephanie Greene
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(HOST) Over the long holiday weekend, commentator Stephanie Greene found herself thinking about the various ways in which we can express our patriotism - including some that go far beyond red-white-and-blue bunting.

(GREENE) How many American composers can you name?

Could you name ten jazz composers? How about classical composers? 

Can you name ten American painters or sculptors? How about American choreographers?

In many countries, these would not be seen as absurdly egg-headed questions. Attend a concert in Vienna , and you'll probably hear people humming the Strauss waltzes along with the orchestra. Go to the Diego Rivera murals in Mexico City and there will be any number of locals eager to talk your ear off about them.

These people are not necessarily more cultured than Americans, but they do enjoy a kind of cultural patriotism we as a nation have yet to really embrace. Instead, our patriotism is mostly couched in military terms. I'm all for the people in the armed services, but military maneuvers are not the totality of who we, as a nation, are.

Art is not merely decoration or entertainment. Great art tells us who we are and connects us. As Americans, we do ourselves a huge disservice by not claiming our great artists.

Shouldn't every child be able to recognize "Rhapsody in Blue" or "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"? Doesn't a look at Andrew Wyeth's evocative canvases show us something fundamental about being American? Alvin Ailey's gorgeous Revelations, Georgia OKeefe's haunting Abiquiu paintings, the novels of Steinbeck, Morrison and Erdrich all teach us something important about ourselves as people and as Americans.

What would happen if, every July, in addition to barbeques, parades and fireworks, local art museums made a special effort to showcase American work? Or local theater groups put on plays by American masters?

Alice Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune, is building the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Its mission statement "welcomes all to celebrate the American Spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of landscape."

With her vast monetary resources, Walton has been able to buy up classic canvases by Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis. In fact, the Crystal Bridges endowment is larger than that of New York's Whitney Museum, which many art critics and curators on New York's Museum Mile must find extremely unsettling.

Say what you will about what Wal-Mart has done to small town centers, but many great museums were originally endowed by industrialists whose fortunes were made in steel, railroads, and even some rather unsavory enterprises. I still find it refreshing that Walton is bringing great art to the hinterlands.

Perhaps the elitism associated with art museums will be broken down a little.

Maybe visitors will even emerge from the airy buildings with a new sense of our shared heritage.

I don't think politics are going to unite us, as a people, anytime soon - while reclaiming and sharing our art treasures could be - well - a bridge that will span the growing economic and political divisions among us.
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