Will Crystal Bridges Become the Walmart of American Art Museums?

When Walmart comes to your town, there are always two different reactions: “No! They’ll kill all the small businesses!” Or “Yes! Big selection at low prices!” A similar phenomenon is taking place in the world of American art museums as all eyes turn toward Bentonville, Arkansas, where the doors of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will open this November. The brainchild of Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton and the third richest woman in the world (her sister-in-law Christy is number one), Crystal Bridges both beckons art pilgrims to a new experience and inspires dread in those who see it as a sign of the apocalypse of art in America. After reading Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker profile of Alice Walton and her museum, “Alice’s Wonderland,” it’s only natural to ask if Crystal Bridges will become, for good and/or ill, the Walmart of American art museums.


Mead begins by breathlessly recounting the December 1, 2004 Sotheby’s auction in which Walton spent more than $20 million USD plucking gems from the former collection of Daniel Fraad. Bidding anonymously by phone and astride a horse at a competitive horse show, Walton paid seven times the expected price for a work by Gari Melchers and three times the estimate for a work by Willard Metcalf, sending the rest of the bidders into a tailspin. A collector of art since the 1970s, Alice’s habit took greater flight in the early 2000s when she first came up with the idea of founding her own museum right there near Walmart Headquarters in Bentonville, a rapidly growing, but still smallish community with one very influential and rich family.

After winning works by those two distinguished, but little-known names, Alice went on to claim prizes by bigger figures such as Everett Shinn, George Bellows, and Winslow Homer. As of now, only 66 purchases have been publically announced, representing just a tenth of the acquisitions. However, according to Mead’s article, the collection does contain important works by Walton favorites Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, and Andrew Wyeth. “I was absolutely fascinated by the view of American history that art gave me,” Alice explains to Mead in the profile. “It was much more real to me, and much more closely tied to the political and social context of the country, and the changes, when I saw it through the eyes of the artists.” Crystal Bridges hopes to reflect the history of America through art—a cultural repository of what are nation has been and is.

As noble as that mission sounds, there are objections to the museum. First of all, its placement in Arkansas rankles many who see these great works of art doomed to obscurity far from the art capital of New York City. When Walton purchased Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library in 2005, many felt that part of the New York heritage was being sold away. “You could extend that argument, and say no works of art belong in Arkansas,” defends Don Bacigalupi, director of Crystal Bridges, “and that is an absurd thing to say.” Walton claims that her placement of the museum in the Ozarks, at the base of a ravine rather than on a mountaintop, puts the art in a rightfully natural environment more American than in the heart of a big, industrialized city. Even the architecture of the museum itself (shown above), with rooftops resembling—according to museum employees—armadillo shells, works with this organic motif.

Secondly, many who decry the Walmart business model see too many similarities in the museum’s approach. “Critics characterized Alice as an exorbitantly wealthy heiress whose aim was to snap up icons and display them as kitschy Americana: Wal-Art,” Mead writes. “And the Walton’s retail empire—which sold ever-cheaper goods to Americans by outsourcing jobs to labor markets overseas, by forcing the closure of small stores in downtowns across the country, thanks to its vast hypermarkets—was denounced as antithetical to the values underlying the art that Walton was acquiring.” How do you sell Norman Rockwell ideals in your collection, when you essentially kill what Rockwell championed in his paintings? Mead unflinchingly hits upon this point, adding the equally unattractive fact that Crystal Bridges received sales tax breaks from the state of Arkansas. “If Crystal Bridges does what it should do,” Walton counters, “in terms of tourism, in terms of the number of jobs it has already created through a very difficult economic period, then [Arkansas] has already made that back in spades.” That’s one giant “if,” however, and one that Walmart itself struggles to answer convincingly to detractors.

Again, Alice Walton’s dream seems a noble one. Perhaps it’s big city prejudice to look askance at an Ozarks art museum. Arkansas is America, too, after all. Perhaps American art needs Alice Walton to be its champion—a modern-day Henry Clay Frick or Isabella Stewart Gardner doing the public good with their combination of great taste and greater wealth. Perhaps Crystal Bridges will become the Mecca for art pilgrims Alice dreams it will be. And yet, I can’t shake the memory as a native Philadelphian of Crystal Bridges’ attempt to buy the local treasure of Thomas EakinsThe Gross Clinic in 2006. The Philadelphia arts community rallied together to fend off what felt like an invading horde threatening our heritage. Yes, to answer Bacigalupi, it would be absurd to say no art belongs in Arkansas. But it would also be equally absurd to say that every work belongs in Arkansas, just as not every store needs to be a Walmart. Here’s hoping for the best from Crystal Bridges, and not the Walmart-esque worst.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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