Eakins’ The Gross Clinic – held for ransom?

Thomas Eakins The Gross ClinicPhiladelphia, like many great cities, is intimately associated particular artists. Perhaps foremost among them is Thomas Eakins, undisputedly one of America’s greatest painters. (See my previous post on Eakins.)

Eakin’s acknowledged masterpiece is a painting titled The Gross Clinic (Wikipedia article and image), it depicts one of the pioneering surgeons at the city’s venerable medical school, Thomas Jefferson University, directing and performing an advanced operation in a teaching amphitheater full of medical students at the university’s associated hospital, at the time and to this day one of the nation’s great teaching hospitals.

The painting exemplifies in many ways the fundamental dual roles of Jefferson as a university/hospital and Eakins’ own fascination with human anatomy, the practice of of surgery, which he saw in some ways as an analog of painting, and the triumph of rationality in the advancement of medicine and science.

Sadly, rationality does not always have staying power, and even the finest institutions can find themselves at the mercy of an incomprehensibly short-sighted and insufferably arrogant band of fools who happen to sit on the board of directors at a particular point in time.

This seems to be the fate of Jefferson, whose board recently surprised the city with the announcement of a clandestine agreement to sell The Gross Clinic, a significant part of the heritage of both the school and the city, to Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton for her Crystal Bridges Museum Of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas for $68 million, aided and abetted, in a shameful exercise in mis-judgement, by The National Gallery.

The painting was originally not actually purchased by Jefferson, but by Jefferson alumni. They bought the work (which was not well-received at the time, largely because of its strikingly graphic depiction of the surgery) for $200, and donated the dramatic image of one of their great professors to the university. The painting was hung in the College Building, where it stayed until the 1980’s, when it was moved to a gallery in Jefferson Alumni Hall (image at left bottom).

Perhaps because art at the time was viewed more as art and less as a commodity, and probably because they didn’t dream the need would arise, the alumni did not legally bind the university to keep their gift in place, either within the university’s campus or within the city of Philadelphia. Yes the university, like many, is financially pressed, but other options were not discussed and the whole deal was kept secret until done. The current alumni are not pleased. Neither are many others in Philadelphia, including your writer, who have some sense of the value of art other than dollar value.

In a creepy parallel to the way that Wal-Mart “creates jobs” by undercutting and destroying the long-standing local businesses in a community and hiring their former employes back at sub-standard wages and benefits, Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton is attempting to “create culture” in building her new museum in Arkansas; not through years of careful collecting (which requires skill, knowledge and patience), but by raiding the treasures of other cities, finding financial weaknesses in institutions that can be exploited to separate communities from their treasured works with the brute force application of the billions her daddy left her to play with.

Her last conquest was to relieve the New York Public Library of the burden of caring for Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits (NYT article), by way of sealed bid auction.

Jefferson’s board, perhaps daunted by the public outcry, the questionable legality of the transaction and attempts to invoke the city’s laws about “treasured objects”, has agreed to hold the transaction for 45 days, leaving the city and its cultural institutions to come up with an offer to match Walton’s $68 million, effectively holding the painting for ransom.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, (which sits, incidentally, on the Eakins Oval at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway), and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, itself home to a great Museum of American Art, have created a fund to attempt to keep Eakins’ great work here in Philadelphia. (Eakins studied and later taught at the Academy and took classes in anatomy at Jefferson.) The fund in itself won’t create the necessary $68 million, but it may attract the notice of donors who will.

While I object to this in a way, because it legitimizes the Jefferson board’s draconian ransom scheme, I have to reluctantly support it; if only because I can’t bear the thought of the painting winding up in the hands of a spoiled and privileged heiress who thinks that she can buy culture like jewelry, and whose money is stained with the sweat of underpaid workers and chalked with the dust of community businesses that have been crushed under the Wal-Mart steam roller.

Why must art always be subjugated to the whims of the artless?

You’re getting to see my snarky side here, because I’m already pissed off about the way art is treated as a commodity, and this deal just seems particularly onerous and close to home.

I should mention in the context of my ranting that I have a great deal of respect and a certain emotional attachment for Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. I consider it one of the finest in the country and I was always glad that my kidney transplant (14 years!) was performed there. I am also an alumni of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of the institutions sponsoring the fund to keep the painting in the city.

7 Replies to “Eakins’ The Gross Clinic – held for ransom?”

  1. I think you are exactly right about the judgment and moral worth of both Jefferson and Walton. I would extend the irony to note that art has always been taken, appropriated or stolen by those with muscle, weapons or gold. Nero made off with the treasures of Delphi, Napoleon did the job on Rome and Egypt, and the British Museum has a whole bunch of stuff that really doesn’t belong to the Queen and her subjects.
    Le plus qu’il change…
    All we can do is appreciate the art while we have access (I did Medicine in Philadelphia and saw TGC many times.) and maybe point out the questionable company that Jefferson, Walton and the NatGal are joining.
    By the way, great blog.

  2. I can understand being upset at this painting leaving Jefferson, but I’m getting pretty tired of the constant attacks on Wal-Mart.

    What you call “undercutting” is when Wal-Mart sells products and services at prices poorer people can afford. The well-to-do are constantly looking down on this but Wal-Mart has been a blessing to many people who can’t afford to buy from those “long standing local businesses” — which, by the way, don’t pay well at all in my experience. Do you really believe mom-and-pops offer benefits?

    Any worker who feels exploited or underpaid is free to leave and find another job. If you really think businesses should be run like charities, then why don’t you volunteer to pay an extra hundred dollars for web hosting, or printing, or food for that matter?

    Funny how it’s always OTHER people who should be paying more.

    Sorry if I’m coming off as harsh. But it annoys me to see people attacking any successful private business — which gets its money by satisfying customers — when there are a whole class of political elites who get their money by looting the rest of us. These looters are ignored, or even viewed as saviors when they join the attack on Wal-Mart.

  3. Bill,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, same as it ever was, treasure, cultural and otherwise, has always been taken by those with power, wealth and influence; but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least raise our voices in objection.

    And I agree, that we should appreciate the cultural treasures while we have them. Actually, if the PMA of the Academy were to house the painting, it would be more accessible than it is now. At any rate, the controversy surrounding the sale is a Good Thing, if only because it draws attention to these issues and to the painting itself.

  4. Robert,

    I appreciate your omments and I can see your position, but I obviously disagree.

    What I call “undercutting” is when an enormous business, with the resources to force suppliers to reduce the price at which they buy goods from them, both because of quantity buying and because of threats of being locked out of a major part of the retail market for all of their items, can undercut small retailers who simply cannot compete on that basis. This puts economic pressure on the downturn of wages not just for small retailers, but for manufacturers, warehousers, suppliers and other “community businesses” along the way. And while many small retailers don’t particularly pay benefits, some of the intermediate sized businesses do, and the small retailers often at least treat their employees with a modicum of decency.

    Wal-mart’s “low prices” come at the cost of American jobs in many sectors, as Wal-Mart is also a big believer in importing goods from countries where labor is particularly cheap (not that other retailers don’t). The “poorer people” who need Wal-mart’s low prices just might be a little less poor if a smaller percentage of their local and regional economies were going to fund Alice Walton’s dabblings in culture as a plaything.

    The “whole class of political elites who get their money by looting the rest of us” that you mention are the very ones that pass legislation that permits and encourages the business practices that make it easier for larger businesses to outflank, decimate and acuire the smaller, independent ones. (The increase in this kind of legislation has been particularly egregious in the last six years.)

    While there in no such thing as a level playing field, the current situation is distinctly unbalanced in favor of larger corporate entities at every level, and the country has experienced the most dramatic redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top since before the Great Depression.

    Some of my attitude about these things is from direct experience. When I was younger, I worked for both a small “Mom and Pop” store and a large retailer, I also have friends and relatives who have experienced that, and I know the difference. I been a small business owner and I also know of businesses and individuals in communities that have been directly hurt by Wal-Mart’s practices. Though I am not “poor”, neither am I “well-to-do” and yes, I do willingly pay a little extra for goods and services to shop in locally owned businesses, because I want those businesses to be there, and I don’t want mega-conglomerates dictating what I can or can’t buy or do any more than they already do. I also refuse to shop at Wal-Mart under any circumstances. So I do not expect only “someone else” to pay more. Every day we surrender more of our choices and diversity to huge multi-national companies by making these choices.

    I don’t expect businesses to be run as charities, but neither do I expect the nation’s laws and models of commerce to be arranged as a charity for multi-billion dollar companies and excessively rich individuals, at the expense of those who can barely make a living.

    I can understand that you may be tired of hearing about it, but if this were a political blog, rather than the social/political spillover from an art blog, I would say that the rail against companies like Wal-Mart (and perhaps Microsoft and other businesses that base part of their business model on destroying other companies and influencing government legislation, rather than out-competing their competitors with quality), is not being heard nearly enough.

    People should be able to shop where they will, but they should be aware of the hidden costs of their “low low prices”, and make decisions based on the overall benefits of their choice of where to shop, not just the immediate one. Similarly, communities and institutions need to look at the overall benefits of protecting their cultural heritage. It’s a matter of being short sighted in both cases.

    I should also apologize if I seem to be harsh to you, that’s not my intention, but I obviously get a bit hacked off at these disparities and the way we blithely accept them.

  5. Charley,

    Wages, being the price of labor, are, like all prices, determined by supply and demand. To say that one has “underpaid” for anything implies that the seller could have sold it elsewhere for more. A person who sells his labor services to Wal-Mart does so voluntarily. We can surmise from this that he prefers employment at Wal-Mart to the available alternatives.

    The same is true of the people in poorer countries whose labor goes into the creation of many of the goods we purchase here in the USA. Without these jobs (which may seem terrible to us in the developed world), many would be doing painfully hard argricultural labor, or else have to take up begging or prostitution.

    I, personally, don’t discriminate in my purchases with regard to where an item was manufactured. In fact, I am pleased to support economic growth in poorer countries, since it — not foreign aid or charity — is the only long-term solution to poverty.

    In addition, the globalization of the division of labor raises everyone’s standard of living for the same reason the division of labor does so domestically: we can all specialize in those areas in which we have a comparitive advantage, and thus satisfy a greater number of human wants. (If “buy American” made sense, then why not “buy New York State,” or “buy Brooklyn,” and so on, down to limiting your economy to the street you live on?)

    Companies like Wal-Mart open world markets to the poor and pay better than the relevant alternatives. What do the critics do, except carp that Wal-Mart should do more?

    I would disagree with you that Wal-Mart and Microsoft have “destroyed” other businesses. Consumers choose which businesses survive and which don’t. Wal-Mart and Microsoft never put a gun to anyone’s head and forced him to hand over his money. They have simply done a better job than their competitors at persuading consumers to buy from them, in large part by offering better products and/or lower prices.

    The only form of “cheating” or unethical business practice is, in my opinion, the initiation of force to gain some advantage that could not be acheived through voluntary means. This is the purpose of most government regulation of business, including anti-trust law and the minimum wage: to cripple a successful business at the behest of some less-efficient competitor, or to raise the costs of entry for newcomers into the market at the behest of the established players (who can absorb these added costs more easily). Payback comes to the politicians in the form of campaign contributions.

    In this regard, Wal-Mart IS guilty of having local governments invoke eminent domain to steal private property when it could not convince the owners to sell. It also receives subsidies from some local governments. These are legitimate complaints against the company, although they are seldom mentioned by Wal-Mart critics and they are not unique to Wal-Mart. (Note that they are first and foremost complaints against the government itself, which is the supplier of such favors.)

    As you might be able to tell, I am more of a libertarian than a liberal or conservative. The incessant political crusades against successful businesses in this country remind me of a saying from Mao’s Little Red Book: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” We are all poorer if we live by that rule.

  6. Alice Walton should pay less in the form of a timeshare. This way she could have the painting at her museum for one month every 2 years and allow those in Arkansas to enjoy it’s beauty also. This would also keep fresh works of art in her museum for much less than she’s paying now. The college would win and those close to her museum could enjoy this work of art too. Win-win situation as a compromise works for me.


Comments are closed.