A few days ago, I noticed a post from the New Yorker’s Culture Desk that talked about “something essential and meaningful in the Walmart universe.” This caught my eye for several reasons.
1) When did Walmart become a universe? Is that like the Marvel Comics universe? Can a person become a Walmart ‘fanboy’? Is Walmart so prolific now that it has become a system of interconnected narratives from which infinite possibilities of character can arise, as long as they don’t contradict previous iterations?
2) “Essential and meaningful?” What intrinsic quality of Walmart could be so inspiring (especially since Walmart is notorious for being attached to things like horrible working conditions and incidents in its overseas factories)?
The latter question is what concerns me here, though I would be very interested in opinions on the former. According to the New Yorker, what is essential and meaningful in the Walmart universe is its customers, whose narratives have been revealed through art. The post is actually about artist Brendan O’Connell, who has been painting scenes from Walmarts for a decade—the implication is that his art, which originally got him thrown out of the stores, has been able to uncover some deeper meaning in the lives of Walmart shoppers, or in the life of the store itself.
The connection between art and commerce is not surprising. What is surprising is that art is not being appropriated here to make Walmart seem more humanistic—in this world, Walmart is already humanistic, already exists as art, and O’Connell’s paintings are merely taking up its artistic spirit.
Consider a slightly different example: The Huffington Post recently linked to a Tumblr called “Swoosh Art” that inserts the Nike logo into famous paintings. While some may object to the defacing of classical artwork with a modern, commercial imprint, the intent of the juxtaposition doesn’t appear to be anything other than general whimsy. It, like the artist’s Walmart, does make a curious observation about the intersection of art and commerce, however. A quick Google search of “swoosh art” brings up a page full of art blogs and news sites that have mentioned the Tumblr, suggesting that simply pairing art and commerce (as opposed to commercializing art) attracts a wealth of attention that isn’t ordinarily paid to classical paintings by anyone other than art enthusiasts, historians, or Wikipedia. Though the popularity of the site may be due mostly to its novelty, the burgeoning taste for these types of combinations indicates that there is some inherent quality about both art and commerce that makes them suited to an aesthetic union.
We spend so much time—as producers and consumers of Art—believing that its deep capacity for inspiration and change defies commodification, and that it loses something when it becomes commercialized. What if, however, we were to place them alongside each other without asking one to create value for the other? What if we were to imagine them as forming a natural alliance? Maybe that is the answer to my first question as well—maybe the artist’s Walmart and Nike’s Caravaggio are really a system of narratives that work together to form the 21st century universe.