Monday, February 11, 2008

The Clarks of Cooperstown

Nicholas Fox Weber’s The Clarks of Cooperstown (Knopf, 2007)is the first comprehensive look at the Clark family that have guided affairs in the Village of Cooperstown since the 1870s. Weber is primarily an art historian, and the book focuses on the careers of Sterling and Stephen Clark, third-generation legatees of the Clark fortune, who were major patrons of the art in the first half of the 20th century. The book is surprisingly absorbing, especially because Sterling and Stephen had a longstanding feud, and did not speak to each other for forty years after about 1920. Sterling, whose opposition to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s went beyond hissing at the Trans-Lux, and who apparently tried to organize an armed rebellion to overthrow Roosevelt and return the country to the gold standard, seems to have been a right-wing nut of the first order. His brother Stephen was more buttoned down and corporate, and was one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art, and perhaps most famous for firing in 1943 its famous director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr.

The Clarks made their initial money in sewing machines; while Isaac Singer, the eponymous inventor and founder of the Singer Company was fathering 25 children with half a dozen women, Edward Clark was the practical lawyer who owned half the company, and charted its emergence as the first true multinational corporation. But my main interest in the Clarks is how they created modern Cooperstown as a personal fiefdom and Potemkin village of rural America; building the Otesaga Hotel, one of the last standing grand hotels in the NYS, lured the NY Historical Association from Saratoga, created the Fennimore House and the Farmer’s Museum, and, despite, Stephen’s lack of interest in baseball, and the absolutely ridiculous nature of the story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, made the town the home of baseball’s Hall of Fame. There is something about the utter falsity about Cooperstown as the place where baseball was created that typifies the falseness and lack of reality of the Cooperstown project as a whole. (Although I should say that I love the Glimmerglass Opera Company.)

I guess the Clark’s benefactions have, on the whole, been more positive than negative, and I suppose if I had a ton of money, I would buy some art as well. (I mean, what other type of culture can you really acquire? You can’t buy music or literature, really—a manuscript of a work of music or art is really just a blueprint for the finished work, and you can’t hang them on your wall anyway, and if you have the money you are welcome to purchase handwritten manuscripts of Beethoven’s 9th symphony or Joyce’s Ulysses, I will happily sit in a chair, listening to the Ode to Joy and reading about Leopold Bloom.)

But there’s a part of me than finds inherited wealth, and the ability of its inheritors to shape our culture distasteful, though I am not suggesting that the new found wealth of the parvenu is much better. There was a short-lived effort in the mid-century to create “museums for the people” but this never lived up to its promise. Art museums in particular have remained places created by the wealthy and for the wealthy, allowing average people to trudge around their galleries at their sufferance. And art museums have become, in our era of narcissism, ever more the vanity playthings of the superwealthy. The tradition started by the Clarks and their peers, in which large aspects of high culture is simply assumed to be the plaything of the monied, is stronger than ever, in Cooperstown, in New York City, and more or less anywhere art is appreciated and ever appreciating.


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