“Undone” undone by Altria

Ok, I’m going to admit from the get-go that I don’t have all my facts straight, but that doesn’t matter. And that my headline is deliberately attention-grabbing at the expense of accuracy, but that doesn’t even matter. What matters is that it’s the way it came into my head, and so it’s the way it’ll leave my head.

Here goes.

Altria is the “secret name” for Philip Morris. You know, the world’s largest tobacco products and cigarette manufacturer. They make Marlboro, Basic, Chesterfield, Lark, L&M, Parliament and Virginia Slims. And others, in other parts of the world.

When I say “secret name,” I know it’s not really secret. But I’ll bet you a dollar that only 10-20% of the general population would be able to tell you, on the spot, oh, that’s Philip Morris’s parent company. You walk by their building on 42nd and Park, and you see that colorful logo, and you read the optimistic name on the place – Altria – and it all looks and sounds uplifting.

In the lobby of the Altria building is an exhibit space that has been leased to the Whitney Museum of American Art for a number of years. Sometimes they have interesting shows there, sometimes not. But it was kind of a cool outreach that some of the museums tried for a while, with mixed success. This one seems to have given up trying a few years ago.

The current show is called “undone.” I don’t know what it’s about. When I look in the window I see a bunch of stuff that looks unfinished; do you think that’s what they’re talking about? I don’t know. I see this in lots of other galleries too though. It’s hard to say that this stuff is any more undone than any other. But that’s what they chose to call this assemblage.

Recently, Altria decided to sell this building, and to reconsolidate itself in its “home town” of Richmond, Virginia. Closer to the tobacco fields? I don’t know. Cheaper rents? I hear they sold the building for $525 million. You can buy a lot of real estate in Virginia (or overseas) for that kind of money. The new buyer (Global Holdings, a real estate investment firm) apparently has no interest in renewing a relationship with the Whitney, and so the museum will be undone.

So all right, it’s really not Altria that’s undoing undone. They were the ones who done it; now it’s the new folks who are undoing it.

But what about this Altria bit? What about the relationship with the museum in the first place? I know that beggars can’t be choosers, and art museums need space, and Altria (which actually called itself Philip Morris at the time) offered it. But this is another of those sad cases where because of the Holy Dollar, everyone is supposed to look the other way and not worry about where it comes from, just to be happy that it comes.

Let me draw a parallel. I despise our Vice President, Mr. Cheney. I think he is evil, duplicitous, and working toward ends that will never be disclosed to us, and that certainly are not for the greater good. But I remember clearly the reports from a couple of months ago that he was hunting at a private club in New York State that had a confederate flag hung on a garage somewhere on the property. He was totally raked over the coals for days and weeks for his association with this group of people that would display such a thing. I’m sure you remember this quote: “It’s appalling for the VP to be at a private club displaying the flag of lynching, hate and murder,” said Rev. Al Sharpton. “It’s the epitome of an insult.”

Compare and contrast that, if you will, with the current case in which artists are hanging their art in a building whose every $525 million worth was paid for by the sale of the same cigarettes that killed my own father 40 years after quitting smoking them. Can you figure out why they are not excoriated for this? It’s easy. It’s because it’s just so much money.

There was a great exchange in [I believe it was] Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. To the best of my recollection, though I can’t seem to find it online anywhere, it went something like this:

T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant): “Would you sleep with me for one dollar?”
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman): “No.”
Devlin: “Would you sleep with me for one million dollars?”
Huberman: “I’d be a fool not to!”
Devlin: “How about a hundred dollars?”
Huberman: “What kind of girl do you take me for?!”
Devlin: “We know what kind of girl you are; we’re only trying to ascertain the price.”

On that note, I pull my disparate queues together into one rope that we can now hang ourselves with. If the price is right, we’re all there. We all have this belief that we’re above the whole lot, but I am not certain that I know more than one person who, if someone is offering to pay enough, would not be right there, ready to be undone by it.

And so it seems that “undone” was perhaps undone by itself, with only conceptual help from Altria.

Principle vs. principal? No contest.


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