02 March 2010

The Art of the Steal

I have very mixed feelings about the Barnes Foundation's move to Philadelphia. My feelings about this movie, however, are less mixed. It's a histrionic, one-sided, psychologically manipulative documentary. While it makes a strong case regarding some of the more nefarious aspects of the move to Philly, it also discredits itself by being incredibly disingenuous in its arguments. But we'll get to that.

So, the move. I respect that the building that the collection is housed in is part of the art itself. I would love to see the artworks in that setting. But you know what? I've never gotten to. I tried - my parents and I wanted to go when we lived in Jersey, but we couldn't make it happen. It's not a particularly easy place to get to. So I can't help but be somewhat happy to know that it's moving to a place where it will be much more accessible. I hope that the architects designing the new home do a good job.

Now, the movie does not feel this way. The movie sees this move as "the greatest theft of all time" and something nearly akin to dousing the artworks with gasoline and setting them on fire. It will RUIN the greatest cultural artifact that America has ever had, says the movie. Hmmm. Ok.

The big point the movie makes is that the move is not only a violation of Barnes' original vision, but also a slap to the face, given that he particularly didn't want it to be in Philly, because he really hated people there. Fair enough on the second score - it is certainly a cruel irony. And yes, the whole process of getting it moved was extremely shady and involved some serious back-room dealing on the part of several charitable trusts, and Lincoln University getting screwed in a major way. No doubt. Agreed.

But the movie also implies that the SOLE motive of the move to Philly is greed. The issue that the movie desperately avoids is that of accessibility. At one point, when criticizing an earlier Board of Trustees president, Richard Glick, there's a scene where the museum is opened, and one of the "friends of the Barnes" calls another and says "GASP! They've opened it to the public!". The movie then described hordes of riffraff descending on the place and being THOROUGHLY UNAPPRECIATIVE. "I've seen enough naked ladies for today", says one savage. But half an hour later, the movie is bemoaning the fact that people are being deprived of this amazing cultural experience of seeing the works in their original setting. That's the part that I find somewhat disingenuous. The thing is, if they had actually opened the doors of the place earlier, and had the neighbors of the Barnes not been fighting it tooth and nail, they could certainly have saved the place in its current location, or so it seems to me. But they didn't want to do that. They wanted to keep it as it was, and basically, they ran out of money to do that. Then there was some mismanagement, and then there was some straight up sketchiness, and boom, now it's in Philly.

The emotional force of the film relies on the fact that it was in Barnes' will that his art be kept a certain way, and his will was basically taken apart, 50 years later. As a friend of mine pointed out, that's frightening to anyone. On the other hand, yeah, myself personally is happy that the will is getting broken with so as to open up the collection and allow others to see it. I'm not opposed to the art being used for educational purposes - I'm all in favor of it really. But much like Indiana Jones, I think great cultural artifacts belong in museums. Where everyone can have access to them. And it's kind of an abomination for one person to own them.

This brings up the really fascinating question of how art acts as commodity, how we feel about it as private property, etc. The Barnes Foundation is a particularly interesting study in this regard, and the matter of the move to Philly is especially fascinating for that reason. One could make a really interesting movie about it. Unfortunately, the Art of the Steal is not that movie.

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