Saturday, March 13, 2010

'Art of the Steal' Examines Fate of Charles Barnes's Coveted Art Collection

In the early part of the 20th century, one man amassed a personal collection of post-impressionistic art that is today valued at anywhere from $25 billion to priceless. The collection includes 181 paintings by Renoir, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso, seven by Van Gogh, and "more Cezannes than are in the entire city of Paris." The Barnes Foundation has a higher concentration of art per master than the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Louvre in Paris.

At first glance, one may think the story here lies in the rags-to-riches saga of Dr. Albert C. Barnes. The working class Philadelphia boy, boxing to pay university fees, escaped hardship through invention, cashed out before the Great Depression and became perhaps the greatest art collector of the 20th century. The documentary, "Art of the Steal," however, focuses mainly on the battle that Barnes and his posthumous disciples have fought against the commodification of the art world, and his art in particular.

To many people in Philadelphia, Barnes was seen as an eccentric, misanthropic figure. After the Philadelphia critical community trashed an art show he put on in 1923, showcasing works by Cezanne, Renoir and Matisse, Barnes distanced himself from the city's art community, saying things like: "Philadelphia is a depressing intellectual slum," and "The main function of the museum has been to serve as a pedestal upon which a clique of socialites pose as patrons of the arts."

Barnes set up his foundation in Merion, PA to house his art and serve as an educational institution, and the film works to polarize Merion and downtown Philadelphia. As opposed to the pastoral landscapes of Barnes's property, the city is represented with ominous long shots of the Museum of Art and hidden camera-esque interior shots of the sterile civic buildings.

Director Don Argott takes a fast-paced, in medias res approach to this richly informative film, often cutting to the middle of town hall meetings. The jumpy editing and pacing lends an espionage quality to the documentary. The film-like the rare art it contains-is visually stimulating, and the talking heads that appear set the stage with personality and excitement.

Argott's film functions in many ways as a heavily researched propaganda piece for a local political debate. While the repercussions of this debate are far-reaching in the art community, as the documentary progresses it becomes markedly tangled up in state budgets and IRS tax statuses. The film conveys a deep history of the Foundation, but it often does so through the mouths of friends and disciples-some of whom are shown later in the film angrily protesting outside of civic buildings.

The battle continues today between Barnes's goals for the collection and the aims of Philadelphia politicians to bring this tourist magnet to a more primary location. While the film purports to be the "other side of the story," one can't help but wonder whether making an equally biased response to the politicians' own propaganda was the best way to garner awareness.

At heart, the battle seems to be between people who actually appreciate art and people who might just be pretending to. Both of these categories, however, seem to miss the point. Regardless of critical ability, people who are interested should be able to see Cezanne's "The Card Players" in person, even if their doing so benefits so-called "culture industry" hacks. The only thing worse than the commodification of art is locking it away for "real" art appreciators. That's just pretentious.

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