The Art of the Steal is the sort of documentary (out on DVD this week from IFC) that seems like it’s going to be a dull homework assignment but turns into a blood-boiling manifesto that gets to the core of why money, power, politics, race and big business still confound so many. I think everyone should watch it to bone up on their early-20th century art facts as well as to learn how rich people can think they’re smarter than everyone but still mess up royally.
Focused on the struggle between The Barnes Foundation and its collection being transferred to a new building in Philly, I kept wondering why all these baddies want to steal ol’ Mr. Barnes art. I mean, is it just that they don’t like the rich white folk in Merion, Pennsylvania? Or that art is no longer valued, and all anyone cares about is some more “tourist dollars.”
Don Argott’s documentary does an incredible job of creating tension and unwrapping the story as it has progressed over decades—from Barnes initial tiff with Philadelphia elite, his hatred for Philadelphia Inquirer owner Walter H. Annenberg and the eventual challenges to Barnes’ will—with enough energy and bias to generate initial outrage. It’s about big egos, big money, big business and big disappointments. But eventually one wonders, what is really at stake?
Essentially the gang of misfits who call themselves Friends of the Barnes Foundation never quite figure out how to articulate a clear argument for why the collection shouldn’t be moved. If they went about a historical preservation route, people would probably understand them (and there would be gobs of money). If they just said: This is the way this building should be preserved, no need to explain, you wonder if they would be better off. Instead, they speak in a quasi-mystical art-speak: It’s a special experience. It’s a special place. It changed my life.
I’ve never visited The Barnes Foundation building myself or seen the collection in person (even when it went on its famed world tour), but walking into The Barnes Foundation sounds like one of those transcendental experiences that can’t be expressed but can be felt—like going to Wright’s Falling Water or visiting the original Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. The places reverberate with a sacred energy.
But this ragtag bunch of supporters (the film was even financed by Lenny Feinberg, a former foundation student) never quite gets there. In his stellar piece published as the cover story in the June issue of The Weekly Standard, “No Museum Left Behind,” writer Lance Esplund gets closer to articulating it. “Moving through the Barnes Foundation, you feel immersed in a complete work of art, as you do when deep in the nave of a Gothic cathedral. The Barnes seems wonderfully timeless and out of place.” Bingo! That’s what we need: someone eloquently explaining that the entire building plus art is the “work of art.”
It’s fun to watch civil rights activist Julian Bond badmouth the Pew Charitable Trust and its underhanded ways or listen to silly Gov. Rendell try to talk culture, but the film made me wonder: What does a real curator or a current art expert think about it being moved? Why don’t we hear from museum luminaries, art historians, the people who have dedicated their lives to being experts in the field. We hear from an art auction big shot, but that’s about all. Ultimately, the collection of Post-Impressionist art that is housed at The Barnes—even if it’s worth $25 billion—is a lot of excellent art that is past its prime. We’re not talking cutting-edge or difficult art. We’re talking the stuff that has been fodder for museum calendars and mouse pads. What does this antiquated educational experience at The Barnes actually entail? Can’t it be continued without the art on the walls? So many questions left unanswered. Or even unasked.
The saddest part is that, like most of the cultural it’s become the art of the deal, not just art. As Walter Kirn explained in a recent essay, we know so much about the backstory, we are only able to see the dollar signs. Kirn writes: “In the contemporary entertainment business (and also, increasingly, in sports and in politics), it’s the business that’s the entertainment and the art of the deal that’s the art that draws most notice.” When The Barnes collection finally opens, we’ll see billions on the walls, not the Cezannes and Renoirs and Matisses. So ultimately the Art of the Steal has been just another tool in the Barnes collection’s ultimate undoing.