One would have to have a heart of stone to not be at least a little unnerved by the strange case of the Barnes Foundation. A millionaire by 35 after inventing a mild antiseptic, Dr. Albert C. Barnes spent the 1920s amassing an impressive collection of Impressionist and Modernist art, including majors by Picasso, Gauguin, Rousseau and Van Gogh. Not yet in vogue (and therefore bought on the relative cheap), these masterpieces received a cold reception when presented in downtown Philadelphia and slighted, Barnes locked them away in suburban Lower Merion, where he restricted public viewing and cheerfully denied offers from jealous art museums the world over. And there the collection has remained even after Barnes’ 1951 death. That is, until next year when city officials and current Foundation members, having successfully circumvented Barnes’ will, will move the collection to a more tourist-friendly downtown location—a development for which its late owner would likely only have four-letter words.
It’s difficult not to paint this scrape in broad, Manichean terms; director Don Argott (Rock School) is all to happy to comply. Less a doc than a polemic, The Art of the Steal makes a convincing—if not air-tight—argument for shady underhandedness, calmly showing how a series of unfortunate events led to others profiting from Barnes’ wares (which the film guesstimates to be around $22 billion). But perhaps because his film sides with the case’s current losers, he pushes his argument too hard—so absurdly hard, in fact, that the only sane response is to think it’s not really THAT big a deal.
One is also left to wonder about all the info Argott left on the floor, so he could support the film's David-and-Goliath story. Claiming offense at the film’s angle, most of the purported baddies declined to be interviewed. This not only leaves us with an unsatisfyingly one-sided narrative, but also traps us with the Barnes’ “Friends” and others opposed to the move, who (understandably) lack a certain, shall we say, restraint. Indeed, one of the opening sound bites charges that the Barnes move is “the biggest act of cultural vandalism since World War II.” Seriously? Barring a miracle, the collection will move 4.2 miles, into a building that will retain its owner’s eccentric layout (assembled aesthetically rather than by era or styles). THIS is tantamount to the Rape of Europa? The art world must be starving for drama.
The Art of the Steal is riddled with such hyperbole and fuzzy reasoning, and each instance pops yet another tiny hole in the collective argument. No one addresses the pros of the move—that more people would be able to see, say, Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre, or that it would bring mucho tourism dollars to a city so cash-strapped it nearly closed its libraries. Such are the limititations of the polemic, which like its close cousin, propaganda, aims for the heart first and the head a distant second. C+
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