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The Artlessness Of A Documentary

2010 March 26
by Henry Casey

Albert Barnes, a man who this movie really could have used.

Henry Casey, Editor-in-Chief of The Busy Signal, has been published in a vanity publication of a major watch maker, sometimes blogs at With A Passion, and since graduating Bard College in 2006 has worked in the art book industry and now for a major metropolitan museum in New York City, where he was born and raised.

Recently released documentary The Art Of The Steal tells the story of the Philadelphia museum and political establishments conspiring to take collector Albert Barnes’ incomparable collection of art. The Barnes – as the film refers to the collection of art in legal limbo – includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and 14 Modiglianis. In other words, it’s worth more than you could make in twenty lifetimes.

This collection of art was put together through Barnes’ impeccable taste in art and made possible by his self made fortune, acquired from work in developing a pharmaceutical antiseptic, Argyrol, which in his day was used for – skip to the next sentence if you’ve just eaten – the treatment of gonorrhea and as a preventative of gonorrheal blindness in newborn infants. Barnes accomplishes this noble scientific deed, and next thing you know, he’s got Rich Uncle Pennybanks-level money. He’s flying around the globe, meeting Picasso (amongst others) and acquiring art at prices that are a fraction of a percent of their worth today. This portion of Barnes’ life would be interesting to art lovers, so of course, wasn’t well documented and had to be brushed under the history’s rug. Rarely does the art get the close-ups the film would claim it deserves, which is a problem.

In any film or performance, you must keep the audience intrigued, mostly this is achieved when something valuable is put at risk. Here, without the art present, the audience suffers.

Without Barnes or his art able to tell the tale, the remaining people in the story (neighbors of Barnes and art critics are allies protecting the Barnes and the few accused politicians and museum administrators willing to go on camera) become central. The city argues that Barnes’ is not taking care of the art, and that his admittance policy, admitting a small number of people via reservations and having classes of art appreciation isn’t the civic-minded thing to do.

Barnes and his lawyers made the compelling argument of his ownership, and draft a contract that takes decades to be slowly negated. After each event in the chronology where a section of the contract is negated, the film jumps to a full screen image of the contract and an invisible pen starts to redact words. This device is the most obvious way the film maker prods the audience into thinking that one side is evil. The lesser device used is a CGI corkboard, to bring all of the faces from the politics world and museum world together, to further scream the charges of Conspiracy! Sadly, this device just leaves the audience wondering how insane the director’s actual corkboard must be, and may remind some of Glenn Beck’s magical chalkboard of truth.

Despite the lesser attempts of the film maker to get you to believe in an easy dichotomy of good/evil, they have very compelling evidence on their side. When the film reveals an impressive extensive series of filings that those protecting the Barnes have unearthed, the lynch pin being a budget from the Pew Charitable Trusts with some very fuzzy math, anybody paying attention will understand that yes, the art has been taken illegally.

The politicans, on camera, don’t do themselves any favors, as PA Governor Ed Rendell comes across as slimy as he did when he was one of the last allies to stay on the sinking ship of Team Hillary 08 during the primaries. Once the film has presented all of it’s facts, even I had to admit, even though I didn’t like them, that the Friends of The Barnes were right, this was theft at one of the largest scales.

Every single person on the side of the Barnes, which includes the director, takes the art staying in the estate’s hands with grave seriousness. Serious, and somewhat unlikeable, protagonists do not need to be stumbling blocks for documentaries. Look at Morgan Spurlock, or Philippe Petit, the man on the wire in Man On Wire. They’re not really what you’d call charming, but since they themselves are the subject matter of the film, their eccentricities are allowed. The Steal, keeps you so far away from the art in question, which is a glaring sin of omission, and decreases the audience’s opinion of the importance of this collection. Possibly, the art wasn’t available because of the state having seized control, but the film never goes the path of blaming the state for this deficiency, so you’re left wondering about the art’s absence.

Later, I then learned that a family friend was in fact a student of the Barnes Foundation, who has explained how the classes at the Barnes Foundation were conducted. Simply put, in the place of bringing the students around the estate, the teachers had the art brought to the students. After a class reviewed one painting, they had a few movers lug a Cézanne down the stairs, clanging into steps and floors. Paintings thudding on the floors is a noise kept far away from the movie, because it would ruin their argument that the Barnes was doing right by the art they owned. This is, apart from drizzling acid on the paintings, as close to intentional damage to the works as one can imagine. I don’t have an on the record interview to substantiate this claim, but in the framework of what’s left out of the film, I do believe it to be probable.

Only briefly, does the film mention that the conservation of the art could have been better, but it assigns blame on the condition of the building. This is a failed attempt to paint the Barnes Foundation as an underdog, since art lovers wouldn’t know a thing about keeping these paintings in good condition. By distancing the audience from the collection, it lessens the stakes and trivializes the protesters and the film itself. Either way, though, when faced with the evidence given by the film, the means with which the local powers that be took the art, I still have to say the film makers and protesters are correct, no matter how grating they are.

A swarm of elderly protesters is nothing new; it’s been the running sight gag in the news cycle for months now. While The Art Of The Steal is less a ripped from the headlines film as it is a ripped from the art section documentary, their protesters do have a similar proclivity to overstate the dangers at hand. One elderly woman held a sign comparing the taking of the art collection to rape, which might not be Stalinist Nazi Obama, but it’s pretty damn egregious, and has a copycat commenter on the NYTimes Review of the film, where a “Cassondra Joseph” in NY makes this inane comparison:

“The Government of the City of Philadelphia is corrupt and inept. Visiting Philadelphia’s major museums requires difficult navigation in a car – & if you walk, you’d better pay strict attention to get across some of the adjoining intersections alive. What is being done to the Barnes is a form of rape.”

The filmmakers have control of the editing room, and when they allow these people to represent their side of the argument, it sets their film up to be as pleasant as getting teeth pulled without a sedative.

The Art of The Steal is currently playing in small art house cinemas such as NYC’s IFC Center.

3 Responses
  1. Patrick Casey permalink
    March 31, 2010

    Hi Henry
    Your Dad just told me about this
    I’m checking it out
    Looks real interesting
    Big Congratulations
    P

  2. April 3, 2010

    I haven’t seen the whole film (I am, however, writing this from my projection booth as I’m screening it). Ignoring the blatant illegality, there are some pros and cons to consider.

    On the one hand, is it fair that one rich eccentric gets to control these priceless works of immense cultural importance in perpetuity? Shouldn’t the public get to decide what to do with it? The Barnes Foundation, at its present location and under its present rules, denies the public easy access to the art it contains. Why not put it in Center City, where more people can see it and the city can make money off of tourists? I mean, the place is going bankrupt!

    On the other hand, it’s an absolutely astounding place to visit, unlike any gallery experience I’ve ever had. His theory of presentation yields very interesting results. You’ll see an impressionist painting hung above a wooden chest make by Shakers, with a handwoven decorative cloth draped over it and a blown glass vase in the center. The whole collection is an oddly fruitful combination of artistic styles. In a normal museum, art is taxonomized and sorted into discreet sections. There is a real value to the uniqueness of the collection’s presentation. If the place is failing financially, and violating Barnes’ will is a foregone conclusion, why not ditch the attendance-by-appointment aspect, reduce the resources used to teach his eccentric theory of aesthetics, and take less severe actions to preserve the Foundation where it is?

    This is not to mention that there’s a Matisse mural painted on the ceiling of the main hall, and I don’t think they’ll be moving that to Center City.

  3. April 4, 2010

    Now, for my first comment on the site.

    @ Pat: thanks for the visit and for the other comments you’ve left. Comments make the world go round and the writers proud.

    @ Jesse: long time no see, Crooks. you make both of the moral arguments for this situation very well, and I’m more in line to agree with the latter idea. If you see the film, you’ll get testimonial from all the old fartbags who lost their shit over all the tourism the Barnes got once they opened it up to the public, part of why, I think, they’re trying to move as much as they can movie. Sure some litter might drive their property values down, but so would a grenade in the mailbox, which is something all their whining made me want to donate. As someone who works at a museum, though I tend to agree with the notion to move art to the metropolitan areas for mass consumption, so as I really have no horse of my own in this game, I’m quite fine with the endgame we currently have.

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