The doc Art of the Steal is smart and engaging. It opens on the mayor of Philadelphia touting the move of a huge collection from a private trust into the city, and then you hear a talking head talk about this as a monumental theft. The backstory–adeptly narrated by talking heads and found footage–is that Arthur Barnes accrued an astonishing range and depth of paintings in the early part of the 20th-c, now acclaimed as the most important collection of post-Impressionist and modern works in the world. That’s key: the most important. Not the most important private trust collection–but outstripping MOMA and Getty and everyone.
And when he first put it together for a public exhibition at the Philly museum, it was roundly trounced by the snobs and elites of the city, and Barnes–already constitutionally inclined to despise the shallow trappings of high society–vowed to craft a trust that would keep the work out of the hands of the ‘morons’ who didn’t understand art. The Barnes trust was shaped as a school; visiting the collection confined to a couple of days and invitation, the collection arranged and displayed in a lovely “cluttered” series of rooms which defied many conventional approaches to display in museums.
And when Barnes died, the battle to strip the trust’s authority began. I enjoyed it, and I think you will, too.
But about half, two-thirds of the way in, I found my sympathies shifting. The film sets up a pretty clear dichotomy between the money-and-power-hungry movers and shakers of politics, foundations, and the big-museum art world — who are bound up in the commodity potential of art, looking to make money on traveling shows and tourists coming in. Hard to argue with this–the patently venial concerns about getting the Barnes to Philly never hinge on public engagement, except in a kind of passing nod to “democratizing” the place.
But the heroes here… I loved watching and hearing from them — former students of the Barnes, neighbors, many critics — they’re snappy, biting, and wholly passionate about the art (and anti-commerce). But I began to get nettled by the endless invocation of Art. Art in a very grand old elitist sensibility of another stripe: pure, genuine highbrow crack. Barnes clearly had an anti-capitalist ethos, wanting Art to be disconnected from its commodification. But the shifts in the work (and impact, and understanding) of Culture are ignored–the arguments all seem trapped in pre-WWII battles. The movie captures exactly that Modernist moment: the resistance to mass culture retreating into an elitist vision of REAL art understood by REAL experts and enthusiasts (and I do not think this is in keeping with Barnes’ ethos, either).
Maybe I’m overreacting; maybe I’m reading into the debate my own complex position, distrustful of the mass commodity approach to mass culture but equally skeptical of the argument for (elite) discernment. I’d be curious how others respond…. and, regardless, it’s a well-done and entertaining doc (of an often-infuriating history).