Barnes and Noblesse

Don Argott, The Art of the Steal, 2009, still from a color film in HD, 101 minutes.

THE ART OF THE STEAL wants you to think that a secret cabal of greedy politicians, social-climbing university trustees, and not-so-charitable charities hoodwinked the public into accepting the move of Dr. Albert Barnes’s world-class collection of modern art from Merion, Pennsylvania, to its new home in downtown Philadelphia.

About twenty minutes into The Art of the Steal, Julian Bond, then chairman of the NAACP board and one of several luminaries interviewed for the movie, states its recurring leitmotif: that Barnes wanted his collection to be a place where the common man could have epiphanies in front of works of art, without the buttress of wall text, audio guides, and other forms of meddlesome discourse—a place that, according to Bond, even a plumber from New York would appreciate.

Admirable idea. So let’s follow said plumber on his visit to the Barnes. After reserving a ticket weeks in advance, Joe Plumber takes an unpaid day off work to travel to a wealthy suburb outside Philadelphia. The train is neither convenient nor cheap. If he had taken a car, he would have found that what limited parking was available had been booked weeks in advance. But surely a pilgrimage to this holy shrine is worth such trifling inconveniences. Once disembarked, Joe Plumber walks about half a mile to the collection. Though puzzled by the lack of signs and parking (thanks, neighbors!), Joe Plumber is undeterred. The museum is designed for people like him, after all.

I exaggerate, of course. But not too much. And my mild attempt at irony pales in comparison to the propagandistic rant that is The Art of the Steal. Director Don Argott has gathered the initiates of the cult of Saint Barnes—unsurprisingly, mostly former students of the foundation’s dubious art school—to proclaim that the cultural version of the military-industrial complex contrived to take the Barnes away from Joe Plumber and the parking-phobic residents of Merion by means of evil spells and incantations written into the state budget.

This may indeed turn out to be the case. I cannot speak to the legality of it all, which is something for the courts to decide (but then again, according to the movie, the judges are in on it, too). But what I can speak to is the holier-than-thou attitude and the one-sided presentation of evidence that, true or not, makes it hard to take the movie’s claims seriously.

The script would make any conspiracy theorist proud: Former governor Ed Rendell, then mayor John Street, Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca Rimel, and the ghost of newspaper magnate Walter Annenberg, along with the city’s snobby art establishment, are the nasty villains; the poor students in Barnes’s art school, the hapless victims of the “steal.” That Barnes himself was intensely hostile to serious art-historical discussions of works of art and promoted a reactionary, ahistorical, and quasi-religious understanding of aesthetic experience is never questioned, let alone raised as a point of debate.

It becomes obvious that the people who have the most to lose from the Barnes’s relocation are not the Joe Plumbers of the world, who now have to suffer easy access and entrance signs, but the self-anointed guardians of Barnes’s vision, who now have to share their precious collection with—God forbid—other students, among others.

I’m not saying that everything about the move was on the up-and-up or that Barnes’s original, idiosyncratic installation should be changed. But I do find that an argument made on the basis of hagiography rather than on a balanced view of the facts is obfuscating at best and nauseating at worst.

But of course, I’m just an art critic and, according to the logic of The Art of the Steal, another happy would-be conspirator.

The Art of the Steal is now playing in select theaters.