PRINT April 2005


the Barnes Foundation

“QUIRKY.” “ORIGINAL.” “Idiosyncratic.” “Weird and glorious.” “Fabulous.” “Eccentric.” These are a few of the adjectives that have made their way into press accounts of the controversy over the moving of Dr. Albert C. Barnes’s collection from Merion, a Philadelphia suburb, to a new building on the city’s Museum Mile. To those descriptors of Barnes’s wonderfully odd assortment of objects and his contradiction-ridden plans for them I could add some of my own. Slightly lunatic. A bit delusional. Wildly unrealistic. Quixotic. Cockeyed. Raving mad, and just as maddening. But three cheers for such madness.

There has been much heated debate about the prospect of the move, which is all but inevitable. My own feelings about this development are as rife with contradiction as Barnes’s collection—with its horrible Renoirs, its superb Cézannes, and its gorgeous Matisses—and his subversive and utterly unfeasible dreams about the pedagogical and social-reform possibilities of his art. The move will happen, and probably should, because the collection is magnificent enough to be made available to a much wider audience. The foundation is bankrupt and needs money for its survival, which the move will ultimately ensure, one way or another. Nothing stays the same: There is no point in letting the collection be sold off, go down the drain, or wither into suburban obsolescence just so a few art people can continue to have an exclusive five-dollar Barnes experience or just so Barnes’s unbending, self-defeating will can be honored. (And I mean “will” in both the legal, last-testament sense and in the sense of the man’s original intentions. To the latter, in spite of having sympathy for his cantankerous, piss-and-vinegar style and his will to be weird, we might justifiably say, Who cares?)

Moreover, since that will is full of contradictions, there is no way it can be honored fully: Honor one part of it and you dishonor the other. So we, like the Philadelphia court, are faced with sorting through it to arrive at what seems the most fundamental and, indeed, most ethical solution. The problem is that no one agrees on the answer. To my mind, the most basic social principle that Barnes sought to put in place is the one that should be respected most closely—not because he wanted it, nor because what he wanted was practicable (it hasn’t been), but because he was courageous and right about wanting it. And that principle is that his art should speak directly to “plain people” and that those “plain people” should be people of color—of all colors, black, white, the entire spectrum. In other words, his collection (itself multicolored) should be the people’s property, which means, like it or not, it can’t stay in Merion for the benefit of a few white art students. (Never mind that some of those art students are blue-collar, a fact that Barnes would have liked.) Whether, once it moves, it will bring in crowds of nonwhite and/or working-class people is another matter entirely. At least it will be available, though probably at a slightly higher admission price.

As should be evident by now, it is almost impossible to write about this subject in an uncontorted way; the “even if’s,” “but’s,” and “and yet’s” accumulate. And here is the first of the two most important “and yet’s”: Something quirky, original, eccentric, glorious, idiosyncratic, fabulous, even magical, will be lost when the Barnes collection moves. The Barnes will become another art-rich museum for consumption by art tourists; it will be, at best, a simulacrum of itself. Its present installation is fabulous precisely in its out-of-the-way eccentricity (eccentricity in the double sense of being away from the urban center and outside the mainstream). Its hanging according to a nonlinear logic, its simultaneous functioning as decor and pedagogy, its lack of wall texts or informative labels, its placement of “great” paintings in marginal places like staircases (which works better at the Barnes than it does at the new MoMA), its disdain for anything so ordinary and flat-footed as chronology and context, together with its zany hodgepodge of good and bad Impressionist and Fauvist painting, Navajo rugs, iron door fixtures, and the like (whatever “and the like” could possibly mean in such a situation) conspire to make the Barnes a one-of-a-kind experience, now that the standardized packaging of culture, MBA museum management, contextual art history, and over theorized and undercooked anti-art have crowded out the world-making pleasures of human sensibility, other wise known as the aesthetic sphere. In short, the Barnes’s quixoticness is not only its charm but also its excellence. It is what makes it so compelling and what makes this writer, at least, long for more Dr. Barneses in the world, while knowing that there are always fewer and fewer of them.

The second major “and yet” is related to the first, and it is this: Among the quirky, original, eccentric, glorious, idiosyncratic, fabulous, even magical things that will probably be lost with the move of the Barnes to central Philadelphia is its sponsorship of the direct contemplation of art and the invitation to look hard and attentively and to learn from the work of art itself rather than from the experts—its treatment of the work of art as the primary text of all thought about art. To which I want to say, Yes! Of course, like the idea that high art should be for “plain people,” the idea that the experience of high art can be unmediated is just plain screwy. No high art ever really was for “plain people” nor is it likely ever to be: That proposition is a contradiction in terms. Regardless of the sometimes utopian-democratic desires of art makers and art mavens, art of this sort will always only appeal to a minority; once it appeals to a majority, or even a plurality, it has been diluted and made into something less than itself. For art is by definition an elite thing, just as Dr. Barnes was himself a self-elected, alpha-male member of the select. Likewise, no art experience is as immediate as Dr. Barnes longed for it to be and tried to force it to be. It is always framed, literally and figuratively—physically, geographically, institutionally, socially, discursively.

Still, it’s worth raising a fist in salute to and solidarity with Dr. Barnes’s principle of the artwork’s priority over its framing, its immediacy to the “fiercely attentive” viewer, as one journalist described the state of mind that the Barnes collection engages. Admittedly, most people probably don’t feel the desire for that experience, and there is no reason that they should. But I would argue that meeting that desire when it exists—indeed, bringing that desire into existence in the first place—is and always was the best function of art. Look hard and closely, take time, pay attention, focus, think, learn something you didn’t already know, take pleasure in that learning, have an epiphany: That is what “great” art invites and repays. This is why, even in a secular culture, the best of it has always been connected to the sacred: sacred as in setting aside an island in time for the imagination to recreate itself, sacred as in making space for an antidote to the distraction and degradation of the everyday. And that is why the method of Dr. Barnes’s madness was a peculiar formalism: Stop listening to all those voices telling you what to think, trust yourself, and look at how the thing is put together. That is the best way to learn about it, and that experience should be available to anybody who might want to have it. And there are, indeed, “plain people” out there who want it. I’ve stood among them and eavesdropped in art galleries and museums. They’re in the minority but they’re there, no matter how much museum education departments may wish to talk down to them. The Barnes Foundation doesn’t talk down; good for the Barnes.

I’m an art professional, and art professionals don’t necessarily have any more art epiphanies than anyone else. But I had just such an epiphany in front of one painting in particular at the Barnes. That painting is an eccentric canvas by an eccentric but canonical painter: Paul Cézanne’s Chrysanthemums of 1896–98. I know lots about Cézanne; I’ve written a whole book about him; and I helped to curate an exhibition of his work, which attracted visitors in droves despite the organizing institution’s initial fears that it would be over their heads, and in which I overheard some of those visitors having just the sort of “plain-people” epiphanies that Dr. Barnes tried to encourage.

Chrysanthemums is a jaw-droppingly colorful, gorgeously sensual feast for the eyes, but it is also an oddball painting by an equally oddball painter who was almost certainly all but schizophrenic—even madder than Dr. Barnes, in other words, but just sane enough to make paintings like this one—and who is known as an ascetic precursor to the not-so-colorful conceptual and geometrical difficulties of Cubist painting. Chrysanthemums works against those preconceptions of Cézanne. Stroke by stroke, patch by patch, area by area, it shows how it puts itself together. At the same time, it plays a sensuous concer t around the theme of the painting’s close physical relation to the object that it represents, brush mark to chrysanthemum petal, colorful woven tapestry to pigment-laden canvas surface. And it wreaks havoc with many illusory categories, such as those of genre and subject matter: It creates a winding road around its flowered pitcher, a wedge of blue that looks like fallen sky next to it, and a Tilted Arc slice of brick in the upper-right corner that looks like a looming cliff of rock at the Bibemus Quarry near Aix-en-Provence. And the final piece of the epiphany is the sudden awareness that Cézanne was a wannabe Baroque painter, a colorist, a romantic come too late, and a wild sensualist to boot, who made painterly hay with his wildness and his sensuality rather than suppressed them, as is so commonly thought.

I’m primed for such experiences, I confess, but no place advocates them like the Barnes Foundation. So long may it live, no matter where it goes and what it becomes. Let other people besides pilgrims to Merion enjoy it. Let Dr. Barnes’s best intentions, not his worst or his most self-defeating, be honored in any way they can. We owe it to the mad doctor—and to ourselves—to try to carry out his quixotic project anywhere, anyhow.

Carol Armstrong is professor of art and archaeology and Doris Stevens Professor of the Study of Women and Gender at Princeton University.