The Art of the Steal

Have you heard about that protracted, politically porky legal battle over moving a dead millionaire’s priceless private early Modern art collection from a wealthy Philadelphia suburb into a downtown tourist mecca? Perhaps a better question: Have you cared?

No, not just any dead millionaire, but Albert C. Barnes, whose Last Will and Testament specified his axe should be ground against the presumed philistinism of Philadelphia’s power elite in perpetuity. That hasn’t happened, and Barnes’ acolytes are pissed, so one of them hired Don Argott to make lopsided leaflet of a documentary about it.

If only Argott had the courage of a little critical distance. What a field day he could have with such readymade characters as the aforementioned acolytes, the contentious lawyers, the priggish dewlapped art dealers, the slickly litigious political strivers, and the camera-wielding busybody NIMBYs who suddenly go mum when the thing actually might no longer be in their back yard.

Not to mention Barnes himself, a working-class Philly kid who paid his own way through UPenn, then made a fortune from inventing an antibiotic for gonorrhea and retired young to found an art school and fill it up with piles of great paintings. Reception to which from the local cognoscenti was so chilly — at least at first, before they figured out what modernism was worth — that Barnes would soon be decrying his native city as “a depressing intellectual slum.”

What’s really depressing is this movie — not merely because it gets so many layers deep into the grasping vulgarity of nonprofit culture-mongering, but because its own abhorrence of same comes off so crassly as to all but cancel out any remaining opportunity for actual art appreciation. One justification for “The Art of the Steal” being a film and not a long-form magazine article is the chance to really look at all those great works, but no such luck: Argott’s too busy with the awkward problem of making a case against more people having more access to a trove of masterpieces. He can’t seem to see how his attempt to curry anti-establishment favor actually endorses elitism, and so his film is vain, unbalanced, illogical, overstated and…yes, damn compelling.

It should be pointed out, and of course it is pointed out in the film, that no less an authority than Henri Matisse once described the Barnes Foundation as “the only sane place to see art in America.” A movie of this bent really couldn’t ask for a better sound bite than that, even if it is self-evident hyperbole, and a little la-di-da besides.

Of course, the same movie also puts forth an assertion that the dismantling of this aesthete-approved idyll could be “the greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II” — a not-even-funny affectation that at least a few denizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Burma, China, and many nations in Africa, for starters, might consider culturally atrocious in and of itself.

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