The Art of the Steal

I went to see The Art of the Steal at The Little (240 East Ave.) tonight. I wasn't sure what I was getting into because I'd read just a little about it, but it turned out to be an excellent documentary … at least for me.

It sets up the battle between Albert C. Barnes and the Chicago art community. The deal is that when Barnes was alive, he began collecting works of modern artists of the middle 20th century; further, he displayed those works only once at a Chicago gallery and the works were derided by the art community as inferior in nearly every way to true art. This only fueled his disdain for that art community — and he was embroiled in full-out battle when they realized his collection was one of the most valuable in the world, after that form of modern art became popular. Upon his death, he set up a trust for The Barnes Foundation (300 North Latch's Ln., Merion, PA) which was an educational institution for teaching art in a unique way — stipulating that it was specifically not a museum of art, no artwork may be loaned out, etc.

The film sets up Barnes and his foundation as the heroes, and the art community as the greed-infested enemies. As I understand it, Barnes had a view of works of art as things that had value because they spoke to human beings; and specifically that monetary value had no place being attributed to art. The art community intertwined historical value, personal value, and monetary value in a jumbled mess, and never understood Barnes' point.

So, blah blah blah, they go about dismantling the trust and gain access to the collection in ways Barnes never intended.

The reason I found it an excellent documentary is it opened more reasoned questions than it answered. How long should one man's dying wish be honored? How should we view art? By what mechanism does a person's property become public when they die?

But at its heart, the film asks: for any clause in a person's financed trust, how do we measure if it goes against the public good so much that it must be overturned? That's essentially the argument: the Barnes Foundation has all these great works "locked away" from public view. But how many people can really appreciate an original Matisse, for example? Isn't uninformed public viewing just a matter of bragging rights — don't most people say they saw this-or-that artwork and begin with its appraised value rather than any deeper understanding?

I didn't really see Barnes as the "good guy". I agree with his philosophy of art, but think that important works should have public access (even when it's pearls before swine). Perhaps I'm looking back with a lens tainted by 2010's copyright laws and seeing a world where ideas are longing to be free but are blocked. I'm sure Barnes saw a future where art whose dollar value drops below its value as fuel would simply be burned for heat. I don't know if either of us is wrong.