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The Art of the Steal: Some thoughts about medium and message

August 4, 2010

Last night I watched a documentary that had piqued my interest, but that I never got around to seeing in theatres: The Art of the Steal. It’s available on Netflix instant view, and the film tells the story of the Dr. Alfred C. Barnes art collection, worth an estimated 25-30 billion dollars, and the battle of it’s placement. Full of post-impressionist and modern art with famous paintings by Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and plenty of others.  It’s a impressive collection of art, but at the time that Barnes was collecting the art, his art critic contemporaries in Philiadelphia called his collection ugly, primitive and unattractive.  So as a nice fuck you, he created the Barnes Foundation, a selective art school where his pieces would remain, never to be sold, loaned, or moved for any reason. Housed in a small building, the Barnes Foundation does not look like an museum. It looks like someone’s house. Paintings are not arranged by era or by artist, but by aesthetic value. Bunched together on walls, you have post-impressionist paintings next to African sculptures next to decorative looking locks. The footage we are shown of the original collection is fascinating because it is so starkly different from the make up of the modern museum, with their huge blank walls, their lighting, their velvet ropes. At the Barnes foundation, students were encouraged to interact with the paintings, compare the paintings, life with the paintings.

The collection is ostensibly private, and outside of classes for school, the collection was only available for public viewing at max, two days a week. It remained this way after Barnes died in 1951, under the direction of Violetta di Mazia, his last living apostle, until her death in 1988.  Following that, it turns out that the collection was to be overseen by the local historical black college, Lincoln College. From that point, the Barnes Foundation radically changed identity, as non-profit foundations, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and local politicians have all jockeyed for control over the collection, while trying to also find a legal backing for moving the art out of residential Marion and into downtown Philadelphia. After nearly 20 years of wiggling and finagling,, the collection is finally moving, slated to be finished by 2012.

What fascinates me the most about this tussle over art is not the surprising dis-assembly of trusts and wills, but the argument over public art. One of the things that Barnes was most critical about was the use of great art by social elite as “upholstery” for their homes, or as a platform to support the arts without actually knowing that much about art. Barnes believed that a quiet, personal connection to art was more important, and the farther is was kept away from moneyed individuals, the better.

Part of me agrees with this, but to think that access to such interesting, historically important art was so limited makes me squirm, because it sounds like elitism — you can only view this art if you view it correctly. But I believe there is something to viewing art correctly.

For example, take the following video: an “important” modern artist puts one of his paintings on a Belgian street for all to see. How many people take notice other than a quick glance?

or, for a different way of looking, there is the story of world famous violinist Joshua Bell playing one of the most difficult violin compositions ever written, on a priceless instrument, in the middle of a subway platform as a street musician. The Washington Post devised the idea — during 45 minutes of a morning commute, how many people would stop and listen?

In both cases, the answer is not many. Without the proper context, many people ignore art. We are too focused on our daily lives to take the time to appreciate the wonders around us. This makes the Barnes’ Foundation case more important. In the context of a rural neighborhood, amongst a garden, a small building, and against the backdrop of other fabulous art, a connection between the viewer and the work can be cultivated carefully. The art means different things in this context rather than in the hustle and bustle of a museum that has as much interest in its gift shop as it does the paintings on the wall. Especially considering something like paintings and sculpture, in which the original piece is generally more authentic than any reproduction.  The case changes slightly from medium to medium — hardcovers vs soft covers in books, CD’s vs live concert in music, home viewing vs theatre viewing in film, but in thinking about each medium, it is someone’s job to consider the aesthetic value of how the message gets presented. Part of it is the artist, but also the theatre owner, the publisher, the album artist, these all matter. Can we really enjoy great pieces of art if there is no room to breathe, to develop the personal connection to the art?

I think not, personally. Context matters as much as anything, especially for art.

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