The Art of Steal

I watched this documentary on Netflix tonight, “The Art of Steal”. It’s a documentary describing the history of Dr Barnes‘ post-impressionist art collection, and the eventual demise of the Barnes Foundation, with the city of Philadelphia taking control of that art (that is now estimated at over $25 billion). The documentary is trying to convince us of the travesty of the art ending up on a museum in the central Philadelphia, while Barnes’ will was for it to stay at its original building forever (in a residential neighborhood), be closed to the public, never be loaned, and only be opened to students. The documentary is pretty one-sided, and it mostly shows the opinions of members of the “Friends of Barnes” organization, that want to continue Dr Barnes’ wishes, and avoid the financial exploitation of his art.

After watching the documentary, I felt completely appalled by the various speakers, who I can only call “elitists”. They genuinely think that the right thing to do is to continue Dr Barnes’ wishes. That this was Barnes’ art. Well, I don’t hold the same opinion, and I’m in fact glad that the City of Philadelphia got hold of the art, even if it might have been via not so clean legal methods.

Art belongs to the people. End of story. According to Wikipedia: “Among its collection are 181 works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 69 by Paul Cézanne, 59 by Henri Matisse, 46 by Pablo Picasso, 21 by Chaim Soutine, 18 by Henri Rousseau, 16 by Amedeo Modigliani, 11 by Edgar Degas, 7 by Vincent Van Gogh, 6 by Georges Seurat, as well as numerous other masters, including Giorgio de Chirico, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Paul Gauguin, El Greco, Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet, Jean Hugo, Claude Monet, Maurice Utrillo, William Glackens, Charles Demuth, Maurice Prendergast, and a variety of African artworks, ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art, and American and European decorative arts and metalwork.” Under no circumstances this major inheritance of human culture should be kept away from the public. Doing so, it’s a crime against the very fabric of humanity. It’s elitism. It’s censorship even.

According to the documentary, the reason why Dr Barnes didn’t want his art shown to the public was because he had thin skin. At the beginning of his collection hobby, he loaned it to the Philly Art Museum for an exhibition, and art critics said that it sucked. He did get really bad reviews in the newspapers of 1922. So he got pissed off, and since then he didn’t want to do anything with the commercial art establishment. He kept his paintings behind closed doors, and only showed them to students. Just because the people at large did not realize YET these painters as great artists.

But, but… isn’t the same for any new art? Every time a new kind of art emerged, in any artistic field, it has always been met with skepticism, even hatred. But people “get it” sooner or later, and eventually that art becomes classic. As it did a few short years after the incident. But Mr Barnes was still pissed off, and nothing would cool him off. And even today, 60 years after his death, his disciples would still speak about Barnes’ wishes. Who the fuck cares about Barnes’ wishes? The guy owned the art, then he died, then this art MUST become public domain. As ALL art should after a period of time. Art is human history in the making, and belongs to no one. Artists and collectors should benefit from them for a time, so they can sustain themselves financially, but after a while, art must be given back to the world. That’s why I’m also advocating that copyright shouldn’t last more than 20-25 years either. And if the copyright holder dies, the art becomes immediately free. Any children of the artist/collector should create their own legacy and not piggyback and live off their parents’ money and fame. At least not when it comes to art, literature etc.

Another point discussed in the film was about the disagreement on moving the museum from the original Barnes building to downtown Philly. Again, I’m with the city here, because the downtown will allow more people to see the art. The Foundation needed permission to build a parking lot in the area, they didn’t get it because the neighbors fought it in court (remember that the building is in a residential area), and it was for 52 cars only anyway. 52 cars is simply not enough to hold large crowds, and the building itself is very small.

Now, regarding the money-grabbing politics behind the scenes between the various foundations and politicians, it might very well be a good point that the art was “stolen” by these foundations. But honestly, this is besides the point. As long as the art is not sold back to private collectors, and instead is remained on museums (even on tour), I’d be happy with that. The more people see the art, the better it is. I’m pretty sure the artists themselves would rather see their art enjoyed by the masses, rather than by a few collectors who feel that they’re above all, and they don’t want to share with anyone else. It’s like someone has the answer to renewable clean energy but not sharing the invention with the world, just because “New Scientist” said the claimed technology is science fiction. Keeping such a grudge is a bad thing.

3 Comments »

glenn wrote on January 13th, 2011 at 12:20 PM PST:

I have not seen the documentary and I am not familiar with Dr. Barnes but I will say that this was his property and he had the right to do with it what he wished. We’re talking property rights. Stop worrying about art so much and think about the individual and their rights…what the property was is irrelevant.


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Eugenia wrote on January 13th, 2011 at 1:23 PM PST:

The guy is being dead for 60 years now. It is wrong to leave so important art property under someone’s sole authority for so long, locked away from the public. The guy had his way with it while he was alive. But after all these years, that’s property that should belong to the world. To an OPEN museum.

Sorry, but when it comes to knowledge, and art, humanity’s needs override, and should override, the individual’s. That’s my opinion on the matter. Might sound like a socialist’s opinion, but it’s not. It’s a progressives’ opinion, one who believes that important art and knowledge should be public domain, by default. I’m Greek, so sharing knowledge and art is in the heart of my upbringing. We’re educated to think this way. Locking away wonders from others, is the real crime here.


Gilbert wrote on January 15th, 2011 at 2:01 AM PST:

I can’t believe Barnes gave the collection over to a sinking college just because he emphasized with the black man. This type of “progressive new deal liberalism” as worded in the documentary, is absolutely disgusting.


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