The Art of the Steal paints only in black and white.

csjlong's picture

Pundits who insist that documentaries be objective or balanced only demonstrate that they have absolutely no idea what a documentary is. Arguments, however, benefit by acknowledging, and then dismantling, opposing points of view. As a documentary that attempts to make an argument, "The Art of the Steal" doesn't fail to convince as much as it fails to try to convince at all.

Dr. Albert Barnes was born to a working class family in Philadelphia and later made his fortune in pharmaceuticals, becoming a millionaire in his early 30s. And that was back when a million dollars wasn't chump change. Barnes was not just an accomplished man of science; he also had an uncanny eye for modern art. Though his personal resources were meager compared to some larger public and private institutions he was competing with, Barnes massed an extraordinary collection of work by artists not yet fully embraced by the cognoscenti. Their names are a bit more recognizable today: Matisse, Cezanne, Renoir, and Picasso. Barnes' collection was considered one of the greatest in the world when he died in 1955, and remains equally as admired today.

Barnes was a stubborn, combative man who despised the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other movers and shakers in the Philadelphia scene. After an early showing of his collection was panned by local critics, he spirited his collection to an estate in the suburbs where he built the privately owned Barnes Foundation and gleefully thumbed his nose at the city establishment who he swore would never, ever get their stinking paws on his art.

Curiously, Director Don Argott portrays this self-made millionaire as a populist battling against a cabal of Philadelphia elites who only viewed art as a commodity to be exploited. Argott's point of view is not entirely unjustified. Instead of using his collection to hobnob with high society types, Barnes set up the foundation to educate students about art, and even left control of his collection to Lincoln University, a cash-strapped African-American university.

But this so-called populist also secreted his art from the public, requiring prospective visitors to apply by letter before being deemed "worthy" to see the awe-inspiring collection that has "more Cézannes than Paris," 181 Renoirs, 59 Matisses and is estimated today to be worth more than $25 billion. After his death, the Foundation opened its doors to visitors two days a week, but no more than that according to Barnes' explicit directions in his will. This is the man who wanted to preserve art for the public?

The will is the crux of the problem in "The Art of the Steal." Barnes insisted that his collection never be moved, loaned or divvied up, essentially insisting that it remain frozen in perpetuity in its current state at the time of his death. That nasty cabal of Philadelphia elite had other plans, wanting the Barnes Collection moved to the city where it could become a main attraction on the Parkway where, incidentally, it would be seen by many, many more people. Once Barnes and his successor Violette de Mazia were out of the way, it became a free for all. Lawyers take your corners, and let's get ready to rumble.

"The Art of the Steal" paints only in black and white. Saint Barnes and his disciples are good and pure soldiers fighting to preserve art to the people, and their opponents are diabolical corporate schemers looking only to line their pockets with ill-gotten gold. Chief among the moustache-twirlers was the late multi-millionaire Walter Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, a conservative who detested New Dealer Barnes and, allegedly, ran a decades-long smear campaign against him through his newspaper. Other villains include the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pew Charitable Trust whose president Rebecca Rimel is repeatedly shown in close-up stills accompanied with low-range "bad guy" music just to let us know what a nasty piece of work she is.

Argott interviews several art critics along with some very enthusiastic alums of the Barnes Foundation who come across more as cultists than passionate advocates for art. One true believer positively drips with condescension when relating a story about one man who, once the Foundation was forced to allow regular public admission, raced through the collection in just an hour. "That's an art lover," he sneers. God bless those populists.

The legal vicissitudes are interesting (PA Governor Rendell gets heavily involved which should tell you how much money is at stake) if not particularly photogenic. Typeface fans will be giddy with the array of legal documents paraded in front of the camera. But this isn't reportage; it's a feature-length indignant rant. And that would be just fine and dandy if the film made a clearer case for such indignation.

Argott simply assumes that the audience will be morally outraged that anyone dare challenge the 50+ year old legacy of this misanthropic visionary. Never mind that the world changes. This is what Barnes wanted in 1955 and this must be preserved without question until the end of civilization. Argott can't imagine anyone arguing against that principle, so he doesn't feel any need to argue for it. The only concession he makes to nuance is an acknowledgement that the Foundation was hampered by severe financial difficulties, but even these are dismissed by the unsubstantiated claim that everything could have been easily resolved by private means … and anyone who says otherwise is part of the conspiracy!

Perhaps they have the legal high ground, but I'm not convinced that I should be rooting for either side: the "good" guys who want to keep the art sealed in its suburban "jewel box," or the corporate no-goodniks who want to use it as a civic attraction and a fund-raising cash cow. The Barnesians would have us believe that the Foundation is the place where these works will be best appreciated, but you don't have to listen too closely to hear their contempt at the notion that so many "unworthy" tourists will take a casual stroll through the Parkway Barnes Museum (maybe in LESS than an hour) on their way to the next cheesesteak shop. Do you want your Matisse wit or witout?


The documentary is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The interlaced transfer is solid if unremarkable. No problems worth reporting.


The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. All dialogue is clearly audible. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided to support the English audio.


Only a Trailer.


Whose legacy is more important to preserve? Barnes' or Cezanne's? Perhaps the two can be reconciled, but if they don't dovetail then there's more to this issue than right or wrong, us or them. "The Art of the Steal" is too busy railing against "them" to address such questions.


Film Value