ON THE SUBJECT of the political fix and a priceless collection of art, The Art of the Steal is the post–Errol Morris documentary at its technical best and ideological worst. The film moves beautifully, even if it’s a trope-trove (the typewriter keys slamming in tight close-up against paper, the churning wheels of magnetic tape), and handles the complex subject of the annexation of an art gallery with skill and speed.
The level of fury runs high in this surprising story about the Barnes Foundation, a small gallery 4 1/2 miles from downtown Philadelphia. The museum is the legacy of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a physician and self-made millionaire who came from a poor background and entered the boxing ring to pay his way through medical school. His invention Argyrol replaced the costly silver nitrate solution dabbed into newborn baby’s eyes to ward off blindness.
Having saved the eyesight of countless thousands, Barnes decided to further improve the vision of humanity. He spent his money on one of the most important private collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art in the world. Barnes’ excursions to France allowed him to bring home seven van Goghs, six Seurats, Matisse’s The Joy of Life and dozens of Renoirs; he contextualized these paintings with an excellent selection of African sculpture.
When he exhibited these paintings in the early 1920s, the local newspapers trashed them. Thus Barnes started his own academy in a suburb of Philadelphia, where he could control access and be the final arbiter. To be allowed in to see the Barnes Foundation was to see masterpieces in a quiet setting—“the only sane place to see art in America,” Matisse himself said.
Barnes died in a car accident, in 1951, leaving no children; he willed the collection to be taken care of by a small African-American college. And here’s where the trouble began: the trustees of the school were no match for the pressure to deal with what became, in the fullness of time, an astonishing $30 billion worth of paintings. That value attracted bigger museums, political envy and out-and-out greed. One understands The Art of the Steal’s umbrage as the collection began being pulled, as if by a magnet, from Barnes’ quiet space into Philadelphia’s museum row.
Remember what H.L. Mencken said about Americans being unable to recognize ideas unless they have white wings or a forked tail? See interviewee Julian Bond of the NAACP in the dignified milky glow of negative space (the negative space the crowded paintings at the Barnes never got, frankly). By contrast, Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania and former Philadelphia mayor, is filmed in a medium close-up. He muscles into the side of the frame, like Tony Soprano confiding a crime. Dr. Barnes considered the Philadelphia Museum of Art “a house of prostitution” doing the bidding of the Main Line. Director Don Argott underscores this opinion by filming the venerable museum to look like Castle Grayskull, crouched under lowering clouds.
The limited access to the Barnes helped seal the fate of the place: neighbors objected to stinking tour buses and crowds. The scheme to relocate the collection to a handier location is dismissed as a ploy by politicians trying to lasso tourists. We watch here, in its entirety, a silly TV commercial promoting Philadelphia to prove that politicians are trying to attract visitors to Philadelphia. Horrors!
The Art of the Steal makes and overmakes its case. We’re meant to think of Barnes as a rebel—some John Lee Hooker licks on the soundtrack reinforce this idea. The real question is whether only a purchaser can contextualize a painting, and whether they get to do so beyond the grave. There’s an essential elitism concealed in this documentary, persuasive as it is. In life, Barnes had his revenge, and his joke on the powers that were in Philly. But art is eternal, Barnes is dead, and he doesn’t get to be the gatekeeper any more.
The modern museum megashow is an evil, perhaps a necessary one: head-phone-wearing herds, lines, surcharges, milling crowds and appalling gift shops. But blame the marketers, not the curators. And the important thing are those moments of communion with an art work, those moments that occur even in the most crowded museum. That flash of insight: that’s what this documentary ignores. The Art of the Steal is well-built, but it has the soul of an attack ad.