Now this is what a documentary should be! After my disappointment with Restrepo a couple weeks ago, I was thrilled to realize, after popping in this DVD, that The Art of the Steal was reminding me why I love documentary films in the first place. It takes an important but relatively obscure conflict, lays out the history and the current state of affairs interspersed with personal opinions from some of the players involved (and makes those who declined to be interviewed look even worse), and it leaves you in suspense about the outcome to the very end…and possibly beyond, as nothing irreversible has been done yet.
So what’s it about? Well, basically how the city bureaucrats and social elites in Philadelphia bullied and swindled their way into getting control of the 25 billion dollars worth of art that comprises the Barnes Foundation collection. The foundation that controls the collection has agreed to move it from its current home outside Philadelphia (in lower Merion, about four miles away) to a shiny new museum hall in the city proper…against the specific will and testament of the man who had owned the paintings and left them to the Foundation, and against the legal objections raised by several different parties.
This is an apolitical film, for all that it is anti-political. What I mean by this is, all of the politicians come out looking bad. The quip that if art is involved, “there better not be a politician within 500 yards” is expressed directly twice in the film, and it is certainly the theme of the film. Ironically it’s not just politicians who come out looking dirty, corrupt, and greedy, but also several so-called non-profits on the art scene who had a hand in getting their people onto the Foundation’s board in order to control it–and its future profits. “It’s like a hostile corporate takeover, except for a non-profit organization stewarding a collection of art.” Indeed.
The film is really well edited–it shows you just enough of each topic to keep you fascinated and then gives a tantalizing hint at what else is going on to keep you engaged when the exposition shifts to a different part of the situation. It’s a really wonderful piece of mosaic storytelling that ultimately comes together in a satisfying way. Narratively speaking–I doubt too many people who see this movie will be satisfied with the outcome of the story itself! Because if you believe in private property, then you should be outraged by this blatant disregard for the intent and execution of an individual’s will. And if you value art, not for the sense of cultural sophistication but for the existential aesthetic experience, then you should be sickened by this proposed move—there is no way that any new museum-like museum, no matter how expensive or carefully “designed,” could possibly equal the intimate experience of a small gallery on a bucolic estate that was landscaped and also architecturally created to put you in the right frame of mind to view the collection.
The most unfortunate part of the whole situation is that the collection of mostly French Impressionist and post-Impressionist art is amazing enough that most people—even those who know and condemn the move—will still go see it, anyway. I am not one of them. Maybe it’s biting my nose off to spite my face, but I believe in certain principles. I believe in private property, that politicians and non-profit organizations should not be able to circumvent a will because it is expedient for them, and I believe in the aesthetic principles driving the collection’s current presentation. Thus if I can’t get to this collection in its original location before it moves, assuming the move goes forward, then I will never see it. Because I will not see it in Philadelphia, not after watching what those people stomped on to have their way.
It’s a great documentary, and a scathing indictment on the established politics and Society in that city (and in general, since that is easy to extrapolate), and a touching history of an amazing collection of art. If you have an interest in any of those things, then you need to watch this film.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.