3/31: The Art Of The Steal
My father observed years ago that the best you can hope for from the government is a C-plus, an idea I've come back to many times.
It bubbled up again while I watched The Art Of The Steal, in which politicians and would-be art-world players willfully defied the wishes of the Barnes Foundation's founder, Albert C. Barnes, and the express instructions in his will for the disposition of his invaluable art collection. Dad meant, I think, large federal programs and their inefficiencies, but Don Argott's crisply pissed-off docu follows the Barnes's gradual mainstreaming from quirky and individual collection, semi-hidden in the Philadelphia suburbs and intended for the enjoyment of serious students to everyday lowest-common-denominator blockbuster museum, I kept thinking, "C-plus."
At its inception, the Barnes featured Barnes's art in a house, hung by a civilian amongst his own furniture and set off by rugs and lighting of his choice. By the end, after various judges have ignored Barnes's explicit requests and various local poobahs have exploited the collection to raise money — only a necessary measure thanks to their own shitty management of the estate — the art is just like all the other art in all the other museums in all the other cities, hung aridly on white walls at unchallenging intervals. This devolution, attained by frog-in-hot-water degrees, is infuriating in its inevitability, underlined by Argott's effective direction (the beginning of the movie is a bit over-produced, but settles into a determined rhythm) and some delightfully scathing talking heads with the likes of art correspondent David D'Arcy. D'Arcy explicitly equates the theft of the Barnes with Philadelphia's identity crisis as a city, eye-rolling that a real "world-class city" "doesn't talk about 'becoming' a world-class city," then execute on that pitiable goal by subverting legal documents.
The Art Of The Steal is paced well and unafraid to take a side, as are the participants (a former employee bellows at the camera at one point, "PHILISTINES!!"; gotta love it), and does a deft job explaining the fine print in play without cheesy graphics or chyron shortcuts. You don't have to know about fine art or care about Philly politics to know what a shame is, and Argott's shining of a light on this one is well done and worthwhile.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Albert C. Barnes David D'Arcy documentaries Don Argott John Anderson movies The Art Of The Steal