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The Art of the Steal

On the Attack

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

On the subject of a political snatch, The Art of the Steal is the post–Errol Morris documentary at its technical best and ideological worst.

The film handles with skill and speed the complex subject of the Barnes Foundation, a small art gallery 41⁄2 miles from downtown Philadelphia. It’s the legacy of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a physician and self-made millionaire. His invention, Argyrol, replaced the costly silver nitrate solution dabbed into newborn babies’ 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 the most important private collection 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.

Barnes started his own academy in a suburb of Philadelphia, where he could control access and be the final arbiter.
He died in a car accident in 1951, leaving no children, and 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 administer 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 photographed in a 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 by filming the venerable museum to look like Castle Grayskull, crouched under lowering clouds.

We’re meant to think of Dr. 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. The modern museum mega-show 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. The important thing is the moment of communion with an artwork, a moment that can 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.