Monday, March 5, 2012

Movie Monday: The Art of the Steal

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This week's movie is the 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal!

This movie--which I only knew a little about--was sitting in my Netflix queue for months. One night, Darlin' Tracy and I put on a documentary ostensibly about New York City, which sounded interesting to us. Within a few minutes though, we realized that film was not so much about the city as it was a particularly annoying, long-winded NYC resident. When it became clear he was going to be the center of the film, we mutually decided we couldn't sit through it and turned it off.

Still in a documentary mood, we decided to give The Art of the Steal a shot; and boy were we glad we did!
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The Art of Steal initially tells us the story of Albert Barnes, a born-and-raised Philadelphian who, thanks to vast wealth from a invention that took off like a rocket, was at the proverbial right place at the right time, and managed to amass a collection of Post-Impressionist art that, over the years, came to be worth in the billions of dollars. The film has numerous scenes of the stunning work as it hung in the Barnes Foundation:
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Years before they're work was appreciated in America, Barnes collected dozens of works by Matisse, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Renoir, and many other important artists. One year he put together a showing, and the then-cognoscenti of the art world blasted the work, which infuriated Barnes. A lifelong Democrat and self-made millionaire, he clearly didn't fit in with the class of people he was now a part of, and came to resent their "anti-intellectualism" and lack of understanding about the other parts of society.

The film features several short clips of home movies of Barnes, who during all this back story looks like a crabby, kinda miserable guy:
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But it turns out beneath that taciturn exterior lay the heart of truly kind soul, one of class and taste. Barnes opened his own museum in Lower Merion (a suburb of Philadelphia) and arranged the jaw-dropping collection of art in less formal, more personal style. Hating the self-important detachment of most museums, he crafted his collection to be appreciated by the viewer, rather than have a third party in the middle, explaining why any given painting was important.

Over the years, the world caught up to Barnes', and the monetary value of his collection skyrocketed. Museums and the hoi polloi of Philadelphia begged Barnes for him to share his collection with them; he refused. He turned his museum into a school, giving students access to some of the greatest works of art in history. He also allowed anyone to come and visit the work, but they almost exclusively had to be a regular, middle- or lower-income person; requests to see the work from millionaires were almost always refused.
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Barnes' lawyer, John Johnson, had also managed to cultivate quite a collection. But due to an insufficiently crafted will, Johnson's collection was taken over by The Philadelphia Museum of Art, an institution both Barnes and Johnson despised. Seeing how his friends' wishes were ignored after death, Barnes put together a detailed, iron clad set of instructions about his collection, demanding it never be split up, sold, or put on tour as a moneymaking enterprise. Not having any children, he entrusted his wife and then one of his favorite, most trusted students to make sure the collection stayed where it was--in Lower Merion--and be used in the way he intended.

Its at this point that The Art of Steal becomes as close as a talking-head documentary can to a white-knuckle thriller. You care so much about this collection of art, and have so come to appreciate the love, taste, and intelligence that built it, that you dread what's going to happen next.

Eventually, the Barnes Collection is taken over by someone who decides, in order to "save" it, to do the exact thing Barnes didn't want: to put it out on tour, all over the world, where it rakes in millions of dollars and is viewed by the upper crust:
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I don't generally think of myself as a class warrior, but I will admit that watching footage (like you see above) of the super-rich enjoying the Barnes Collection, glasses of champagne in hand, made my blood boil. Sequestering the art, making it the wallpaper for a society event, does such a disservice to the work that I felt like we were watching a tragedy take place.

Its a testament to the work of the filmmakers, but most especially director Don Argott, that they are able to stir such passions over what some would consider a pretty small issue, in terms of the kinds of stuff documentaries typically cover (the Holocaust, Hurricane Katrina, our food supply, etc.). Argott uses some interesting visual tricks in some scenes, like when playing the audio of an interview with one of the people accused of trying to get their hands on the Barnes' paintings:
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Now, this interview was recorded in the mid-90s, long after compact discs were introduced, and there were half a dozen different ways to present this audio. But by using an old, beat-up, out-of-date tape recorder, the film gives this interview--which is fairly bland--a sort of secretive, back room kind of feel, like Oliver Stone did with JFK. Its an effective directorial sleight of hand.

After much legal rangling, lawsuits, lies, distortions, and PR campaigns, the Barnes Collection is legally allowed to be removed from its home. The film ends with those fighting to keep the paintings in Merion losing their final court case, and the groundwork being laid for their new home in Center City Philly:
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The Art of the Steal is decidedly one-sided; it has a POV that it wears on it sleeve. To be fair to the filmmakers, almost every single one of the people who were on the other side of the argument were invited to be in the film, but declined. And if you look at this story just in the broad strokes, it sounds like those who want the paintings moved are being completely reasonable. Its only by digging deeper that you see that this is a case of a small number of powerful, rich people deciding they can invalidate the wishes of one man, but still use his name in the promotion of that effort.

I have to admit, having been born in Philly and lived in the tri-state are almost my entire life, I felt like a cultural illiterate having never even heard this story. It filled endless newspaper columns over the last several decades, was about art, yet it was completely off my radar. So, if nothing else, I have The Art of the Steal to thank for educating me on this very compelling subject.

As I said above, this whole issue is not quite as titanic as the movie makes it out to be; its a testament to the film that, as you watch it, you feel like its The Most Important Thing Ever. It would be interesting to see these same filmmakers take on a fictional story and see if their skills would translate. If they did, it make for one hell of a ride!


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