Monday, March 15, 2010

The Art of the Steal

Documentaries recently have been mostly about "fighting a power" or "bemoaning a current state of affairs." What I'm saying is the shift has been away from documentaries like "Murderball" and "Man on Wire," in which the subject is not something that "needs your help." "The Art of the Steal" I think definitely falls into step with "Food, Inc." and "The Cove," (as well as "We Live in Public") as a film that is really, really mad about something and wants you to be mad about it too. This would be the Barnes Collection's much-opposed transition from "suburban" Merion to Philadelphia. More money would be made off of it, and more people would get to see it.

But when one says "see," one doesn't necessarily mean "appreciate." This is what Albert C. Barnes was all about. He made money off of a cure for venereal disease and spent it on artworks that (I believe) at the time didn't cost anywhere near what they would now. He "amassed" "more Cezannes than the city of Paris," and large numbers of Renoir and Matisse, as well as Picasso. He was (as a friend said) "picky," and only bought a certain bunch. And that certain bunch as of late? Perhaps even billions of dollars.

He showcased it personally one time, in Philadelphia. When many were very critical of it, he decided never to allow it out of Merion again (only shown two days a week to the public and all the time only to students of the museum). But not everyone agreed with his sequestering. (This documentary itself is, as said before by maybe Owen Gleiberman, "less about the art and more about the steal.") And many have tried to get ahold of it and show it to everyone, not because they want people to enjoy it, but because they want to generate more revenue. "If Barnes wanted" (as one interviewee noted) "a quality experience" instead of "a mass experience," he was not being served well. (Also worth mentioning is how he wanted the collection to be “democratic” and how this could have been a result of, as my friend talked about, “his negative relationship” with the hypocritical Republican Philadelphia Inquirer head who wanted the collection for himself and who eventually wanted his own art collection to be treated as respectfully as Barnes had wanted his to be.)

The documentary itself is sort of one-note, with a lot of people getting angry and many shots of Barnes' will getting colored over with a black marker. It takes an anti-move-to-Philadelphia standpoint. Most of the interviewees have this same notion as well. There are two or three we see who have the other point of view, including one-time Barnes president Richard Glanton (who toured the art around the world) and one-time mayor Ed Rendell. Both are painted in an unattractive light by the others. Then again, Glanton did press "racial prejudice" charges against people who lived near to the Barnes (who were fed up about all of the visitors being brought in, as at one point the Barnes was made into a bigger experience when it was still in Merion) because they said in separate sentences "Glanton and his people" and "carpetbaggers."

On the one hand, the "Friends of Barnes" are right: the Barnes collection is Albert Barnes' and "he can do with it as he pleases." And his will does say that he wants it kept exactly where it is for all time. But then again, he does have a ton of amazing art that is being burrowed away and closed off from a lot of people. People could visit it on the two days given, but that's a sort of narrow window. Also, this guy assumes that no one will appreciate it for what it is, but then again, that's not necessarily true. He only gave the wide world one chance, and when they didn't like it, that was the end (not forever, however, as Glanton's tour proved).

Look at me, talking away about this subject I know nothing about. Good for director Don Argott to have done this. His documentary skills aren't perfect, though. This is a film very overstylized, with the footage shown through virtual TVs and other things. Also, we get filler footage of Philadelphia and also of the director not being granted access to certain things. "Beating on the establishment" hopefully makes the viewer not notice these things. “The Art of the Steal” has the potential to be quite good, but is too typical. I recommend one to see it on the basis of its “subject matter,” which is exactly how these documentaries are. A film like this makes one think about the art of the documentary being stolen (“activist filmmakers” being the Philadelphia of the equation) and turned into just an outlet for people mad about current affairs to sound off. Not that they can’t do that, but if this type of film is all that I have to look forward to for the rest of my filmgoing days, I’m a little depressed. B


Literary Dreamer said...

Just proves that when there's money to be made, people will create loopholes, even if there aren't any.

I'd be interested in seeing a documentary made on all of the paintings and sculptures illegally smuggled out of their home countries so that they could be shown in European (and possibly American) museums. I do agree, however, that there are other subjects that documentaries can and should tackle, and different styles that they can employ. Otherwise, it would be the equivalent of Hollywood only making horror movies.

Adelaide Dupont said...

Your evaulation of the documentary trends of recent times (the last year and so) is very well warranted.