Who determines what is fine art and what is not? Why does it matter who painted a particular piece? Are museums like zoos for inanimate objects? These questions and others have been asked or are inspired by recent documentaries about the art world, including Don Argott's The Art of the Steal, which opens this weekend in theaters and debuts today on IFC On Demand.
If you've ever been interested in art -- or, if you've at least been to an art museum before (who hasn't?) -- please do yourself a favor and check this new film out. Then come back here and contribute to the Doc Talk discussion. Other films I recommend seeing are My Kid Could Paint That and Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollack?, both of which have altered my perception of fine art and the art world from what I grew up with.
From birth I was raised on galleries, museums and art lessons. I come from a family of artistic individuals, both professional and non. And my schoolmates consistently labeled me "Class Artist." Yet the whole topic of art has always been tricky for me. I've consistently had conflicting views on art, hated theory and pretentious art world B.S., and I never felt the need to defend, critically, why my favorite painters are as disparate as Van Gogh, Miro, Parrish, my brother and Bierstadt.
I had as much interest in commercial illustration (including of course a love for movie poster design), the kind my father made a living at, as the works of the masters. Meanwhile, I always found the idea of standing in line for hours to see the Mona Lisa, just because it's the Mona Lisa, to be pretty lame. Nothing against the academic art world, really (I do cherish what art history education I've had), but I don't like how it dictates to the masses -- part of this being the fault of the masses, I know -- what is important and valuable art (and certainly the same can be said for cinema).
But I'm getting beside the point. My personal exposure to and attitude towards art (specific works, the concept of art, the branding of art, whatever) is not important. All I mean to do is point out my background before admitting that in spite of my cultured and contemplative existence, I still never really pondered some of the most interesting issues about art, which are raised by the documentaries I mention above -- and boy do I love a film that makes me completely rethink a topic or issue -- and I doubt most basic and casual art appreciators have either.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, The Art of the Steal is a very one-sided doc, aligned with a group of devoted artists and scholars in their fight against evil bureaucrats and rich, snobby types over the control of one dead man's enormous and very valuable art collection. The works were compiled mostly in the early 20th century by the wealthy pharmaceutical developer Albert C. Barnes while he was, as the film implies, one of the few Americans to actually appreciate contemporary artists such as Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne and Picasso.
And Barnes alone knew the best way -- aesthetically, educationally and rebelliously -- how and for what purpose these works should be seen (Matisse supposedly concurred). They certainly weren't to leave their home, an estate set up as an educational Foundation outside of Philadelphia, especially not for commercial exploitation. And none of the collection was to be viewed by the aristocratic elite, members of which only suddenly took an interest in modern art once it was deemed socially and critically accepted. Unfortunately for Barnes' legacy, over the course of the sixty years since his death, the Foundation and its art collection have in fact been moved and been taken over by the very sort of people he despised.
Mostly this "scandal of the modern art world" story concerns an issue of wills and trusts (seeing it just after J.D. Salinger died made me fear the author will be similarly violated). And my primary reason for being such a big fan of The Art of the Steal that it contains an arousing David versus Goliath narrative with a fascinating ensemble of protagonists -- my favorite being art dealer Richard Feigen, who's one of the most awesome snobs I've ever seen -- and villains. To get an idea of how these villains come across in the movie, try to imagine that The Art of the Steal is a video game, in which the size and difficulty of the bad guys are increased with each level.
So the issues and questions concerning the art world, particularly with regards to how money affects it, are sort of a bonus -- at least for me. I was particularly drawn to the way Argott brings up or broadens the argument on some of these issues through the tiered presentation of the Foundation's enemies. After a lower-level threat or conflict is surpassed, relativity and perspective come into play and throw a wrench into the simplicity of the debate. For instance, former Barnes Foundation president Richard Glanton, who sent the collection out into the world on its first tour, and Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell, are each separately first depicted as threats and antagonists to Barnes' wishes and the Foundation in general. But ultimately they come across more favorably and justified as protectors, or at least the better of evils, in relation to the film's final villains.
Yet as much as I keep referring to the conclusive bad guys as such, this is purely in narrative and subjective terms. In some ways -- and this is why I can't stop thinking about this movie -- the people violating Barnes' will and legacy are heroes for the works themselves. Yes, I'll admit it: I'd like to see some of the paintings in Barnes' collection. And yes, I'll agree that the decision to move the art to another location, for commercial exploitation, may be great for the preservation and appreciation of the pieces in the long run. To me, though, it's like the debate about zoos, in which I also tend to have trouble taking a clear side. Are zoo's good for the preservation of animal species? But are they also cruel and exploitive prisons for these living creatures? Sure, sure.
This pro and con struggle with the Barnes Foundation and the art world in general is a contemplation that will continue racking my brain for a long time, joining these other favorite art world debates from documentaries: Does it matter who painted something, whether a master or a four-year-old or her father or whomever, if you the resultant work is great -- or, more importantly if you like it? (again, see My Kid Could Paint That) Is a piece of art only valuable because the art experts say it is, and more specifically is a Pollack a Pollack because art historians and dealers know it to be, and anything lost in the shuffle of history -- due to poor or lack of cataloguing -- and possibly found for sale for a mere $5 at a tag sale, is -- even if indeed painted by Pollack -- by technicality, worthless as a result? (again, see Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollack).
By all means comment with your answers to these questions or your thoughts on the issues, but only as they relate to the films I mention (this is not Artimatical; it's a movie blog). I'd prefer that we discuss the subgenre of art world films (are there any others you recommend?), their specific issues and how they're presented or discussed. And again, go watch The Art of Steal on VOD asap!