Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's effort got to do with it?

Apparently "The Art of the Steal" is being shown on the BBC (under the title "Billion Dollar Art Heist"), which has generated some press over there.  An article in the Telegraph, for instance, poses the question "if more people will now see Barnes’s art, isn’t that ultimately more significant than perpetuating an old man’s grudges?" and it's worth unpacking director Don Argott's answer.  "There are enough art galleries that cater to the convenience of the tourist," he says.  But "with the Barnes you had to make an effort. That was part of the experience. It was the product of a unique vision, and now it’s gone it can never be replaced."

There seem to be two separate thoughts strung together there.  One is in the last sentence -- the Barnes is the product of a unique vision and can't be replaced.  Given that the collection remains intact, and the arrangement of the works will be precisely replicated in the new location, that doesn't seem to me to be a persuasive answer to the question.

The rest of the answer amounts to the claim that it's actually better to have a few people see the collection after "making an effort" than a lot of people see it without any effort (as if they now can roll out of bed and just kind of stumble into the museum).  You hear this sort of thing a lot from opponents of the move, but what does it really mean?  Let's say there's some group of people -- Group X -- who, if the Barnes hadn't moved, would have "made the effort" to see the collection (which I guess means ordering tickets and driving four-and-a-half miles to Merion; serious effort).  After the move, Group X can still see the work; they're no worse off.  But now a whole other, presumably larger group of people -- Group Y -- will also be able to see the work.  These are the people who would not have "made the effort" to go to Merion but, now that the collection has been moved to downtown Philadelphia and therefore requires no effort to see, will visit.  This group is better off.  So what's the problem?  Is the objection to the move really that the first group -- the effort-makers -- are deprived of the chance to expend some effort?  Or is the idea that it's wrong to reward the second group -- the non-effort-makers -- by letting them see the collection?

I don't think Argott has answered the question.