Monday, March 08, 2010

Off the Wagon

I know I said I would take a break from "The Art of the Steal," but a few interesting pieces appeared over the weekend that are worth noting.

First, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Barnes chairman Bernard Watson says the film is an example of "voodoo history": "The film would have the public believe that the Philadelphia philanthropic community, the Barnes' trustees, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Inquirer itself, were all engaged in a conspiracy hatched well over a decade ago to 'steal' the collection . . . ." But: "As has always been the case, the collection belongs to the Barnes Foundation, and no one else. You can't 'steal' something that you already own."

He concludes: "One thing is perfectly clear. You can never influence the opinion of those who would prefer to believe in a 'vast conspiracy' rather than face reality. The Barnes Foundation was on the brink of bankruptcy, and those who came to its help do not deserve to be vilified, but should be praised for their extraordinary public service."

Also in the Inquirer, classical music critic Peter Dobrin, who believes that "something will be lost" in the move, nevertheless labels the film "documentary-as-propaganda": "The aim here isn't balanced exposition so much as a sharp elevation of the viewer's blood pressure." (He later points out that "the menacing music is more appropriate to an exposé of a military junta than the moving of an art collection.") And he notes some of the many contradictions in the movie:

"The Art of the Steal rails against the commercialization of art, yet repeatedly marvels at how many billions of dollars the Barnes Foundation is worth.

"The film bristles at the power and elitism of the Art Establishment. Opponents of the Barnes' move to the Parkway, however, manage to come across as just elitists of another stripe.

"Talkers state their case as one that unfolded with the media asleep at the switch. Yet they repeatedly rely on facts uncovered by - the media. Without slow pans across newspaper clips, half the film's suspense would drain away."

He also says "I would never rate one kind of art-viewing experience as superior to another, yet this film presumes a hierarchy of experiences - Barnes acolytes get moral authority, everyone else not so much." (Some related thoughts here.)

Finally, the Washington Post's Philip Kennicott uses the film as a springboard to examine the issue of one-sided documentaries generally. First, here's how he summarizes the history that led to the move:

"The Barnes indenture ... was fatally misconceived, with crippling limits on how his money could be invested. Quixotic and even irresponsible management drove the foundation near the point of insolvency, which is when Pew and other foundations stepped in. Working with the Barnes Foundation board of directors ... the groups helped save the foundation from financial ruin. But they're also helping with a move into a new home under construction on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where it will be more accessible (scheduled to open in 2012)."

He then moves on to the question of what documentary filmmakers owe their viewers in the way of balance. He quotes the film's director, Don Argott, as saying "we never positioned ourselves as people who were hostile and had any agenda," and says in reply:

"But his film is hostile and has an agenda. It uses a well-developed set of polemical techniques -- ominous music, imputations of dark motives, ad hominem interviews -- to connect only the dots that make its case. . . . In many cases, films about evil -- genocide, torture, bigotry -- don't include 'the other side' because the other side deserves no hearing. Argott's film is different. There is another side that needs to be heard, and the truth of the larger Barnes drama lies between them."