The Art of the Steal

4 out of 5 stars
The Art of the Steal

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Is it possible for a director to make a worthy movie—even an ingenious one—despite his own intentions? From its title onward, Don Argott’s aggressively whiny documentary announces itself as a cry of conscience against a crime: a massive theft in broad daylight. At stake is the priceless painting collection of the Barnes Foundation, established in the 1920s after its founder made a fortune in antiseptics. Albert Barnes (“a brilliant kid who came up out of the smoke,” says one interviewee) was burned by the Philadelphia art critics who didn’t understand his taste in French Impressionism. He took his work to the suburbs and never looked back.

Still, it’s this man (now deceased), a grudge-bearer who largely forbade public admission to his gallery, who’s meant to be our hero; The Art of the Steal piles on the cute shots of Barnes with his dog, and steers our snoborific rage toward the city’s municipal players who successfully broke his will so they could transport the collection downtown. Essentially, it’s elitism against populism—what’s worse? The mallification of high culture or those who would stubbornly fight to keep it exclusive? Argott knows which side he’s on, and takes Pennsylvania legislators to task for orchestrating a nonprofit asset grab.

But despite the unsubtlety of the movie’s stance, a dizzyingly complex portrait emerges: that of pissed-off museum neighbors, arrogant critics and even the NAACP’s dignified Julian Bond, articulating a racial component. (Barnes originally left control to Lincoln University, a minority school.) Ultimately, the matter is a legal one—how durable are our property rights? The prickliness of the doc will stay with you long after its sour hysteria fades.—Joshua Rothkopf

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