Why do contemporary American documentaries tend to shy away from the character ambiguities that are so productive for fictional cinema? Is it that the talking heads who inhabit these films happen to be real people and not scripted characters, and the directors fear coming across as morally irresponsible should they neglect to segregate the villains and heroes with a golden ruler? Or is it that the contemporary documentary, as an aesthetic form, simply requires a certain kind of reductive logic to create filmic tension where there might otherwise be only discourse? Either way, the surfeit of certainty and self-congratulatory humanism in the normative doc tends to put me off, or remind me of Godard’s grumpy insight that Michael Moore is, in reality, only a hair more intelligent than the corporate blockheads he skewers.

Art of the Steal Don Argott 2009

But if that sounds like the acerbic preface to a negative review, let me turn it around. Yes, Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal—a filmic exposé of one of the biggest slow-brewing coup d’états the art world has seen in recent history—suffers from a mild case of Moore syndrome, but the story Argott is telling and the acuity with which he tells it accomplish what any good piece of nonfiction cinema should, trusting that the subject matter is compelling enough to let it organize and lead the form, for editor and audience alike.

At the center of this compelling firestorm is the $25 billion art collection belonging to the late Albert C. Barnes, a Renaissance man from a working-class Pennsylvania background who, after making his fortune by discovering, of all things, a treatment for venereal disease, went on to amass an unparalleled collection of Postimpressionist and early modern art. A cultural idealist, ahead of his time, Barnes read John Dewey and Bertrand Russell and came to form an aesthetic philosophy that valued an artwork’s didactic potential over and against what he perceived as the shallow commercial interests of the blue-blood Philadelphia art establishment. Instead of playing ball with the in-crowd, for which the notoriously misanthropic collector had nothing but disdain, Barnes built a home for his art in a pastoral suburb outside of Philadelphia. There he created an idiosyncratic installation of Cézannes, Matisses, Gauguins, and Picassos (the list goes on), and stipulated in his trust that the works should never be moved but remain there for all time, for the purpose of educating small groups of students (upon reservation and at limited capacity).

Art of the Steal documentary

Where the controversy begins is that, since Barnes’s death, owing to some elaborate white-collar pirateering, the collection was not only moved but toured, and is currently slated to be relocated to downtown Philadelphia to serve as a source of cultural revenue for the city. Not the worst thing in the world perhaps, but not what Barnes or his disciples had in mind.

Argott lays out how this all came to be with a tight mix of historical footage, specialist commentary, and requisite Ken Burns–style effects, covering the greater part of the 20th century to create a genealogy of greedy politicians, clever lawyers, and former enemies of Barnes who, all together, managed to erode the legacy of this most philosophically original of art collectors. Whether or not this documentary will succeed in buoying the coalition opposing the current re-location is, for the moment, up in the air, but Argott has made a worthwhile contribution to a controversy that deserves an audience—if only to prevent other instances of cultural hijacking.