Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The immorality of Dr. Barnes

The immorality of Dr. Barnes stems from his acquisition and control of a vast collection of culturally significant art, and the subsequent enforcement of arrangements of those great works that diminishes their being viewed.

Dr. Barnes is usually described as having been an eccentric, irascible, curmudgeonly genius. These descriptions seem intended to both honor him (the genius part), and to reduce his stature (everything else). His existence no doubt shocked the sensibilities of the cultural elite who had to deal with the blunt approach of a self-made American millionaire art collector. I'm sure there is much truth to this characterization. But whereas I have read dozens of similar accounts of the man, I have yet to hear anyone call him out for something far more serious than simply being a pain in the ass. My thought is, that he was being immoral.

The first and foremost act of immorality by Barnes was his insistence that the art be arranged on the walls of small, poorly lit rooms... and that they be arranged in a very strange way.  Nearly everyone who views the Barnes collection comes away confused about why they are arranged so oddly. Knowing ahead of time that the arrangement corresponded to Barnes specific instructions satisfies most peoples ire, since they can assume that the great man knew what he was doing. One's frustration over the poor arrangement is also quelled by the sheer volume and quality of the works on display. It is hard to argue about placement when you are buzzing with excitement in a room full of masterpieces. It is only after multiple visits that the annoyance of the poor placement begins to grow on you.

The paintings are crammed together in configurations that don't seem to make any sense. As many as a dozen paintings will be on a wall that is not much more than fifteen feet long. These groupings typically place some paintings high above one's eye level, and the groupings typically have a pyramidal shape overall, with a small painting forming the tip of the pyramid, and the larger paintings forming the base. In between the paintings are hung small metal works, often spoons or hinges. On the floor at the base of the wall are typically antique chairs or small tables, or small wooden sculptures.

One is told that these arrangements correspond to ideas Barnes had about how these paintings could best be understood. I think there is literature available that explains the rationale behind Barnes groupings. However, like so so much associated with the Barnes Foundation, this information was not obviously available. Without a written rationale, one is forced to consider why the hell the paintings are grouped so oddly. I had a hard time coming up with any, and I sat there and stared for quite a while, in multiple rooms. After a while, it just became annoying.

I think it is clear that there is no rationale (for the groupings) that can be gleaned by just observing the paintings themselves. This means that the rationale requires a theoretical explanation. But what is the nature of this theory? What theory could possible explain such groupings?

Museums typically arrange the works on well lit, white walls, with enough space between the paintings so that you can get a brief moment of visual quiet between each work. The works are arranged in galleries by various criteria... such as by artist, or by time period, or by theme, etc. These groupings are meant to be logical arrangements that correspond to ways we conceptually understand the works within the history of art. Groupings might cause us to reconsider artworks, but these new interpretations are not visual, they are conceptual.

Of course, all the factors present in the museum will ultimately affect how each viewer reacts to the art. I'm sure that if painting A and painting B are side by side in a gallery, that their proximity will affect how I view them, and will affect how each person views them, to some degree or another. And I'm sure that there is some combined experience I have of the paintings, since they are side by side. But such an affect is simply inherent in viewing things in the world. Unless you view things in a vacuum, you are affected by the environment. But again, this is not a significant effect.

Museum arrangements are not meant to produce new visual meanings. If painting A and painting B are placed side by side, we might KNOW that they are related by being in proximity in the same gallery (they are logically related). However, we would not presume that the perception of painting A materially affects the perception of painting B (or that B affects A)... and we don't presume that painting A and B taken together produce some combined, synergistic affect.

One can always produce a theory ad hoc in order to rationalize any arrangement of paintings. One could also produce a theory after long contemplation, and use that theory to arrange those same paintings. But I have to conclude that there is no way to produce a theory of how to group a large collection of paintings in a series of small rooms in the manner that Barnes has done, with the assertion that the arrangement is a significant aspect of viewing the art.

Any theory of how to arrange paintings so as to communicate various meanings of the pieces (either singularly, or in groups) necessarily assumes that the aspects of the paintings can serve as elements in a system of communication. But there are two problems with this.

The first problem is that artworks are too complex to be broken down into a finite system. When one considers all the aspects of paintings that could serve as a guide to their placement, the number of aspects is large, and the ways those aspects could be related is exponentially large.  For instance, each painting has a size, an artist who created it, a subject matter, a palette, a manner of painting, a time it was painted, a reason it was painted, etc. And for each of these obvious aspects, they can be broken down into more detailed considerations. If you took only two paintings, and compared the complex aspects of each to the other, the resulting analysis would be quite complex. And even if you mastered that complexity, I'm not sure how it would guide you in placing them on a wall. When you add to this the further complexities of the rooms themselves, of lighting, and foot traffic... there is literally no way to know how groupings will be understood by the viewer. Therefore, unless one uses a the kinds of conceptual arrangement used by museums, there is no way to assert  a placement other than to assert a subjective point of view.

I believe that this is the case. I believe that Barnes arranged the paintings in a largely subjective manner. He placed them the way that he liked them, in a way that made sense to him at the time. This does not make the placement random, or nonsensical.  I'm sure he thought long and hard about placement, and that he filtered his ideas on placement through his very rational and theoretical mind... a veritable model of objectivity in that regard.  However, at the end of the day, his placement reflects his own understanding of his theories, and of the art works, and of the space. These perspectives are uniquely his own, and while I'm sure they are well considered, that does not mean they can be understood either conceptually or perceptually by anyone else.

If you need to be told why something is arranged as it is, it means that it was not apparent in the simple viewing of it. Knowing the reason behind an arrangement may add to the pleasure of viewing it, or it may not. And while we're on the subject I should ask, what is it that we're viewing? Are we meant to view the artworks, or are we meant to view their arrangement?

Are we viewing artworks or arrangements? That is, are we meant to view to the artworks within the context of their being arranged, or are we meant to view an arrangement of objects that happen to be artworks?

If it is the latter reason, then Barnes is trying to insinuate his power of arranging into the display of art masterpieces. The conceit implicit in that is disturbing. Let's assume that Barnes didn't take it to that level. Let's assume he meant the former reason, that art should be viewed within the context of his arrangement. This is a little better, because at least the art is being given primary importance (or so it seems).

But the problem here is that we are forced to consider his arrangement even while we are viewing the art. When you view the art at the Barnes Foundation, you can't view the art without sensing the invisible hand of Dr. Barnes. And mostly this invisible hand is not good. As was stated before, many of the artworks are physically uncomfortable to look at. Small works are placed to high up, so you have to crane your neck to see them. Some small works are kind-of jammed into narrow dark spaces, often right next to door jambs, such that to view them is to block the door. You then have to keep one eye out for other people who want to walk through the door. The lighting is very poor in some rooms, to the point where some of the walls are in shadow, and the art on them suffers. Some masterworks are out-of-the-way, while lesser works enjoy a pride of place.

None of this makes any sense. To reiterate... I can't imagine any theory that could justify these things. What kind of theory of art would mandate that small paintings be jammed into a small wall-space by a door jamb, or that they be placed well overhead? I have to give Dr. Barnes more credit than to think he would concoct such an odd theory. But if it isn't part of the theory, then where does it come from?

For an answer, let's move from the lofty world of theory and drop down to everyday experience. Rather than imaging some deep intellectual process, let's imagine something else. And what is a lot easier to imagine is the image of the eccentric, irascible, and curmudgeonly Dr. Barnes... amassing a large collection of art, and slowly filling his home with it. As the home fills over time, the art gets placed here or there. I'm sure things get arranged and rearranged over time as well. And I'm sure that he applies some ideas about where things should go. And over time, these various arrangements (which emanate from Barnes's mind) begin to feel like second nature to him... begin to feel right... begin to feel inevitable and correct.

We can all imagine such a thing happening in our own lives, in our own homes where we exercise god-like control over the space and the objects in it. One need only imagine one's own bedroom (for example) and how we come to put out clothes into various closets and drawers. Certainly we have theories for where to put every object of clothing, but over time the actual manner in which we store our clothes comes to reflect not simply some theory, but of other aspects of our life that the theory doesn't explain. Some cloths end up on the floor, or draped over a chair. Socks end up in a non-sock drawer, shoes end up under the bed rather than in shoe rack, etc.

If we can step back from our own lives and view our own bedrooms, we see that there is a disconnect between our theory of placement, and how things come to be placed.  If we are asked to give a theory of "How things came to be placed" (vs. where they should be placed)... we are hard pressed to explain it in theoretical terms. After all, how does one contain (in a theory) all the moments of getting dressed and undressed, and how those moments led to where things came to be placed. And even if we did come up with an abstract explanation of how all these objects came to be where they are, that theory would be equivalent to explaining our own subjective nature. It would not be a theory of object placement, but rather a theory of how we come to place objects.

I believe this is analogous to Barnes, who begins with a theory of how the art should be arranged, but ends up with an arrangement that has more to do with his own subjective issues as they arose over time. He is too proud or stubborn to admit this, and instead asserts that his arrangements are fully theoretical and objective.  But that is an evasion, and a lie... and immoral. If we were to assert theories about our bedrooms, the impact would be small, affecting only ourselves. But when you're talking about a priceless collection of culturally relevant masterworks of art, the immorality of it escalates, as it affects everyone.

So this is the primary immorality of Dr. Barnes... that he would enforce an arrangement of these great works of art that diminishes their being viewed.

Earlier, I said that there were two problems with assuming that aspects of paintings can serve as elements in a system of communication, and I reviewed the first problem, that of complexity. The second problem is one of intent.

To produce a communication model from a collection of syntactic elements distilled from paintings must necessarily ignore the fact that the creators of those very paintings are generally not aware of this. In which case, the theoretician views the paintings not as ends in themselves (which is the nature and purpose from the artists point of view) but rather as means to the end of constructing explanations of the group of paintings. This is the work of the art historian or critic, and while not invalid as such, it flirts always with overstepping the boundary between understanding the work in itself, and distorting and/or failing to see the work in the effort to place it within a group.

Written texts will tend to overstep in the direction of over conceptualizing and fitting works into groups, which though unfortunate, is probably just in the nature of writing about art. But to overstep in this way when displaying the art is extremely unfortunate. The display of art is not a conceptual venue. To assert a conceptual model is to override the inherent meaning of artworks (as singular, ends in themselves) and to substitute one's own understanding of them. No matter how well intentioned or well reasoned that understanding is, it can never be as relevant as the works themselves... works which (for their proper viewing)... ask only that they be understood as ends in themselves. A collection of masterpiece paintings requires only a fairly neutral context in which to be viewed. To create a venue loaded with theoretical implications is to step in front of the art works, and thereby diminish their status.

This kind of move is pure arrogance. For Barnes to think that his theoretical spin on the art was even in the same league as the works themselves is disturbing. To amass such a significant collection and to keep it from the public, and to require that they view it under idiosyncratic conditions, is to reject the very idea of culture. Certainly the paintings are private property, and Barnes had no legal duty to share the paintings or to arrange them properly. But this kind of argument is the last gasp of someone who doesn't get it. It is to literally hide behind the law in order to avoid this truth... that morality often requires that we do something that we aren't required to do, or to not do something that we have to power to do. Knowing the difference is key. Barnes could have attached his name to a more elegant legacy if he had had to wisdom to step out of his own way... to relinquish his power of control in order to let the power of great art carry the day.

No comments:

Post a Comment