Thursday, December 27, 2012

Barnes Foundation: New vs. Old vs. Whatever

Is it possible to find fault with the new Barnes without rhapsodizing the old?

The Merion location was unquestionably less accessible, and the process for gaining admittance seemed intentionally obscured to discourage visitation. Once there, the process of parking and getting into the collection was overseen by a band of Blue-Hairs and Mainline types trying to substitute elocution and neat handwriting for efficient management.

So puh-lease, don’t glorify the stodgy, dusty, old Barnes.

Having said that, I do agree that the new Barnes is an uninspiring tourist attraction, created by the one-percenters as a feather in their civic caps. I too find the entrance confusing and oddly cramped behind the gigantic doors that have a very tight turning radius, thus requiring significant heft to open.

It’s unfortunate that there is no “front door” onto the grand Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as a front door onto a grand boulevard would be in keeping with grand boulevard logic in general. Why put a museum on a grand boulevard, and have the entrance on a side street?

I also agree that the museum should have just re-engineered the space to show the works in more conventional ways, so that I don’t have to crane my neck to see paintings that are 9 feet off the ground, simply because that was the best spot for it in the over-crowded mansion. There can be no doubt that the ensemble arrangements of Dr. Barnes… though thoughtful and educated in their conception… are not bigger than the works themselves, nor bigger than the alternate arrangements that scholars of future generations may require. The pompous, unquestioned regard for these arrangements is nauseating, and you have to hear it intoned repeatedly at the Barnes if you are unlucky enough to be within earshot of guided tours.

Here’s a fun fact that supports the supposition that art museums are simply playthings of rich, with only lip service to any deeper meanings. The fact is… you CANNOT DRAW or SKETCH in the Barnes galleries. This is an absurdity, especially considering that all of the artists in the collection would have regularly visited museums and drawn from the masters. To disallow it in the Barnes is to ignore the history of art education… and this from a supposed master of art education.

A principle conceit of the Barnes is that they presume to have the authoritative approach to educating the public on how to view and understand the art in the collection. Having “A Way” to understand something is fine… the more the merrier… but to claim to have “The Way” is disturbing. It announces an institutional insularity that is inconsistent with the ongoing efforts of hundreds of other intellectuals and institutions.

The only good thing about the Barnes Foundation is the art itself. The non-conformist Barnes (relatively speaking, for an industrial millionaire) imbued his foundation with an authoritarianism and exclusivity (albeit non-conformist exclusivity) that have cultivated (over time) a stale culture of maintaining the dream of a dead man, wherein the great art has been viewed an accessory to Dr. Barnes success in collecting it.

Organizational ruin was inevitable given the stakes involved, and the resulting New Barnes tourist site is a fitting memorial to the money and power that usurps all other values in this society.

No comments:

Post a Comment