"Where the Barnes Belongs"
Art History III: Revolt, Reform, and Critique
In a course called Art History III: Revolt, Reform, and Critique that covered art history from the Renaissance to the modern period, the class was given an assignment based on the documentary The Art of the Steal. The film centers on the renowned Barnes collection, which is a collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early Modern paintings by such famed artists as Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. The Art of the Steal presents an unabashedly biased and passionate argument against attempts by the city of Philadelphia and The Barnes Foundation itself to relocate the collection from suburban Merion to urban Philadelphia—a move that the film argues ignores a legal Indenture of Trust left by the collection’s namesake Albert Barnes to govern the location and care of the collection. The class assignment was to examine the argument of The Art of the Steal along with counterarguments from the opposing side in order to develop our own stance and write a paper defending it.
In preparation for writing the assignment, I informally conducted a rhetorical analysis on the documentary to familiarize myself with key aspects of the rhetorical situation. I knew that doing so would help me identify the reasoning behind the documentary’s argument and presentation and, in turn, help me determine whether my sympathies lay with the creators of The Art of the Steal or with the city of Philadelphia. For example, if I had concluded that the film was only created to throw insults at the opposition, then I would likely not have been compelled to defend the film’s side of the argument.
The whole context and back story of the legal argument surrounding attempts to move the Barnes collection was clearly laid out in the film: the Barnes collection was originally the private collection of Albert Barnes, who created an Indenture of Trust that would act as the final word on how to maintain the collection after his death. The Barnes Foundation was also established to maintain the related property and finances and to act in the best interests of the collection. However, after various power shifts in the Foundation, the Foundation’s goals began to diverge from those of the Indenture. The audience and purpose, respectively, of the film were equally clear: people interested in art who know about the Barnes collection and its importance, and rouse the passions of those people to defend the art collection against exploitation by Philadelphia.
I felt the film’s heart and argument were in the right place, but I also felt its presentation was too one-sided and zealous to be entirely credible. When writing my paper, “Where the Barnes Belongs: The Legal and Locational Controversy of the Barnes Collection,” I chose to temper The Art of the Steal’s extreme use of pathos with a greater focus on using logos to defend the Barnes collection and Barnes' Indenture of Trust. My argument relies on close analysis of the wording of the Indenture itself, as well as analysis of evidence presented by both sides of the issue, to advance the same ultimate argument as the film. In this way, I highlight the legal concerns of the controversy in a level-headed manner that I hoped could appeal to any interested reader, not just one already biased in my argument’s favor.
I find it striking—even almost ridiculous—how differently The Art of the Steal and my paper address the Barnes collection issue. The film relies on passionate commentary from people who are working to keep the Barnes collection in Merion, with little representation of the Philadelphia side of things. The use of pathos in the film is heavy-handed, though perhaps also effective for a target audience of art lovers and defenders. In contrast, my paper relies much more on analysis and logos to point out that no matter what the reader thinks about art, analysis of the legal document in question suggests Philadelphia does not have the right to move the Barnes collection. The Art of the Steal and “Where the Barnes Belongs” could not be more different in their uses of rhetorical appeals, yet they still advance the same argument. They strongly demonstrate to me how various rhetorical approaches can be used to advance a single argument.