If Bansky’s Exit Through the Gift Shop slyly examines a personal descent into the absurdities hounding the modern art scene, Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal drops a wider net, bluntly dissecting the political corruption and moral compromises pushing metropolitan museums into the realm of big business. While both are kindred cinematic spirits, ideologically aligned by a palpable anger at the desecration of good taste, The Art of the Steal feels far more enraged at this prospect of decay. The singular anger seething from every interview and chapter heading makes the film more approachable as an exposé of corporate and political greed, but also less engaging as a piece of revelatory nonfiction, leaving little doubt to the identity of the heroes and villains.
Using a linear narrative timeline, The Art of the Steal begins with a nicely constructed archival introduction to Dr. Albert Barnes, a American scientist who made his fortune in the early 20th century collecting paintings by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, and Van Gogh before the artists were widely popular. A devotee of art history and education, Barnes established a foundation and school in Merion, Pennsylvania to house his epic collection, allowing educators and students to experience the profound works in an intimate setting. This credo went directly against the Philadelphia oligarchy urging Barnes to donate his collection to the prestigious Museum of Modern Art. Argott shows in great detail the tense, decades-long power struggle between these competing ideologies, all culminating in a bitter legal battle waged in the headlines of major newspapers and art magazines all over the country. Throughout the film, relentless commerce trumps the purity of artistic creation, and the iconic paintings get lost in the shuffle due to the seedy collusion between nonprofit organizations and a corrupt elitist system jockeying for control of the most famous private art collection in the world.
A myriad of opinionated defenses by art critics, ex-students of the Barnes Foundation, and loyal devotees allow Argott to clearly side against the capitalistic urges of the museum scene. He vilifies the establishment of false charity by revealing their ulterior motives lying just beneath the lengthy trail of red tape, legal pronouncements, and media ploys. The Art of the Steal attempts to take back control of these iconic pieces of art history by shooting volley after volley of damning critiques into the bow of the powerful enemy. But most of the time the voiceless villains seem more annoyed by the filmmaking team than genuinely threatened. To say these abrasive, arrogant aristocrats are firmly entrenched in their doctrine of artistic prostitution would be an understatement, mainly because they actually believe their thievery is for the good of the people.
Delusion seems to infect every part of The Art of the Steal, emboldening both the codified honor of the purists and the self-righteousness of the powerful political playmakers. But Argott comes to a dramatic stalemate late in the film, never finding a remarkable figure on either side to latch onto and give his film a dynamic finale. It’s tough to admit, but there’s no equivalent to the scrappy old Barnes and his serpentine hatred for the smug socialites lurking mere miles away from his natural haven of learning. The depressing, if not inevitable outcome hinders any chance for realistic hope, and the film walks a fascinating tightrope for so long it would have been far more fulfilling to find some silver lining in the form of a real prophet for the collection.
Instead, The Art of the Steal becomes a generational battle between familiar foes tackling classic conflicts. Argott’s film finds inspiration in deep-seated anger against obvious injustice, but little sympathy in the eyes of the mass public watching the burgle take place. Compared to Bansky’s incredibly personal dichotomy between the overlap of fame, fortune, and talent, The Art of the Steal feels somewhat stuffy, like an angry old man yelling at the wind. The greatest tragedy of all is that the final credits don’t bring a sense of resiliency, instead instilling an overarching doubt toward the hope for future clashes. After such a glaring robbery of artistic history and taste, one would think there would be a greater public outcry at the bastardization of the Barnes Collection. The Art of the Steal never fully finds that singularly persuasive voice.
A standard transfer without any major deficiencies and a few highlights, most notably the crispness and clarity of the video interviews, which also hold true to the vibrant colors on display. Archival footage of the Barnes Collection is stunning in its range and scope, offering more than enough haunting imagery to last multiple movies. The sound mix lacks any glaring errors, but resides on the soft side throughout most of the film.
A meager trailer is the only extra in sight, an incredibly sad fact considering the depth and complexities of the subject matter.
Built on a foundation of purist devotion and ideology, The Art of the Steal concisely critiques the modern "rules" of the art game, drawing a line between greedy museums and true patrons of the arts in an attempt to take back control of the famous Barnes Collection.