December 15, 2004

Wresting great art from the dead hand.

The NYT has an editorial about the judicial decision that permits the moving of the Barnes collection. It also has an opinion piece by art critic Roberta Smith. The collector of the great set of paintings doomed his own project with truly excessive restrictions: only 1,200 visitors a week, no lending any paintings, no re-positioning them, even though it meant that Seurat's "Models" had to hang above Cezanne's "Card Players" and could never be scrutinized at close range.

The editorial calls the decision "an act of judicial common sense." Smith calls it "a triumph of accessibility over isolation, of art over the egos of collectors and, frankly, of the urban over the suburban." Smith makes an important point:
The Barnes collection is not the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Barnes didn't make the art; he bought it, one movable object at a time.

Though Barnes's act of assembling and positioning the works is itself an artwork, the artists whose works he collected did not create them as components of the larger artwork Barnes made. They made individual, movable pieces, that will take on a different look, a different meaning, if they are displayed differently. Why should a great Cezanne remain forever trapped within Barnes's vision? As Smith puts it:
Once more we are reminded that no one really owns art, that all collectors are temporary custodians. And the greater the art, the less any one person, especially a dead one, can control its destiny.

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