Documentary spotlights art-heist drama

In a world of corruption, avarice and back-room deals, a fervent debate has been raging between warring parties for years. Since art became a business, individuals have lobbied for its preservation and against its exploitation. The world of art collection, romanticized for years by those unfamiliar with it, is, as Humphrey Bogart would say, “What dreams are made of.”

Moving on up · The Art of the Steal traces the political agendas associated with the relocation of the Barnes Collection — a $25 billion estate which includes more than 2,500 modern and post-impressionist objects. - Photo courtesy of IFC Films

The Art of The Steal is an exploration of the life of multi-billionaire Albert C. Barnes, who throughout his lifetime amassed an extraordinary collection of modern and post-impressionist art at his home in Philadelphia.

Moreover, it is a probing investigation into the Barnes Foundation and the political manipulation that surrounded Barnes’ fortune after he passed away. In his will, Barnes explicitly requested that his paintings never be moved or sold, but as power shifted among trustees, his dying wishes were neglected and even erased.

With a price tag of $25 billion, the Barnes Collection became the centerpiece of a fascinating conspiracy.

As the title suggests, The Art of The Steal is executed with an impressive amount of precision and grace. The construction of the story caters to the mind-set of a thief, often turning to graphics that are a  pastiche of heist films from an earlier era. These graphic diagrams convey the devious plotting of political figures, as subtle bass kicks emphasize the thieves’ calculated evil.

What the recent documentary, The Art of The Steal, proves better than anything else is that significant issues terrorize citizens every single day, yet the mass majority are ignorant and unaware. As the world begins to close in on itself, our scope is still stunted by the media and those who sit in thrones of high social standing.

In cinematic flourishes, the film moves with the compelling grip of a political thriller, pulling the rug out from under us on several occasions. Its tone is clearly bitter, but the overarching argument is well-supported and even revelatory. Amazingly enough, several individuals who are considered antagonists appear in interviews. Those who opted not to seemed to confirm their own portrayal.

The central dilemma concerns the art world and what happens when big businesses enter that system. Clearly, the arts often tap into some kind of revenue stream, which can be beneficial for both sides, but Barnes’ collection was the antithesis to exhibitions for profit.

As the film conveys, “Barnes wanted you to have a certain experience.” His self-made mausoleum, which comes off a bit too Citizen Kane for most, was, as Henri Matisse said, “The only sane place to see art in America.”

Barnes housed his paintings in a residential paradise because he believed in having a special experience, one that is un tainted by commercial museum life. This ideal is debatable, but it is Barnes’ right as the owner that is the soul of the story.

As The Art of The Steal maintains, the most effective documentaries in existence are manipulative. The irony, of course, is that the film criticizes manipulation specifically. With a cunning sensibility, The Art of The Steal creates an aura of seduction with the filmmakers’ angles and information. What is easily discerned from the stylistic qualities is just how cinematic documentary pictures have become. The film utilizes close-ups to frame its villains and catch the sweat on their brows during difficult interviews. Sweeping camera movements allude to police investigations, with CSI-esque flair, and our heroes are shot from triumphant low angles. The end result is a more immersive experience.

Despite the high caliber of the production and the general potency of the material, the real tragedy of The Art of The Steal is how slight the impact will likely be. The subject matter is narrow and confined to a very exclusive breed of people, which dilutes the resentment it induces. And with such limited release, the majority will probably carry on unaware of this unfortunate reality. Those who are demonized in the film retain their clout, and as the film conveys, no one can stop them. Power can be a poison, and as history proves time and again, it’s odorless, colorless and right before our eyes.