Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

A Letter to Barnes

Cathy Zhou's picture

A Letter to Barnes

Dear Mr. Barnes,

I’m a Bryn Mawr student and our class visited your museum last month. I appreciate the difference your Barnes’ Foundation has made from other normal museums, but I have some doubts about the purpose of the museum you set up.

When I went in the museum, I felt the distinctive style you made. You filled the place with all the paintings crowded on the walls, and they do not even have any name tags nearby. I liked the style of building, which was later revealed as the reform of your own house. It’s an inviting place, with all the wood furniture and small rooms. I went to New York’s Museum of Modern Art twice and saw many of the world-known pieces there, but the place seems more like a tourist place than yours. Barnes Foundation did renew my impression for museums, and it’s also an art piece itself. I admire its inversion of former interpretation of art, but when I hear your idea, or critiques of former museums, that they are not presenting art in proper forms. And the purpose of setting up Barnes Foundation was to prevent your own collection to join one of those museums you disliked.

After the visit, I went to the website page of your museum and saw the quote from you: the museum is to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture.” It later turns out that your “appreciation of fine art” is different from previous discussions of famous art. It seems that you have a brand-new interpretation of art, where you put all the art pieces, famous with unknown, portraits of people with landscapes. Your point is likely to say that there should not be a formal definition of art and the paintings should be purely appreciated as what they are.

But while you claim that the former interpretation of art is wrong, how can you decide that your Barnes’ Foundation did the right way? Without the background, the life experiences of the painters, all the stories hidden inside the canvas, those paintings could not be interpreted in the way the original authors want it to be. I’m not trying to disrespect your museum, but when you intend to have the visitors read only the colors, the structures of the painting, or maybe you just want us to see the whole museum as an art piece, this action itself is pushing us to an interpretation you created. Your collections are marvelous pieces, they all creates their own meanings and are to be respected if possible. In fact, I spent half an hour with one of the paintings on your wall call giving thanks, and for most of the 30 minutes I was trying to reform a story in the painting.

In Bryn Mawr, we have Art History class just to study the meaning of arts when they are created. When you said art history is "stifles both self-expression and appreciation of art", have you thought about the reasons for having this course? We read in the Loss of the Creature that most tourists come to see a place with expectation, and Perci’s critique is that they should not come to a place prepared with former knowledge. That is mainly the same view as yours, that everything should be appreciated as what they are. But my question is that, when you purchase those pieces and display them as one of your “Barnes’ Collections”, you are prepared with the knowledge of art. You have your own criteria to determine which art is good and bad, and that is a similar thing to people come to the art with knowledge to the artists and background. You cannot draw a certain line between you and the other visitors, and there is also no clear line to determine which of you did right.

The Barnes, at this point, seems like a stubborn resistance for the tradition of art. You remind me of Marcel Duchamp, the other great artist who doubted the traditional art by challenging them with his sarcastic pieces. The difference between you, Mr. Barnes and Duchamp is that, he’s the one trying to bring new blood into the world of art, but you are just building burdens to prevent traditional museum from your ideal palace.

An open mind in art is very essential for interpretation, and is exactly what you need. Barnes Foundation is a great place, the whole atmosphere was very comfortable for our, or at least my short stay. But art can be appreciated in old forms too. If you view the outside museums as an excessive form of interpretation, your foundation can be seen as defective from others too.

Hope you make a change.


Cathy Zhou