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The Artist Barnes

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Play in the City 027

Monday, December 9th, 2013

The Artist Barnes

Everybody in Philadelphia seems to have heard of the Barnes Foundation. It created quite a stir when it was moved, expressly against the wishes of its founder, from Lower Merion to Philadelphia, turning in the process from an educational institution to an art museum.

Albert Barnes had a specific vision for his art. He arranged it in his home, paintings, pieces of metalwork, furniture and more, according to design themes such as shape and color. He made his home into a school, a place to study art without what he considered the useless factoids of artist, date, and stylistic period, taking from art only what it presented to the viewer. He did not want it open to the public for more than a couple of days a week, nor used for parties, galas, and the like.

Due to corruption, personal grievances, and mismanagement of money, the Barnes is now open to the public every day, with spaces for events, and even pamphlets and audio tours that tell the visitor about the paintings. The only remaining vestige of Barnes’ original vision is the arrangement of the paintings. Curators of the Barnes insisted that they would stay true to Barnes’ displays, possibly in an attempt to please outraged protestors.

Why Barnes’ displays, and not his limitations on who viewed them, how, and where? Was the art arrangement so much more important than anything else?

Diane Ackerman defines deep play as “the ecstatic form of play,” a deep, meaningful, even sacred experience of play that is “taken to intense and transcendent heights.” Some people experience deep play as art, especially performance, some as athletics, some as moments in a particular setting, or with a particular person. It is a wholly personal and intimate experience, and it is often a learning experience, about one’s surroundings and especially oneself.

Many different surrealists, as described in Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play, have created art using existing objects. Their logic is irrefutable: If an ordinary piece of art is created by putting paint or other media together in interesting combinations, why can’t a larger piece of art be created by putting ordinary household objects together in interesting combinations? Marcel Duchamp in particular made famous ‘found’ art: readymade objects that got only a small tweak, such as a signature, before being put in shows. Other groups of surrealists made use of ordinary street space and even art galleries themselves.

What is so different about Barnes’ way of arranging art? No, he didn’t paint the paintings or work the metal or build the furniture himself, but neither did Duchamp build his famous urinal or Renoir grow the plants or grind the rock from which his paint was made. Isn’t the definition of art less that one creates it oneself and more that one changes the way people look at it? As Renoir turned his paint into a gorgeous picture, as Duchamp changed a urinal into something to wonder at, as many other Surrealist artists used perfectly ordinary locations and objects to make people think twice, Barnes arranged other people’s works to allow for connections to be drawn that wouldn’t have been otherwise. On one wall, for example, a lady in a fancy red dress sits watching the viewer. She is flanked by two landscapes, with a painting of a group of people above her head. That grouping is flanked by two still lifes of flowers. Above it, another landscape. All three landscapes are of the ocean. Red in the flowers of the still lifes, a cloak worn by someone in the group, and something undefined in both landscapes all pop because of her red, but the oceans bring out the green in her background, and emphasize a green shadow on her face.

Might Barnes’ art, then, have been a form of deep play? It was certainly highly personal—although he called it an institute of education, he refused admittance to Bryn Mawr College students in the same township. It is a learning experience, allowing the viewer to draw hitherto-unseen connections. One can only speculate that Barnes might have derived a transcendent experience from creating his own form of art, but the zeal with which he did so and then sought to protect it is certainly telling.

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Web. Nov. 11, 2013.

Ackerman, Diane. Deep Play. The New York Times Company, 1999. Web. Dec. 9, 2013