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The Barnes, Revisited

tflurry's picture

The weekend of November 25th, I visited the Barnes foundation for the first time. While there, I enjoyed the art; travelling from room to room, watching the interplay and conversations between the pieces and the objects, studying how things reflected, contrasted, or contradicted each other. I’m sure Barnes would have approved of my attempt, no matter what he thought of the situations under which I was making it. Next, I sat in front of “Scout Attacked by a Tiger”, by Henri Rousseau, for thirty minutes. This, I think, Barnes would have objected to.

Barnes desired several things of his art collection after his death; he wanted it to stay where it was, as it was set up. He wanted to limit the viewing of his works to his students, so that the collection aided the school and the school did not aid the collection. He wanted it to be for the lower or working class to enjoy and learn from, not the upper class and art elite, nor the museums. At the base of all this was a simple idea, which I hold to be one of the driving forces behind these requirements: he had a unique way of looking at art, and wanted to allow others to see and enjoy it, to learn to think about it, as he did. His arrangements focused on the interplay between art and the world around it. With all the effort that went into these arrangements, he wanted people to make connections and to admire the art itself, rather than admire art purely for artists name on it. For these reasons, he would not have approved of our examination of a single piece in isolation from its surroundings; while he wanted us to look at the pieces for what they were, he seemed to want us to consider them as details in a larger work. This focus on one piece, particularly when the frame is labeled with the famous artist’s name, ignores what Barnes was trying to teach us.

Would he have objected to the entirety of the exercise? I do not know. Parts of it he might even have approved of; the willingness to sit and converse with a piece, as Ms. Jennifer Roberts recommends in her essay “The Power of Patience”, is far removed from the way most of the loathed art historians and museum curators interact with art. Such an exercise might even be how Barnes first noticed the themes, the connecting ideas that allowed him to arrange his art as he did. Nonetheless, the art having been arranged, it seems odd to think that he would desire a visitor to ignore all the hard work and thought that went into the arrangements; to do so would be to forget what Barnes was trying to teach.