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Beauty,Spring 2005
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My Ivory Tower

Liz Paterek

A museum showing one man's artistic vision with walls covered in works by some of the most prominent artists in history. Paintings arranged not by chronological convention but with the emphasis on form and style. Only a limited number of guests are allowed as to create as peaceful experience as possible. This is a museum that is seen by the rest of the art world as "reactionary" or "idiosyncratic" (1). Does that sound wonderful to you? It did to me too. Then why did the Barnes fall so short of a beautiful experience for me?

It takes a lot of bravery to be rebel who speaks out against another person who is perceived as going against the grain. Indeed all articles that support the movement of the Barnes, such as New York Times writer Roberta Smith, seemed to lack respect for Barnes' vision (1). My problem is not with Barnes' vision of demonstrating that emotion and feeling are important factors in art; I feel he was not successful in delivering his vision to me (1,3). I wondered why the most prominent moment in my recollect of my trips was a short skinny man in a uniform snarling at me because I stepped over the black line of doom. I wanted to see rebellion from conventions of how to see art. I wanted Barnes to let me see form for myself. Instead I found the same elitist attitude and environment that I feel from conventional art museums.

The first visit my expectations were simply too high. "So many great painters and works of art are represented there" replied one of my housemates to my inquiries about the exhibit. Articles praised Barnes' desire to teach people to think "for themselves" (1,2). I walked into the museum and realized that it really did not feel that different from many other museums. The barrier still existed between viewer and painting. I did not feel that the paintings were different enough from one another to make Barnes' unique style of grouping effective. Most of his paintings were from Europe in the late 1800's into the early 1900's, Picasso, Cézanne, Renoir, and Matisse being some of the artists that I noticed the most (1,2,3). These abstract artists and impressionists seemed to dominate the museum, squeezing out diversity.

My question then became how one can think for him/herself without diversity. If every painting in the museum has great form, how can one know what form is, if they do not see what form is not. Humans often learn through negation. After looking at the 15th Renoir obese nude with pink and purple undertones in her pale skin, I began to feel that I had seen them all. The artists were repeated over and over again and I felt that form had a formula in the mind of Barnes, which he was displaying as the formula that we too should adopt. I wanted freshness or a new perspective. I wanted surrealism or pre-Raphaelite images. My intense dislike for abstract art and much of modern art only festered as there was no escape for my mind from it. However, perhaps having it surrounded by other types of art would have given me the ability to find beauty in it.

The phantom voice of Barnes echoed in my mind telling me that this painting was beautiful because of form, color, line; something he saw that apparently I did not (1,3). I felt a sense of an elitist attitude. He seemed to be saying that this style is good because he chose to represent it in the museum in overwhelming numbers. It made me question how he viewed his own collection. Is the Matisse painting hanging in a dimly lit stairwell somehow a less beautiful use of form than the Matisse's The Dance mural that hangs so prominent over the two story windows? (4) Am I a poor art critic because I don't the beauty of form in either and because I lack any pronounced emotional response to art?

I soon read the article by Barnes, which only magnified my feelings of artistic ignorance. Barnes wrote a large amount about the importance of form. The basic explanation of form was qualities uniting to serve a single effect (3). "Effectiveness, single effect?" I asked myself. I could not think of any way to define it in a concrete way. I could not see how Botticelli lacks form due to his baroque style but Picasso has it in spades (3). It all seemed an elitist mentality to favor one group of artists over another due to some perceived sense of superiority in their work. As has been discussed so much in class, no two people have the exact same experience and no piece ever has the same exact effect on two people. This means that form has no definite meaning.

With this mindset and agitation from reading the article Barnes wrote about his vision, I returned to the Barnes Museum for a second visit. I could not get myself to feel any affinity towards the art. I tried desperately to see what Barnes saw, especially in the works that I despised. I felt like an eight year old trying to learn calculus. I just could not see what he saw. I really wanted to have that emotional experience that Barnes glorifies. Not being an overly emotional person, but rather analytical on a creative vent, perhaps I lack the capacity to see form as Barnes sees. I like art that sparks my intellect whether or not it is emotional. Barnes seemed to discount those experiences, wanting both imagination and feelings to merge and create understanding.

Reading all the praise of Barnes for his uniqueness made me feel that I was not an artistic rebel. I was conflicted, I hate systems and conventions of how art should be seen. How could I not like some one who defies them? Then I realized, instead of Barnes defying convention, he created a new convention. His museum still has lines and barriers and security that the old museum has. There were still impolite security guards. He still showcases certain art styles; showing clear favoritism towards impressionists and modern painters. Out of around 2500 paintings there are 180 Renoirs, 44 pieces by Piccasso, 69 Cezanne pieces and 60 pieces by Matisse, showing that certain artists are clearly showcased(2).

Neither Barnes nor conventional museums provide a window to individual perception of art. Barnes groups art based on form, not "chronological, geographical, or cultural continuities." (1, 3) This grouping is different in that form is not a concrete quality; however, I feel as though Barnes uses this construction as a tool to showcase his perception of form. This makes me think that Barnes wanted people to see form the way he saw it, not individually. If one were to see form individually, it would be better to see a random arrangement of paintings including ones without form to bring in an element of contrast. This would also allow people to see form in art where Barnes does not see it. Barnes' Museum had the goal of making people more emotionally invested in the artwork, whereas art museums seek the more intellectual response. They are designed by the "tearless" art historians (5). However, both still seem to contain the motive of making one see art a "correct" way.

Barnes did not teach me my own way to see form and style in diverse styles of art and so he failed in my purpose for me. He repeated the mistakes of old museum, simply with a new form of elitism. I realized that Barnes' notion of how art should be shown did not represent the way that I enjoy viewing art. I like walls to be a collage of works from different times and places, dominated by no one notion of form or style. Barnes wanted me to find form for myself, yet I still feel as though he wanted to find his definition of form. If I were to find his definition, my experience would no longer be unique and personal. It is the diversity of opinions and perspectives that make the analysis of art so unique and interesting. Art's tearless state is not a good thing, however, neither is the concept that one must feel something when they look at a piece.

Works Cited:
1) The New Criterion: Notes and Commentary January 2005. The Barnes Foundation RIP.
2) Kimball, Roger. The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity. Chicago. Ivan R Dee. © 2003. pp34-45.
3) Barnes, Albert C. The Art in Painting. The Barnes Foundation Press. PA ©1976
4) Sozanski, Edward J. Will These Choices Translate?
5) Elkin, James. The Ivory Tower of Tearlessness. 9 Nov 2001. Chronicle of Higher Education: The Chronicle Review

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