Does it matter where you see a piece of art?

When I was growing up, we often visited my grandparents in Brooklyn in the summer, and my earliest memories of New York’s museums will forever be associated with some extraordinarily hot, muggy afternoons. I cannot pinpoint the summer when I first saw, or at least was first conscious of, the Picassos and Matisses at the Museum of Modern Art. And I’m uncertain when I first visited the Morgan Library. But just as I remember the sticky rides to and from Manhattan, I remember the sizzle of midtown as we walked over to the Modern, and how all that urban excitement became part of the reality of Picasso and Matisse. As for the Morgan Library, I remember how astonished I was by its baronial splendor, by the sense of precious things encased in walls of stone. Am I right in recalling that the two great Memlings hung in J. P. Morgan’s study? And that a visitor was kept behind velvet ropes, barely able to see those Flemish masterpieces? Maybe I’m a little confused about the particulars, but something of the heavily upholstered, robber baron luxury of the Morgan underscored my gathering sense of the remoteness and wonder of the Middle Ages. That may have been an odd sort of history lesson, but it was not necessarily a bad one.

I have found myself reliving those early impressions of New York’s museums after seeing The Art of the Steal, a new documentary about the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. The movie tracks the battle between the men and women who wanted this astonishing collection of modern paintings to remain forever in its original home in suburban Philadelphia and those who have now been allowed by the courts to relocate the museum downtown, to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as part of what promoters hope will become a museum district. I am firmly in the camp that believes the Barnes should have stayed put. Advocates of the move downtown say that a slew of masterpieces by Seurat, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso will now be available to a larger public. True enough. But the four or five mile trip out to Merion—the sense of a pilgrimage to this place where the paintings were displayed alongside American antiques and who knows what else—served to emphasize the uncanny power of these canvases. The Cézannes in Merion felt tougher, stranger, more fiercely indomitable than the Cézannes in the Philadelphia Museum of Art—and although that may not be a logical distinction, I believe it was a distinction worth preserving. Could it be that something in the curmudgeonly independence of Dr. Albert Barnes—who made a fortune in pharmaceuticals, dedicated his life to educating America about the glories of modern art, and delighted in denying access to the likes of Meyer Schapiro and Alfred Barr, whom he regarded as pedants—helped to underscore the curmudgeonly independence of Cézanne? There was something more than a little bit crazy about the mismatch between the relatively modest setting of the Barnes and its outrageously rich collections, and somehow that mismatch returned us to the essential outrageousness of what Seurat, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso were doing. Dissonance is not a bad thing. When you stood beneath the great mural, The Dance, that Matisse painted for that very spot in Merion, Pennsylvania, you were reliving the modern adventure—you were exactly where Matisse wanted you to be.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which aggressively supported the move into Philadelphia, is one of the main villains of The Art of the Steal, and I do not think the portrait of the foundation is inaccurate. But in arguing that the Pew has used its involvement with the Barnes to strengthen its own position in the not-for-profit world, the filmmakers may lose track of the larger philosophic difficulties that the Pew has with an organization as magnificently odd as the Barnes. Through its widely disseminated studies of American cultural life, the Pew has encouraged a normalization of the relationship between the public and the arts, an idea that everything can be reduced to poll numbers and statistics, to flow charts and pie graphs. While the intentions may in some cases be honorable, the mentality is profoundly destructive, because it equalizes all artistic experience, leading straight to the cookie cutter museum designs of the past few years. The Morgan Library I visited as a boy, that rock solid treasure house, has been ruined by Renzo Piano’s inane glass box of an entrance hall, which suggests a miniaturized version of the entrance to the new Museum of Modern Art. My heart sank not long ago, when I read that Piano had been hired to create a new entrance and galleries for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. What on earth is wrong with the Gardner staying more or less as Mrs. Gardner conceived it a century ago? What is wrong with plunging straight from contemporary Boston into this hothouse version of a Venetian palace, this fin-de-siècle aesthete’s retreat, where the dark corners are a jumble of Asian and Italian objects, and one of Titian’s greatest paintings, The Rape of Europa, confounds the surrounding opulence with its emotional opulence?

Cultural consumption is more and more in danger of replacing cultural discrimination. Maybe that helps to explain the confoundingly misguided exhibition of Burgundian sculpture that has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, beginning a national tour. In the years around 1400, a group of sculptors working in Dijon under the impact of the great Claus Sluter created a group of eighty mourning figures, each some 16 inches high, for the tombs of Philip the Bold and his son, John the Fearless. Their faces half-hidden by cowls, their bodies bent and twisted in sorrow, this stream of grieving men wander through the shadowy miniaturized gothic arcades which run beneath the huge marble slabs bearing the effigies of Philip and his son John and John’s wife, Margaret of Bavaria. The mourning figures from the tomb of John the Fearless are now at the Metropolitan; but they are fully exposed, removed from their architectural setting. The Burgundian sculptural tradition that Sluter defined, with its uncanny interweaving of naturalist observation and religious intensity, is not so much sadly diminished by the presentation at the Metropolitan as it is obliterated, a radical development in European art reduced to a product making the rounds. I wish I hadn’t seen the Mourners at the Metropolitan. I would have preferred to remember an afternoon years ago at the museum in Dijon. And what of those who have not been to Dijon? And perhaps will never go? Have they not been done a service? The belief that we can experience everything is as absurd as the idea that we can experience nothing. It is the intensity of the experience that counts. There are masterworks in the world that I will never see, and I am not troubled by that thought. If I never get to Angkor Wat, and I doubt that I ever will, I do not expect Angkor Wat to come to me. It would have been better that fewer people saw Matisse’s Dance in the very room for which he painted it in Merion, Pennsylvania, than that more and more people see the painting in a replica of its original setting, reconstituted on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. When everything is available, nothing is available. 

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.

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