'The Art of the Steal' Shows How Subculture Becomes High Culture

Albert C. Barnes was one of those men who, it appears, was always right. A chemist and inventor, he made a fortune at the turn of the 20th century and spent much of it on thousands of works of art, and rather inexpensive art at that. Part of the reason they were so cheap was that there was little demand; Barnes' tastes ran toward the avant garde. In fact, when he returned to his native Philadelphia from Europe and mounted an exhibition of his treasures in 1923, the Philadelphia cultural elite was unmoved. Convinced of the worth of his collection, and of the empty-headed foolishness of so-called experts and tastemakers, he set up his own private museum, the Barnes Foundation, in nearby Merion, Pa., and dedicated the rest of his life to using it to educate people about art. And he set up an elaborate legal arrangement known as an "indenture" to preserve his collection and the museum after his death, most of all designed to keep it away from the city of Philadelphia.

As it happens, the little-known European artists Barnes patronized included Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne, Rousseau, Van Gogh, and other marquee names of late 19th- and early 20th-century art. What the Philadelphia establishment once scorned as an assortment of garish curiosities eventually came to be understood as the most significant collection of its kind in the world, a unique trove worth an estimated $25 billion—yes, "billion" with a "b." And so, decades after Barnes' death in 1951, the city of Philadelphia confirmed his concerns by taking steps to appropriate the collection.

Pretty good set-up, right? Don Argott's recent documentary The Art of the Steal (MPI DVD) gets better, painstakingly revealing the shameless maneuvering of various politicians, administrators, philanthropists, and wealthy men to break Barnes' indenture and turn his life's work into yet another center-city tourist attraction. Working with a familiar but polished mix of contemporary footage, archival materials, and interviews with various players, from former Philadelphia mayor and current Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell to a cadre of pissed-off Barnes defenders, Argott tracks the gambits and hypocrisy that have led to ground being broken on a new city-sponsored Barnes collection home on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It's not one of those docs that's as gripping as fiction, a la The Thin Blue Line or Capturing the Friedmans, but it stands as a potent, outraging reminder that being on the side of truth and beauty is often no defense against power and greed.

There's another story of art vs. commerce—or something like that—told in another doc new to DVD: I Need That Record! The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store (MVD Visual). Director Brendan Toller starts off by documenting the demise of his favorite record store in his Connecticut hometown and quickly begins unpacking the reasons that independent record stores are dying off in dinosaur-extinction numbers: evil major labels, big-box retailers with loss-leading CD pricing and narrow stocking, and downloading, licit or otherwise. Evidently made on an indie-rock budget, I Need That Record! nonetheless impresses with its liveliness and ambition, as goofy animations and stock footage mingle with talking-head interviews with the likes of Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore (the omnipresent John Waters of contemporary rock docs), and Noam Chomsky. But if The Art of the Steal seems like the investigation of a crime, Toller's film comes off more like being cornered by one of those guys who hangs around record stores complaining about everything that doesn't meet his standard of cool. The film's lengthy accounting of well-publicized shifts in the music business over the years bogs it down, and Toller seriously stints on making the less obvious case of why mom-and-pops are worth preserving against the tide of market forces and Internet omni-access. When an inveterate record-store haunter like me finds a documentary about record stores tedious, it's not a good sign.

There are no questions of art vs. commerce in Keven McAlester's doc The Dungeon Masters (FilmBuff DVD), but it does raise other thorny issues. McAlester's cameras follow three people whose lives revolve around venerable role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. There's Scott, an underemployed husband and father of two who runs D&D games when he isn't trying to get an epic sci-fi novel published. Elizabeth likewise doesn't seem to have much going on, which gives her more time to devote to painting herself black and dressing as an elf. Richard would seem like the most socially successful of the bunch if it weren't for a few quirks, not least a tendency to capriciously mass-murder the characters in the games he runs. The Dungeon Masters creates intimate portraits of these three subjects, and seems to be making a case for the game giving them a measure of enjoyment and control over their world, if not the real one. McAlester's take is unsentimental at best, somewhat clinical at worst, which makes for the potentially uncomfortable situation of not knowing how to take the film's observations. Is the players' engagement in the game supposed to come off as a creative response to limited vistas, or a heedless escape from them? It's an adroit film, but I found that I didn't trust it.