Barbarians at the Gates

Don’t remind me!  I know it can snow and sleet in March — and probably April, for that matter.  I’m sure the streets and sidewalks can turn into icy deathtraps and the howling winds can freeze you to the marrow.  I know it, I know it.

Be that as it may, it was spring in New York this weekend.  The skies were a gorgeous blue and the air was cool, but almost warm in the bright sun.  Coats and hats and gloves were shed for lighter jackets.  The new spring color was introduced: Hint — it’s still black, but kind of a warm black.

People poured onto the streets and parks, walking dogs, pushing strollers, sitting on the rocks in Central Park.  I haven’t seen so much good cheer, goofy smiles and giddiness since the University of Texas football team won the Rose Bowl in 2006 and, for a few nutty days, life was perfect and everyone in Austin was happy.  Spring!

A woman walked an ancient fluffy, white dog whose tongue hung out of his mouth and who stopped to sit every few steps.  A young man carried a red armchair, accompanied by a young woman with a matching cushion.  Amateur photographers snapped shots of trees budding and the sunlight glinting through tree branches.

I met my husband at an art gallery show on the Upper East Side and we wandered through the exhibits.  Paintings, sculptures, collages, intense art-industry types in narrow eyeglasses and stark clothes.  “Her work is very much a part of her feminist agenda,” a man told a small crowd.  “It’s very confrontational.”

“This painting makes me deeply uneasy,” one woman told another as they peered at a painting.  “I can’t tell you why.”

“What do you mean, she’s an adult?”  a man asked a woman.  She shook her head fiercely.  “I didn’t say adult,” she snapped.  “I said Tri-Delt.”

The night before, my husband and I had just seen The Art of the Steal, a documentary about the art world.  It’s the story of Albert Barnes, a Philadelphia millionaire who, after he made his fortune, spent his life amassing an astonishing collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern art.  It’s a lovely story of an uneducated man who simply falls in love with art and buys what he loves most.

But lovely stories can never last.  Barnes dies, leaving a supposedly ironclad will that will protect his priceless collection and keep it intact in a Philadelphia suburb.  With almost the same ferocity he loved art, Barnes hated the city of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the whole Annenberg family.  The film pointed out that Walter Annenberg’s father was a common gangster, which I found quite interesting, but when it reminded me Annenberg fils was a Republican and Richard Nixon crony who wore kneepants to the Court of St. James, that did it.  Gangsters I can appreciate, Nixon cohorts are dead to me.

The documentary told the story with a lot of dramatic sound effects.  Every time you saw the Philadelphia art museum, the background music was as ominous as if an armed killer lurked in the corners, waiting to murder art and art-lovers alike.  Through treachery and machinations and inept foes, the Philadelphia establishment managed to subvert the terms of Barnes’ will and arrange for his beloved art to be moved to the city he loathed.  “Philistines!” screamed one art-lover at a group of Philadelphia swells who had gathered to celebrate the eventual removal of the Barnes collection.

Well, I can get into blaming high society as much as anyone, as much as I blame the Nixon administration.  But, after being repeatedly bludgeoned by the heavy-handed documentary, it got a little tiresome.  Should only die-hard art aesthetes and serious students be allowed to enjoy great art?  Isn’t it better that more people will be able to see a remarkable collection of art?  And how long should the will of a man both enamored of art and embittered by a community be slavishly followed?

I don’t know.  I’m sure I’m one of those Philistines myself about art.  I left the art showing, not having lingered long enough or exclaimed enough about oeuvres and feminist perspectives and Tri-Delts.

We left and went outside, where the day was still glorious and an air of celebration lingered.  We’re all Philistines in some ways, we all find our art in different places.  Mine was out there, on the teeming, sun-filled streets, where spring had come and — who knew? — might be staying.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about owning up to being a human cliche

8 comments… add one
  • Spring is my favorite season in NYC but don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

  • Oh, art. We hang around artists and art-people these days. Sometimes it’s wonderful to hear someone – curators, especially – talk about the work. It all kind of clicks inside you and you understand it. But it seems like the worst are the artists themselves – they are almost inarticulate, verbally.
    I’ve found  some things I just love, and other things that make me scratch my head and go, “Whu?”
    And FWIW, I think Barnes was a big control freak.  It’s not nice to leave unsolvable problems for people. He and Isabella Stewart Gardner are probably looking down together and laughing.
    I love your New York vignette, though – TriDelts! Very funny!

  • Winston Link

    Ah,  so the new spring color is a warm black.  Cut into something suitable, no doubt, for a trendy Tri-Delt to wear at a hot gangsta funeral.

  • I got to see the Barnes collection when it came to the Kimball in Ft. Worth.  It was breathtaking.  They showed a little film going into some of what the documentary you saw covered, but it wasn’t quite as ominous. 

  • Cindy A Link

    The 70-year-old son of a British dutchess recently called me a Philistine.  I had to look it up.  Guess that means I am.

  • Winston Link

    Cindy, don’t worry.  That 70 year old son-of-a-Brit probably called his mum the same thing when he was an upstart teen.

  • Cindy A Link

    Winston, that 70-year-old son-of-a-Brit can kiss my Philistine assumptions.

  • Lovely piece, Ruth. I so envy you being in NYC in the Spring … even if it is a false Spring!

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