Monday, September 12, 2011

Passion and Compassion

Cross-posted here

I'm not a person who feels moderately about things. My opinions and loyalties tend to be rather adamantly on one side, or of unswayed, absolute indifference. That said, it has been a while since something has caused me to feel intense abhorrence and more than a little ill. I am non-violent, and a supporter of human rights for all, but violations of those principals will be a life-long battle, and are on a plane different from my other objections and feelings of injustice. I wouldn't want you to think me completely unfeeling, though I'm not entirely sure why.

The issue that has me fuming is the fate of the Barnes Foundation Gallery. I'm sure this is something of which well-cultured individuals are acutely aware, but I do not travel in such circles, which caused this to come as a shock to me. The appalling account of government officials (Ed Rendell, for one) and charitable trusts grabbing at a priceless art collection, blatantly counter to the will and intent of the man who amassed, curated, and shared it with students, is told in the documentary The Art of the Steal. Now, I'm sure this documentary is a bit biased toward the side of those wanting to keep things the way they always were; but I'm kind of okay with that, mostly because I know there is almost nothing that could sway me to the other side of the argument. As much as I am a liberal who loves change and progress, I am also a natural historian, moved by things that evoke the past.

Watching Rendell brag about destroying a national treasure, a landmark of art and education, is disgusting. The argument that it is for the good of the people, and will turn Philadelphia into a great city is pathetic. Even if moving the collection into the city makes Philadelphia a must see location for art lovers, it is done at the expense of justice and of art itself. Dr. Barnes had the insight and foresight to purchase these great works when galleries across the world passed them up, and scoffed at their validity as art. He, therefore, had sole rights as to the fate of these works. They do not belong to the people, they belonged to one man. Rendell talks about the need to have the works readily available to viewing by the public. At what point, in his mind, do personal possessions become fair game for public ownership? I know that it isn't so cut and dry, as there was a foundation set up, making them not really personal possessions, but violating a will, a trust, is a personal attack; a personal attack on a dead man. Perfect, he can't fight back.

I would love to see the collection, but I don't think I could force myself to walk into the new location; it would be akin to crossing a picket line. Maybe I shouldn't form opinions using such limited source material, but when I have a physical reaction to a person's defense of his or her actions, it tends to be an accurate assessment. Sometimes, first impressions are the best impressions; and even if they aren't, they are the most lasting of impressions. This film got to me first, and has shaped the way I will see this issue. I seriously doubt the ability of the people on the other side to be able to speak as passionately about the collection, the art, or of the intent of its original collector, the things which are important. Anyone who can muster any passion for speaking about increasing tourism or the standing of a city is a person not worth listening to, for their passion is really for money and power; the combination of which seldom leaves room for anything else.

I've been a bit obtuse in my description because I hope that anyone interested will watch the film, or read about the situation. I don't think there is anything that can be done to stop the move, as things are well on their way, but sometimes outrage is best directed at things the imminent. There need be little plotting, strategic management, or holding back when there is no chance of success. There is nothing to lose, as everything at stake is already gone. That lost can still be mourned, remembered, and the actions of those involved examined and extolled or condemned. From my perspective, one side is severely lacking passion and compassion, though I think they might disagree (even if they didn't really believe it). Is a mission to bring something of intrinsic value to the people a noble quest even if it is achieved in an unethical, or at the very least, unsavory, way?

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