Albert Barnes and the Rejection of History 1

By Gillman, Derek | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Albert Barnes and the Rejection of History 1


Gillman, Derek, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


May I express my gratitude to you, Mr. President, and to the members of the American Philosophical Society, for honoring the Barnes Foundation by making it the focus of this afternoon's session. Neil Rudenstine has been a trustee of mine at the Barnes for the past six years, but he has also become a friend and a wise counselor. Evidence of wisdom transmitted is that I insisted on speaking before him, rather than after.

Let me begin with a not untypical letter from the Barnes Foundation, written in 1934 to the distinguished art historian Meyer Schapiro, who had requested access to the remarkable collection formed by Dr. Albert Barnes. The response purportedly came from one Peter Kelly, who in fact was no more than a cipher for Barnes himself: "I read your letter of April 12th to Dr. Barnes, and he said: 'Tell little Jack Horner that his use of the names of two universities as proof of his capacity is in reality merely additional evidence of the educational bankruptcy prevalent in existing institutions.'"

The two institutions cited by Schapiro were New York University and Columbia University, the latter of course the academic home of John Dewey, a former president of the American Philosophical Society and a close friend of Barnes's. Schapiro was still unsuccessfully attempting to visit in 1958, seven years after the founder had died.

The collection of postimpressionist and early modern masterpieces had been proudly built through the accumulation of capital by A. C. Barnes and Company, specifically from the manufacture of the antiseptic Argyrol. Through the progressive influence of Dewey, when the Foundation opened its doors in 1925, these splendid works were now to be shared with young artists, with art history students, and with the actual producers of capital, who included African-American workers employed by Barnes in his factory. In promoting the appreciation of modern art-conventionally the province of owners of capital-Dewey and Barnes were subverting polite, leisured, East Coast American conventions about the production and reception of painting, and offering entry to the young, the industrious, and the disenfranchised. Dewey's version of American pragmatism focused on lived experience, particularly on the life of the "ordinary man," and Barnes's early experiences as a student in Germany at the close of the nineteenth century may well have fed into this, as that country was even then deeply infiltrated with the idea of "workers' culture."2 He believed that his new educational institution would promote democracy by virtue of encouraging people to look at works of art analytically and at length, which in turn would more broadly enrich their lives.

Meyer Schapiro, the target of Albert Barnes's venom in 1934, was part of an art world with which Barnes was deeply engaged, often contentiously. It was a world that assigned works of art within categories of the fine arts, decorative arts, archaeology, and anthropology, and displayed them either within single institutions, such as the Penn Museum; or within departments of encyclopedic collections, such as the British Museum; or within ethnographic museums such as the Museum of Natural History in New York, where non-Western cultures were displayed alongside flora and fauna, as they still are there. An overarching practice of these institutions was to create historical or ethnographic relationships around culture, region, and period, or relationships based upon function. By and large, we in Europe and America haven't diverged much from that model, even though certain galleries have experimented for two decades with thematic displays as an alternative to traditional hangs, the Tate being one such.

The Barnes Foundation isn't a museum in that sense, just as its founder wished it not to be. The ensembles (wall compositions) of art and craftput together by Barnes, first for his house, and then for the Foundation in Merion, subverted historical, ethnographic, and functional relationships in favor of formally composed displays that not only had no use for context, but also actively suppressed it (Figure 1). …

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