Albert Barnes’s misguided vision

3 minute read
472 Seurat Models
Albert Barnes had a few good ideas
(and several bad ones too)


A response to Gresham Riley:

I’ve taught art history to design students at Drexel for 30 years, and I believe as strongly as you do that education, and even aesthetic education, is necessary for democracy. I also believe that education in general, besides aesthetic education, is vital to democracy and to improving the life of society’s laboring classes. In life, as opposed to the educational system, there are no real boundaries between the aesthetic and other categories of thinking and experience.

For instance, you are quite right that aesthetic understanding has a great deal to do with protecting nature and improving our built environment. It’s also true that aesthetics operate not only in the realm of art, but also in music, literature, philosophy and the simple enjoyment of life. Aesthetics can also operate in science and mathematics, as in "an elegant solution," or in the design of objects such as garments, furniture, tools and buildings, and in entertainment and advertising. Moreover, the principles of aesthetics— such as clarity, order, truth and integration of parts— are applicable to a well-ordered life or a well-run business.

Four aesthetic arguments

But aesthetic reasons alone should prevent the Barnes Foundation from moving:

1) An authentic original is better than a copy or a reproduction.

2) As you say, things such as the conservation of nature are aesthetic matters, and the same applies to cultural institutions and monuments to great ideas.

3) Preserving the Barnes in Merion is a matter of architectural conservation. Paul Cret's masterpiece will no longer be what it was intended to be if the contents it was designed to house are moved.

4) The horticultural gardens of the Barnes are an irreplaceable and unmovable aesthetic resource.

Was Barnes’s vision misguided?

I like your suggestions for the educational mission of the future Barnes Foundation. However, I disagree in part with Dr. Barnes’s educational vision. I am part of that educational establishment with which Dr. Barnes feuded. The educational method of teaching aesthetic appreciation by direct experience of art may be valid and effective as far as it goes, but I think it should be supplemented by other approaches.

A student doesn’t really understand the style or aesthetic values of an Impressionist painting if he doesn’t understand the academic tradition against which the Impressionists were rebelling. One doesn’t really understand the classical elements of a Seurat if he doesn't know anything about Neoclassicism. And no one really understands Neoclassicism without knowing about Poussin, Raphael and the art of ancient Greece.

A lesson from the Atwater Kent

So I would argue that the Barnes method should be complemented by a more historical approach. The Barnes Foundation, and maybe the Art Museum too, should consider an approach like that of the Atwater Kent Museum, which frequently receives visits from whole school classes of children, sometimes as young as the third grade, and gives them a hands-on lesson in Philadelphia history. I believe they address the educational intentions of Dr. Barnes more effectively than either the Barnes or the Art Museum has ever done.

One last observation about the Barnes move: This appears to me to be a profoundly undemocratic decision. What we are seeing is plutocracy in action, not democracy. If democracy is the important thing we are promoting, let's start practicing it. The Barnes can begin by abandoning its exclusive (or even primary) focus on the working classes. Rather, the Barnes should promote democracy by promoting art education for all people.

Charles Morscheck is a professor of art history at Drexel University.

To read Gresham Riley's proposal for the Barnes, click here.
To read a related comment by Robert Zaller, click here.

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