Philly’s Philistines

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC is considered one of the world’s finest research and museum complexes. It was founded from a bequest by British scientist James Smithson, who donated his substantial fortunes to a country he had never visited, since he felt he was never accepted by English society as a result of his illegitimate parentage.

An American who would have sympathised with the plight of Smithson is Albert Barnes. Son of a butcher, the young Barnes rose by the stint of his own effort to become a physician, although he soon discovered a passion for chemistry. Having partnered with a German scientist who developed Argyrol, a silver nucleinate solution to prevent gonorrheal blindness in the pre-antibiotics era, Barnes became a millionaire when he successfully marketed the product to hospitals for use on newborn infants. With serendipitous foresight, he then sold his stake in the company mere months before the stock market crash of 1929.

Even while stewarding his company, Barnes had begun investing his plentiful profits and spare time into educating himself in philosophy and the arts, and buying priceless paintings at bargain prices from Europeans devastated by the first world war.  His interests lay in post-Impressionist and pre-Modern art, and by 1922 he had created the Barnes Foundation to house his private collection and serve as an exclusive learning centre. He exhibited some of this art at the request of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts the following year, but was universally condemned by the media for his taste. Barnes attributed this criticism to his lack of social pedigree, and this incident became the source of his increasingly eccentric and misanthropic nature.

Over the years, Barnes collected 181 works by Renoir, 69 by C├ęzanne and 59 pieces of art by Matisse, as well as significant numbers of paintings by Picasso, van Gogh and Modigliani (whom he is credited with discovering) among others, an assortment valued at twenty-five billion dollars today. The paintings were lined up next to and above one another in twenty-three galleries in a converted arboretum in Lower Marion, a suburb of Philadelphia. The haphazard arrangement of his galleries may appear idiosyncratic by the sanitised standards of art museums, but it reflected Barnes’ subjective identification of underlying themes that unified the jumble of paintings across different eras and genres. His famous distrust and disdain for celebrities and socialites led him to personally screen all visitors and only admit minds that he felt were uncontaminated by conventional rules of art.

The Barnes Foundation, which was left with an endowment of over nine million dollars, was entrusted with delivering lectures on the appreciation of art that improved upon the techniques in use by traditional schools. In his final will and testament, Barnes forbade the art in his collection from being sold or loaned to other museums— in fact, even the arrangement of the paintings was not to be changed!

Ten years after his death in 1951, in response to negative publicity initiated by the Philadelphia Inquirer over the foundation’s tax status, the galleries were finally opened to the public on a limited basis. As the Foundation’s income stagnated because of imprudent investments, museums in Philadelphia and unscrupulous members of the board (the majority of whom were required to be nominated from impoverished Lincoln University as a final affront to the more famous universities and museums in the area) began to lobby the government to fund a relocation of the collection in exchange for material benefit and personal prestige to themselves. A recent documentary, “The Art of the Steal”, captures the behind-the-scenes chicanery by a nexus of politicians and private organisations that resulted in a court ruling in favor of moving the collection to Philadelphia by 2012.

While this decision runs contrary to the express wishes of Albert Barnes, the controversy raises an academic conundrum over the purpose of art, private and public. Barnes may have been too restrictive in his admission of art enthusiasts (rejected applicants include T S Eliot, Le Corbusier and Walter Chrysler Jr.); however, he did stand as a bulwark against the commercialisation of art museums, where a gift shop is often granted as much importance as the actual gallery. While art has certainly become more accessible due to the tireless efforts of public art museums and various educational programmes, for a vast number of attendees the thrill appears to lie in the number of masterworks they are able to photograph.

This dichotomy would have been an interesting subject for English philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was hired by Barnes as a lecturer during World War II—  a time when the destitute pacifist’s political views made him virtually unemployable in the United States. Russell’s talks on philosophy at the Barnes Foundation formed the basis of his celebrated Nobel Prize winning work, “A History of Western Philosophy”, whose royalties kept him in relative prosperity for the rest of his life.


And then you get an artist says he doesn't want to paint at all,
He takes an empty canvas and sticks it on the wall;
The birds of a feather, all the phonies and all of the fakes,
While the dealers they get together and decide who gets the breaks.

Dire Straits, In the Gallery

Desolation Row

Chrysler Corporation’s recent “Made in Detroit” advertisement campaign is both a nostalgic appeal to the patriotism of American buyers and a feeble attempt to restore the image of Motor City, the birthplace of the automobile industry. In recent years, Detroit has been the subject of countless books and exhibitions sensationalising the ruins of its former majesty, as it declined from being the country’s fifth largest city to a battered shell of its former self.

Like motorists attracted to an accident scene, visitors (real and online) have been flocking in the thousands to gape at the gory glory of its abandoned churches and theaters, deserted libraries and high-rise buildings. And yet, are we not surrounded by the ruins of history all around us? Are not signs of urban decay hidden just beneath the surface of our immediate surroundings? Do we not encounter the ghosts of beautiful bungalows torn down to make way for ugly utilitarian flats?

I have walked the streets of Liverpool, past boarded up boarding-houses awaiting demolition, like death-row inmates who have been denied clemency. As the gateway to cross-Atlantic commerce (including the lucrative slave trade), almost half of the world’s business used to pass through the city’s port, a function that has limited relevance two centuries later. Today, despite brave attempts to reinvent it as the European capital of culture, it peddles primarily in its past.

I have walked the streets of Newark, marvelling at abandoned drawbridges left to rust because their sale as scrap metal would not recover the cost of dismantling them. Once the biggest center of manufacturing industry around New York, organised crime and race riots have taken their toll on the rapid loss of people and businesses. Today, a handful of companies stand amidst the sprawl, providing the city with a tattered fig-leaf of respectability.

I have walked the streets of Howrah, tripping on unused tram-lines that stick out like the ribs of an emaciated corpse. Once the hinterland of the second city of the British Empire, it has long since seen trade decline as its river silted up and unionism and lethargy sounded the death-knell to its symbiotic city, Calcutta. Today, the conversion of its old mills and factories into warehouses and cold-storage units is celebrated with a zeal that reflects an absence of pride in its history.

There is death and desolation all around us, albeit masked by shiny structures in their place. And while politicians wax poetic at the inauguration of these state-of-the-art projects, it is just a matter of time until, abandoned and despised, they too are tossed into the dustbin of history for the next new thing.


There are places I remember
All my life:
Though some have changed—
Some forever not for better.
Some have gone and some remain.

The Beatles, In My Life

Death of a Book Salesman

When Holly Golightly’s mood brooded with the mean reds in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (feeling blue would be all too plebeian), she used to take a taxi to the jewellery chain’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue to calm her nerves. For those of us who are not fortunate to be either living in Manhattan or be enamoured by diamonds, a similar feeling of relaxation and yearning, mixed with a sense of security and wonder, may be achieved by entering a bookshop and browsing through the volumes on display.

Sadly, the recent bankruptcy of the Borders chain of bookstores has all but driven the once venerable book business another step closer to extinction. It will probably survive as a relic of the past—doomed to a mythical corner of Diagon Alley, surviving at the mercy of a miniscule minority of aficionados known as bibliophiles. As a young student in Washington DC, it was a weekly ritual to walk the longer route to the Metro station just to pass the display windows of Olsson’s Books and Records, the Nordic-sounding independent bookstore that is now gone but not forgotten.

It is ironical that Borders (and other big chains) themselves grew by displacing neighbourhood bookstores through a combination of undercutting them on prices, offering a warehouse worth of options, and attracting the curious with incidental merchandise (games and toys, calendars and coffee) that have a much greater mark-up. In the process they successfully completed the commoditisation of books as a volume-driven trade, a phenomenon that threatens to defy geographical boundaries. While trying to recount the delight of serendipitous searches at used book stores lining Calcutta’s College Street, I was interrupted by an expatriate who boasted that stores in his shiny new city sell used books by weight.

While the advent of electronic books is a temporary injunction against the disappearance of reading (economists agree that Borders may have survived if it had been more agile in embracing the digital bandwagon), the book publishing business is doomed if it is unable to adapt to this new age. Although the profit margin on a physical book is about a tenth of its electronic counterpart, the current volume of book sales to libraries and students more than compensates for this inequality. From this position of hubris, conventional publishers see digital books as a disruption to their monopoly (since it lowers the cost for a new entrant), imperilling the world with counterfeited copies. However, much like iTunes capitalised on the sale of single digital songs rather than an entire music album, the book business must also discover their silver bullet to guide them to a solvent future.

And that would be sufficient cause to keep the mean reds at bay, both from our minds and from their ledgers.


No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion picture, and in old friends: look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451