French playwright Yasmina Reza garnered international acclaim with her play Art (1994), for which she received the 1998 Lawrence Olivier Award for best comedy and the 1998 Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best play, as well as Molière awards for best author, best play, and best production.
Art concerns the cataclysmic effect on three friends, Serge, Marc, and Yvan, when Serge purchases an expensive work of abstract art—a large painting consisting of white lines on a white canvas. As the three men engage in an ongoing debate over the value of the painting, emotions run high and the conflict escalates to the point of nearly destroying a long-standing friendship.
At one level, the debate over the painting in Art revolves around a question of aesthetic values, weighing the significance of modern abstract art in comparison to more traditional representational art. At another level, the purchase of the painting by Serge comes to symbolize a deeper rift in his friendship with Marc, a piece of concrete evidence that the two of them have grown apart. Yvan attempts to play the part of mediator between Serge and Marc but is inevitably drawn into the conflict at a deeper level.
Art addresses themes exploring various aspects of the nature of friendship. Most critics agree that Art is less about debates over artistic values than it is about the complexities of friendship. As Robert Hurwitt observed in a review for the San Francisco Page 2 | Top of Article Chronicle, "Art isn't about aesthetics but the psychological, emotional and power dynamics of friendship."
Yasmina Reza was born in Paris on May 1, 1959, of Jewish parents who had immigrated to France. Her mother, a violinist, was from Budapest, and her father, an engineer, businessman, and pianist, was born in Moscow, USSR, of Iranian descent. As a girl, Reza took an interest in writing short stories. Upon graduating from high school, she attended the University of Paris X and the Jacques Lecoq drama school. Reza began working on the French stage as an actress but soon turned to playwriting because she found that acting was not intellectually challenging enough for her, and she resented being under the control of directors. Reza's first two plays, Conversations après un enterrement (1987; Conversations after a Burial) and La Traversee de l'hiver (1990; Winter Crossing), both about the effect of major crises on family relationships, were winners of Molière awards.
Reza has explained that the subject matter of Art was inspired by an incident in which a friend of hers had purchased a modern painting that consisted of white paint on a white canvas. Upon seeing the painting, Reza found herself laughing at it. Although her friend was not offended by this response to the work, Reza envisioned a scenario in which such a response would ignite a major conflict between friends. Reza has stated that she wrote Art specifically as an expression of conflict between male friends, as she does not feel friendships between women would be affected in the same way.
Among Reza's other plays are L'Homme du hazard (1995; The Unexpected Man) and Trois versions de la vie (2000; Life x 3), in the latter of which Reza also performed as an actor on stage. Reza's screenplay credits include Le Pique-nique de Lulu Kreutz, a film directed by her companion Didier Martigny, and a French translation of a screen adaptation of Franz Kafka's short story "Metamorphosis," for director Roman Polanski. Hammerlkavier, a novelized series of vignettes based on Reza's memories of her father, was published in 1997. In addition to writing, Reza has continued her career as an actress, appearing in the film Loin (2000; also known as Terminus des anges), directed by Andre Techine. Her second novel, Une Desolation (2000; Desolation) is written as the monologue of an aging Parisian man struggling to make sense of his life.
Art opens with Marc telling the audience that his friend Serge has purchased a painting. Marc describes the painting as a five-foot-by-four-foot white canvas with fine white diagonal lines painted across the white background.
In Serge's apartment, Marc and Serge look at and discuss Serge's new painting. Serge tells Marc that the painting is by an artist by the name of Antrios and that he paid 200,000 francs (approximately $40,000) for it. Marc laughs at the painting and says it is worthless. Serge asserts that Marc knows nothing about modern art, that he does not understand it, and that he therefore is not in a position to judge the painting.
Alone, Marc addresses the audience, asserting that it is a mystery to him why Serge bought such a painting. He admits that Serge's buying of the painting has filled him with "some indefinable unease."
Alone, Yvan explains to the audience that he has just started a new job as a sales agent for a wholesale stationery business and that he is getting married in two weeks.
Marc visits Yvan at his apartment, where a painting of a motel hangs on the wall. Marc tells Yvan about the white painting Serge just bought. Yvan suggests that if it makes Serge happy and he could afford to pay for it, the quality or price of the painting is not important. Marc tells Yvan that he is hurt and disturbed that Serge bought the painting.
Yvan visits Serge at his apartment, and they discuss the Antrios painting. Yvan is more open-minded about discussing the qualities of the painting itself than Marc was. When Serge tells Yvan Page 3 | Top of Article how much he paid for the painting, they both share a hearty laugh. Serge tells Yvan that he resents Marc's response to the painting because of his tactlessness, insensitivity, and tone of smugness in expressing his opinion about it.
Yvan visits Marc at his apartment, where a landscape painting hangs on the wall. Yvan tells Marc that he saw Serge's new painting and that he did not like it, nor did he hate it. Marc asks Yvan if Serge's painting makes him happy.
Alone, Yvan states that the painting does not make him happy but that he is not the kind of person who can really say he is happy about anything.
Alone, Serge asserts that, as far as he is concerned, objectively speaking, the painting is not white, that it has a white background, but that it includes other subtle colors as well.
Alone, Marc states that he should avoid attacking Serge about the painting he bought. Marc vows to be nicer to his friend and to be on his best behavior from now on.
Marc and Serge wait at Serge's apartment for Yvan to arrive, as the three of them have plans to go out to a movie together. While they are waiting, Marc and Serge discuss the white Antrios painting. Serge brings the painting in from another room, and the two men contemplate it.
As if alone, Serge suggests that his buying of the painting has caused discord between himself and Marc because Marc does not approve of the painting.
As if alone, Marc states that the discord between himself and Serge started before the purchase of the painting, when Serge used the word "deconstruction" in a discussion of a work of art. Marc observes that it was not the word itself but the tone with which Serge said it that bothered him.
Still at Serge's apartment, Marc and Serge are continuing their conversation about the painting when Yvan walks in. Yvan gives a long explanation of why he is so late, because he has been dealing with a conflict between his mother and his fiancée over their wedding plans. The three men begin bickering. Serge then tells Yvan that he thinks his fiancée, Catherine, is an obnoxious person and that Yvan is in for "a hideous future" if he marries her. Yvan admits that Catherine has problems but states that he cannot back out of the wedding now that it has been planned.
The men begin again arguing over whether or not the painting is white. As they continue to argue, Marc calls Yvan a coward. Yvan responds to this by walking out of the apartment. Marc tells Serge that he no longer understands what his friendship with Yvan consists of.
A few minutes later, Yvan walks back in, explaining that he realized Marc is expressing some deep anxiety by his aggression toward his friends and that he (Yvan) wants to help Marc work through his problems. Yvan mentions that he has been discussing his friends with his therapist, Finklezohn.
As they continue to argue over the painting, Serge moves it into another room, out of their sight. Serge asserts that he truly loves his painting, which Marc finds hard to believe. Serge says that Marc criticizing his painting, which he loves, would be like Serge criticizing Marc's girlfriend Paula. Serge then says that he thinks Paula is "ugly, repellent and totally charmless." In anger, Marc physically attacks Serge. When Yvan steps in to try to pull them apart, he is hit in the head, and the scuffle ends.
Marc accuses Serge of replacing their friendship with the Antrios painting he has purchased. Marc points out that Serge used to look up to him and regard him as a role model. Marc explains that he loved being idolized by Serge but that Serge has transferred his idolatry of Marc into an idolatry of art. Marc asserts that the purchase of the Antrios painting symbolizes Serge's newfound independence from him. Serge is indignant at the suggestion that he had been so strongly influenced by Marc in the past and states that their fifteen-year friendship seems to be at an end.
Serge and Marc then criticize Yvan, complaining that Yvan's neutrality is what has sparked all the conflict between them. Yvan gets very upset and starts to cry because Marc and Serge are supposed to be witnesses at his upcoming wedding, and this break in their friendship will ruin his wedding plans.
In a moment of calm, all three men snack on a bowl of olives. Serge brings the Antrios painting back into the room. He borrows a blue felt-tip pen from Yvan and hands it to Marc. With Serge's encouragement, Marc draws on the white painting with the blue pen. He draws a sloped line with a Page 4 | Top of Article skier in a hat skiing down the slope. Later, Marc and Serge wash the blue ink off the painting, leaving it as white as ever.
As if alone, Yvan speaks directly to the audience, saying that after Marc drew on the painting, they all three went out to dinner. Yvan explains that Serge, in allowing Marc to draw on the painting, proved that he cared about Marc more than he cared about the painting. Yvan relates that, over dinner, Serge and Marc agreed to try to reconstruct their friendship on a trial basis.
As if alone, Serge addresses the audience, admitting that he knew all along that the blue ink would wash off the canvas. He explains that he lied to Marc and told him that he had not known the ink would wash off. He feels guilty about lying but feels that telling the truth at this point would only create more conflict.
As if alone, Marc addresses the audience, reciting a short poem about a skier skiing downhill in the falling snow. Marc ends the poem, and the play, by saying that his friend's painting "represents a man who moves across a space / then disappears."
Marc, an aeronautical engineer, emerges as the character in Art with the greatest internal conflict. His words both begin and end the play, thus demonstrating the transformation he has experienced as a result of the events that take place over the course of the play. He opens Art with the statement that his friend Serge has bought a painting, which Marc describes as "a white painting with white lines," and expresses that the painting has left him with a feeling of unease.
Marc prefers traditional art and is disdainful of modern art. When he visits Serge at his apartment and is shown the new painting, he laughs, says it is worthless, and criticizes Serge for spending so much money on it. Alone, later, Marc chides himself for being so harsh in his criticism of Serge and vows to be nicer from now on.
One night while Marc and Serge wait at Serge's apartment for their friend Yvan to arrive so they can all go out, they continue to argue about the painting. When Yvan arrives, the conflict over the painting escalates. After Serge tells Marc that his girlfriend, Paula, is an obnoxious person, Marc physically attacks him but does not hurt him.
Marc finally admits that he feels abandoned and betrayed by Serge's buying of the painting because he feels the painting has replaced him in Serge's affections. Marc goes on to relate that Serge used to look up to him and see him as a role model. He explains that Serge's buying of the painting was an act of independence by which he demonstrated that he is no longer under Marc's influence. Marc recalls how much he loved feeling idolized by Serge and how much he resents Serge's newfound independence from him.
In order to show that he cares more about Marc than he does about his new painting, Serge invites him to draw on the white painting with a blue pen. Marc sketches a slope with a man skiing down it. Later, over dinner, the men agree to patch up their friendship on a trial basis. They work together to wash all the blue ink off the white painting. In the closing lines of the play, Marc recites a short poem about his friend's painting, demonstrating that he has come to accept Serge's act of independence and that he has discovered what the painting means to him personally.
Serge, a divorced dermatologist, has just purchased a modern, abstract, minimalist painting by an artist named Antrios for 200,000 francs. Upon seeing the new painting, his longtime friend Marc laughs at him and criticizes him for spending so much money on it. Serge has been interested in modern art for some time and points out that Marc has no knowledge of modern art and so has no standards by which to judge the Antrios painting. When Yvan visits Serge, they discuss the Antrios painting. They both share a laugh over the absurdly high price he paid for it. Serge tells Yvan that he did not like Marc's smugness, tactlessness, insensitivity, and condescension in his response to the painting.
One night while waiting for Yvan to arrive so they can all go out, Serge and Marc argue about the painting. After Yvan arrives, they continue to argue and bicker. Serge states that he genuinely loves his new painting and that it hurt his feelings that Marc has so harshly criticized it. Serge then tells Marc that his girlfriend, Paula, is an obnoxious person. At this, Marc physically attacks Serge but does not hurt him. Marc points out that he used to have a lot more Page 5 | Top of Article influence over Serge, that he was Serge's mentor. Serge is indignant at this suggestion and accuses Marc of being self-centered.
In order to resolve the conflict over the painting, Serge hands Marc a blue felt-tip pen and encourages him to draw on the white painting with it. Serge does this in order to demonstrate that he values their friendship more than he values the painting. Afterwards they all go out to dinner and decide to reconstruct the friendship on a trial basis.
Later, Serge and Marc work together to clean the blue ink off the white painting. Alone, Serge admits that he knew all along that the ink would wash off but that he lied to Marc and said he had not known. Serge expresses guilt at not being truthful with Marc about this. Serge's last line in the play is "Why does my relationship with Marc have to be so complicated?"
Yvan is the character in Art who tries the hardest to reconcile the conflict that has arisen between the three friends over the Antrios painting.
Yvan is engaged to be married in two weeks to a woman named Catherine, and he has just started a new job working for Catherine's uncle in a stationery business. It seems that Yvan has never really held a steady job and that he has been single for much of his life. In an aside to the audience, Yvan states that he is not the kind of person who is ever really happy. Later in the play he describes how terribly lonely he has been for most of his life.
In addition to mediating between his friends, Yvan finds himself mediating between his fiancée and his mother. When he shows up late to Serge's apartment on a night when the three friends had planned to go out together, he explains that he was delayed by trying to negotiate a conflict with his mother and his fiancée over the wedding invitations. Serge tells Yvan that his fiancée is an obnoxious person and that if he marries her, he is in for a "hideous future." Yvan admits that Catherine has problems but insists that it is too late for him to back out of the wedding.
After Marc calls Yvan a coward, Yvan walks out of Serge's apartment in exasperation. He returns a few minutes later, explaining that he realized Marc's hostility is really a "cry for help," based on deep-seated anxieties. Yvan has been in therapy for six years with a therapist by the name of Finklezohn, with whom he has recently discussed his friendship with Marc and Serge. He says he came back because he decided he wants to help his friend to work out his problems.
Yvan's attempt to mediate the conflict between Serge and Marc is demonstrated physically when Marc lunges at Serge and Yvan immediately gets between them to pull them apart. In the process, Yvan is hit on the head.
As the argument continues, Serge and Marc turn on Yvan, accusing him of escalating the conflict through his attempts to remain neutral. At this point, Yvan gets so upset about this breakdown in their friendship that he cries. He tells them that having his two best friends in his wedding was the one thing he was looking forward to and that his wedding will be ruined if they are not there.
At the end of the play, Yvan is relieved when Serge and Marc reconcile and agree to patch up their friendship, but he is upset by the concept of a "trial period" applied to the friendship.
The Nature of Friendship
The central theme of Art is the nature of friendship. The play revolves around the interactions of three middle-aged men who have been friends for some fifteen years. This long-standing friendship is thrown into crisis when Serge purchases an expensive work of art. The severity of this crisis demonstrates the fragile nature of friendship because a simple change in the status quo brings up longstanding tensions between the three friends. Anne Marie Donahue observed in a Boston Globe review that Art concerns "the sadness and confusion that can result when long-term friendships collapse for no clear reason." Benedict Nightingale noted in a review in the Times (London) that Art is about elements of "the politics of friendship," such as "dominance, control, insecurity, and the place of compromise and fibs in most relationships." By the play's end, Serge and Marc have agreed to "reconstruct" their friendship, and they intend to have a "trial period" of reconciliation. Thus, while the friendship between the three men is temporarily patched up, the fragility of these relationships has been established, and the future of the friendship is left up in the air.
Friendship and Change
Marc feels that Serge's purchase of the Antrios painting is a symbol of a major change in the nature of their friendship. Marc explains that Serge once looked up to him as a role model and adopted many of Marc's basic values and attitudes. However, as the two have grown apart, Serge has begun to associate and socialize with a new set of people who do not necessarily share Marc's perspective. Everett Evans commented in the Houston Chronicle that the painting in Art "comes to represent the friends' growing apart, Serge's rejection of former mentor Marc, and his move to a different circle with different values." Marc admits that he feels abandoned by Serge because of these recent changes in the dynamics of their friendship.
Friendship and Individual Identity
Marc's sense of individual identity, his sense of who he is as a person, is dependent on feeling that his friends look up to him and follow his lead in forming their opinions. Marc is threatened by Serge's Page 7 | Top of Article show of independent thought and taste because he interprets this act as a personal rejection. Marc's feelings toward his friends are thus very self-centered and are based more on flattering his own ego than on a real affection for others. Marc tells Serge, "I loved the way you saw me," not that he loved Serge for who he was as an individual. Serge exclaims to Marc, "Everything has to revolve around you! Why can't you learn to love people for themselves, Marc?" Because Marc is so insecure about his individual identity, he feels unloved by his friends if they demonstrate any independence from him.
Friendship and Male-Female Relationships
Although no female characters appear in Art, the conversations between the three men reveal a lot about their relationships with women. More significant to the central theme of the play, the tensions between these three friends are reflected or acted out through the comments they make about each other's relationships with women. Yvan is engaged to be married in a couple of weeks to a woman named Catherine; Marc is either married to or in a long-term relationship with a woman named Paula; and Serge is divorced from a woman named Francoise, with whom he has two children. As the tensions between the three friends escalate, they begin to express their anger toward one another by criticizing each other's relationships.
Serge comes across as the most hostile to the women in his friends' lives, probably because he is divorced and seems to feel bitter about it, as well as that he himself does not seem to be in a steady relationship with a woman. When the argument over the painting heats up, Serge tells Yvan that Catherine is a "gorgon" and that if he goes through with his marriage to her, he is going to have "a hideous future." Yvan points out that Serge is "not necessarily the person I'd come to for matrimonial advice," adding, "You can't claim to have been a great success in that field." Later, Serge says insulting things about Paula, which provokes Marc to the point where he attempts to physically attack his friend.
The men's commentary on the women in each other's lives functions as a means of expressing tensions that already exist within their friendship. Serge chooses to attack Paula in order to hurt Marc and demonstrate that Marc's disdain for the Antrios painting is just as hurtful as being told one's loved one is an awful person. Serge and Marc gang up in criticizing Catherine as a means of expressing their resentment toward Yvan for trying to remain neutral in the conflict over the painting. Reza thus demonstrates the ways in which relationships with others can become a focus for acting out tensions and conflicts between friends.
The events of Art take place alternately in the apartments of Marc, Yvan, and Serge. The stage directions indicate that the same set be used for each man's apartment, with the only difference being that each has a different painting hanging in his living room. Reza uses this setting to highlight the ways in which the painting in each character's apartment reveals key elements of his personality that differ from those of his friends.
The exact geographic location of Art's setting is not indicated directly, but various details suggest that it takes place in Paris, France. One such detail is Serge's mention of having recently visited the Pompidou, which is a popular national art gallery and cultural center in Paris. However, the national identity of the characters and the geographic location in which it is set are not especially significant to the theme and content of Art, which characterizes events that could take place in any modern Western urban setting.
At one point in Art, after Marc has physically attacked Serge, accidentally hurting Yvan in the process, the three men sit around eating from a bowl of olives. As far back as ancient mythology, the olive branch has long been a symbol of peace. Symbolically, then, the action of the three friends eating olives represents a moment of truce in their interpersonal conflicts. This is an important moment in the dramatic development of the play, and it stands out as one of the only activities in which all three of them participate harmoniously.
Monologue and Direct Address
At key moments in Art, Reza makes use of brief monologues in which a character speaks directly to the audience. At various points in the play, each of the characters expresses himself directly to the audience, either as he is standing alone on stage or with other characters on stage but as if he is alone, Page 8 | Top of Article and they cannot hear him. In these monologues, each of the characters, Yvan, Marc, and Serge, expresses his feelings more directly and honestly than he does in interacting with his friends. Reza utilizes this technique to reveal the inner thoughts of each of the characters, thus highlighting the contrast between what each man says to others and what he actually thinks. In the final pages of the play, each of the three men offers a brief monologue. With this technique, Reza closes Art by summing up each character's private thoughts and feelings about the resolution of their conflict over the Antrios painting.
The term backstory refers to events and experiences of the characters in a story that have happened in a time previous to the time in which the events of the story take place. In Art, Reza reveals a lot about each of the three characters through the revelation of backstory in the dialogue and monologues. Reza thus provides a three-dimensional perspective on her characters and their mutual friendship, which has lasted some fifteen years. Through the explication of backstory, the characters reveal a lot about how both their relationships and their individual personalities have changed and developed over the course of their friendship, thus shedding light on their interpersonal dynamics in the present day.
A central debate between the characters in Art is the question of the value of modern art versus the value of what in the play is referred to as "classical" art. Reza makes very general usage of these terms in order to create a strong and clear point of contention between Serge and Marc. However, the characters' debate about the relative merits of "classical" versus "modern" art may more specifically be characterized as a debate between the merits of representational versus abstract art.
Reza uses the term "classical" art to describe Marc's general preference for art that was created before the development of modern art in the mid-nineteenth century. Another way to categorize Marc's artistic taste would be to say that he prefers art that is representational to art that is abstract. Representational art refers to a work that is intended to represent persons, places, or things recognizable from the real world, such as a portrait, landscape, or still life. For example, in Art, Marc's landscape painting and Yvan's painting of a motel are both works of representational art.
Much representational art may also be categorized as realist, or naturalist. Realism, or naturalism, is characterized by representational art that aims to closely reproduce images of persons, places, or things, clearly resembling that which may be seen in the world around us. By contrast, representational art that is not realist may include images of persons, places, or things that resemble the real world but represent them in ways that are distorted, imaginary, improbable, or fantastical.
The term "modern" applied to art encompasses many important developments in art that date back to the mid-nineteenth century. Since that time, many movements, styles, and schools of art have developed, all falling under the broader category of modern art. Among these specific movements may be included neo-impressionism, symbolism, fauvism, cubism, expressionism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism, social realism, abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, and neo-expressionism, among others. Modern art includes a wide variety of both abstract and representational styles.
Serge's preference for "modern" art in Art may be more specifically described as a preference for abstract art. Abstract art, which is also sometimes referred to as nonrepresentational art, is characterized by a lack of direct reference to anything recognizable as a person, place, or thing. The movement toward abstraction or nonrepresentation in art has its roots in the 1930s; however, abstract art did not flourish until the post–World War II era. The white painting with white lines that is the centerpiece of Art may be categorized as a work of abstract art because it does not represent any person, place, or thing.
Abstract expressionism, one of the most successful and influential movements in abstract art, first developed in the late 1940s and reached its peak during the 1950s and early 1960s. Abstract expressionism encompasses several different approaches to abstract art. Subcategories of abstract expressionism include "action painting," in which the physical action of the painter in the process of Page 9 | Top of Article painting is central to the end product of the work of art itself. Another subcategory of abstract expressionism is "color field" painting, in which artists create expressive swathes of color on canvas. While Serge's painting in Art would probably not be categorized as a work of abstract expressionism, it is helpful to have a basic concept of abstract expressionism in order to understand later movements in abstract art that grew out of this movement.
A movement toward minimalism in abstract art, characterized by a reduction of form and color to basic, simple, minimal elements, developed in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Minimalist art is also referred to as ABC art because of its call to a return to the basics of form and color. Minimalism was in part a reaction against abstract expressionism, which was seen as excessively emotional and personal in its evocative expressiveness. Minimalism, by contrast, was based on a striving for art that referred only to itself and its literal visual elements of form and color, without taking on personal or emotional connotations expressive of the artist. Minimalist painters thus strived for an effect of flat, two-dimensionality and an objective attitude that forces the individual viewer to formulate her or his own response to the pure form and color of the work itself. Serge's abstract painting in Art is minimalist in the sense that it is primarily a bare canvas with only a few faint streaks of paint across the surface.
Among abstract painters, several developed styles characterized by a monochromatic color scheme, meaning that each painting is dominated by a single color, although there may be subtle variations in tone and shade. Among prominent artists known for their monochromatic paintings may be included Yves Klein, who created a series of paintings in blue, and Ad Reinhardt, who created black paintings. In Art, Serge's abstract painting of white lines on a white canvas is monochromatic, in addition to being minimalist.
At one point in Art, Marc mentions a particular artist with disdain. Serge defends the artist saying that artist was interested in "conceptual art," which he distinguishes from works such as the painting he has just purchased. Conceptual art developed in the 1960s as a radical departure from the accepted notion of art as, by definition, a physical object. Conceptual artists may write a description in words or a sketch or plan for a work of art that is imagined but not necessarily created as a real physical form.
Abstract art emerged in the post–World War II era and continued to develop throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet it is inaccurate to simply equate modern art with abstract art. Although most abstract art falls into the category of modern art, modern art encompasses many movements that are based on representational art as well.
During the 1980s, a resurgence of interest in representational art, particularly among painters, emerged and came to be known as neo-expressionism. Neo-expressionist painting encompassed a variety of individual styles but was characterized by a rejection of traditional values of form and composition and an attitude and emotional tone expressive of alienation, inner turbulence, and modern urban life.
Ongoing developments in both representational and abstract art in the early twenty-first century may be indicated by the emergence of styles such as "new neurotic realism" and "new color field" painting.
For the most part, Reza's Art was enthusiastically received by critics and audiences alike. Praise for Art encompassed translations into some thirty-five different languages and productions throughout the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and other parts of the world.
Some critics of Art complained that Reza's play is essentially an uninformed and unfair disparagement of modern art in general. These critics felt that the white painting in the play is presented as an object of ridicule, thus implying that modern art in general is ridiculous.
However, many more critics and reviewers were quick to point out that the central thematic concern of Art is friendship and that the debate over art itself is primarily a catalyst for exploring interpersonal dynamics between friends. Ryan McKittrick observed in the Boston Globe, "Although some have considered it an attack on modernism, Art is more of an exploration of the ways in which friends influence, shape, and create fantasies of one another." Jayne M. Blanchard in the Washington Times likewise pointed to the play's consideration of the intricacies of friendship, commenting:
Miss Reza uses erudite discussions about art and the absolute nothingness of the disputed painting as a way to get into the messy stuff about friendships and just how hard it is to forgive someone who you suddenly realize thinks radically different thoughts than you do.
Vincent Canby similarly elaborated in the New York Times on the play's central concern with friendship rather than art, explaining:
As the play proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that the concern of Art is the shifting power positions of the three men vis-à-vis one another. Each man makes demands that change the rules by which their friendship flourished and endured. Friendships are as fragile as alliances between great nations. They can't easily survive the kind of brutal, broadside, very frank assaults each of these fellows launches when feeling cornered by the other two. Each is ready to go to war to protect his only natural resource: his own carefully guarded sense of self.
Critics offered high praise for Reza's handling of the characterization and interpersonal dynamics between the three friends in Art. Ed Siegel commented in the Boston Globe, "Reza has done a skillful job of playing the three off each other." Anne Marie Donahue, also writing in the Boston Globe, opined:
All three men are often childish and sometimes stupid, but they are more appealing than repugnant because each is deeply hurt by the rupturing of his relationships. Hapless but emotionally engaged, Marc, Serge, and Yvan are compelling because they have the courage to care.
The comedic elements of Art were also very well received. In the Boston Globe review, McKittrick called the play "a comic gem," and Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle described it as "a brightly comic ballet of the intricacies of male psychology." Others applauded the comic elements of Art for being intelligent as well as humorous. In a New York Times review, Ben Brantley called it "a sleek, pleasant comedy of manners with an intellectual veneer," while David Patrick Stearns described it in USA Today as "a brainy, sophisticated play of ideas with lots of lowdown laughs."
Several critics commented on the play's broader concern with the stresses and tensions of life in the late twentieth century. In an interview, June Ducas quoted Matthew Warchus (who directed a production of Art in London) in the Times (London) as stating, "'Yasmina turns a shrewd eye on the human condition."' Rohan Preston of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) observed that Art "probes the meaning of modernism and modern man." Siegel also noted in his Boston Globe review, "Art is less a trashing of contemporary art than it is a comic meditation on the indefinability and impermanence of life at the end of the millennium." Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Steven Winn also commented on both the universal appeal and the broad accessibility of Art, noting:
As the friends' churlish banter bubbles and boils over from scene to scene, Art addresses its big themes in ways that real people actually live them. As tough-minded and attentive to nuance as it is funny and familiar, this tightly written piece brings friendship, morality and civilization into the living room and sits them down in three white chairs.
Brent holds a Ph.D. in American culture from the University of Michigan. In this essay, Brent discusses the different perspectives on art expressed by the three different characters in Yasmina Reza's play Art.
Much of the conflict between the three friends in Yasmina Reza's Art revolves around debates over aesthetic tastes and values and the role of art in society, culture, and individual experience. The central object of Art, of course, is the Antrios painting recently purchased by Serge for 200,000 francs (about $40,000). Most of the dialogue of the play revolves around or is sparked by each character's response to Serge's purchase of the painting. Ultimately, the Antrios painting in Art functions as a blank screen onto which each individual projects his own set of meanings. Through this process, each character expresses a personal perspective on art that has more to do with his own psychology and social relationships than with art itself. In the end, the three friends never really reconcile their different attitudes about art, but they do come to appreciate the shared values of friendship that transcend matters of personal taste.
Marc is very disturbed by the fact that Serge has bought the high-priced Antrios painting. His resentment of Serge's purchase of the painting is due to several sets of associations he has with the work. He tells Serge that he not only dislikes the painting itself, but he dislikes "everything it implies." Marc goes so far as to say, "it makes me physically ill that my best friend has bought a white painting."
Marc feels that Serge's purchase of the Antrios painting is an expression of his wish to associate himself with high society. Marc tells Serge, "you started mixing with the high end," and he regards Serge's new acquisition as an attempt to impress this new set of friends. Marc later describes it as an act of "sheer snobbery." The fact that Serge bought the Antrios painting thus represents to Marc a change in their friendship, as characterized by a drifting apart in their social milieu and, consequently, in their cultural tastes.
Marc's association of Serge's painting with cultural values to which he is opposed is ultimately a reflection of his insecure sense of self. In order to feel good about himself, Marc is dependent on having friends who agree with him and share similar opinions, tastes, and values as his. When Serge's opinions, tastes, and values shift away from his own, Marc feels he has been abandoned. For Marc, the painting is a rival for Serge's devotion and loyalty as a friend. Marc feels that Serge once looked up to him and idolized him; he accuses Serge of transferring his love and idolatry from his friend Page 12 | Top of Article onto his newfound interest in art. Marc complains to Serge, "you've found a new family. Your penchant for idolatry has unearthed new objects of worship."
When Marc looks at the Antrios painting, he sees only white. He does not see any of the subtle variations in shade and tone that Serge and Yvan see in it. Serge explains that "Marc thinks it's white because he's hung up on the idea that it's white." What Marc sees in the painting is reflective of his way of dealing with his friendships. Rather than basing his friendships on who the other person is as an individual, he bases them on his own preconceived notions about what he wants that person to be.
On the wall of Marc's apartment is a landscape painting done in a style associated with art from several centuries ago. Yvan comments that Marc's "taste is classical, he likes things classical," and Serge refers to Marc's preference for older art in calling him a "nostalgia merchant." Marc's nostalgia for older art is a reflection of his feelings about friendship, in that he is nostalgic for the way his friendship with Serge and Yvan used to be in the past. Just as Marc is opposed to new developments in art, he does not like new developments in his friendships.
Serge holds a very different view from Marc's about the significance of the Antrios painting and his reasons for purchasing it. On one level, Serge has purchased the painting as a genuine connoisseur of art. He has an appreciation for this painting based on his broader interest in and knowledge of modern art. Marc seems to want to deny that Serge has any real interest in modern art itself, apart from its associations with a particular social milieu. Yvan, however, points out that Serge has been interested in modern art and in visiting art galleries for a long time.
Serge does express pride in the value of his Antrios painting as regarded in the world of art museums and collectors. He proudly tells Marc that the owner of the gallery from which he purchased Page 13 | Top of Article the Antrios painting would have been willing to buy it at an even higher price for his own private collection. Serge also proudly informs his friends that there are three Antrios paintings hanging in the Pompidou Center, a national art museum in Paris. He asserts that, compared to the Antrios paintings in the museum, "Mine's as good as any of them! If not better."
Serge's interest in the monochromatic, minimalist, abstract painting he has bought is also an expression of a general aesthetic of minimalism in other areas of his life. When Yvan first walks into Serge's apartment, he comments, "Your place gets more and more monastic." In other words, Serge's interior decor and furnishings in his apartment have become increasingly stripped down to the bare minimum. Serge later comments that he has stripped down other areas of his life to the bare essentials. Thus, the minimalist Antrios painting is clearly not just a purchase based on socioeconomic or cultural concerns but is also based on Serge's own personal aesthetic of how he wishes to conduct and organize his life.
Serge genuinely loves his Antrios painting for its content, as well. He is able to see subtle variations in color within the painting that Marc seems to overlook. Serge asserts that his painting is not just white and that he would not like it if it were just white. He explains that it has a white background but includes a whole range of grays in it and even some red. He describes a certain complexity in the emotional effect the painting has on him, describing it as "magnetic" and "resonant." Serge conveys his genuine love for his painting by comparing it to Marc's love for the woman in his life (Paula). He tells Marc that hearing him insult the painting would be equivalent to Serge insulting Paula. Serge exclaims:
And it never crossed your mind for a second, however improbable it might seem, that I might really love it and that your vicious, inflexible opinions and your vile assumptions of complicity might be hurtful to me?
For Serge, showing off his new Antrios painting to his friends is a way of sharing with them his excitement about being the owner of a valuable work of art that he also finds personally appealing. Because the painting means a lot to him on several different levels, Serge wants his friends to share in his pride and happiness over this new acquisition.
Yvan does not respond to Serge's new painting, based on preconceived attitudes about modern or classical art. Rather, his comments on the painting are based on his personal reactions to the content of the work itself, as well as his concern for how his response will affect his relationships with his friends. He is not interested in maintaining or arguing strong opinions about art but is more concerned with maintaining human relationships and lasting connections with the people he loves and cares about.
When Marc first tells Yvan about Serge's new painting, Yvan suggests that as long as the painting makes Serge happy, the quality of the work or how much it cost does not matter. When Yvan goes to visit Serge and sees the painting for himself, he and Serge are able to share a congenial laugh over the exorbitant price Serge paid for it. Yvan's ability to laugh with his friend demonstrates his greater concern with the personal interaction they are having than with putting forth a specific opinion of the painting.
Yvan is more open-minded and less judgmental than Marc in his response to the Antrios painting. Unlike his two friends, Yvan is willing to change and develop his perspective on the painting over the course of time. After seeing the painting for the first time, Yvan states that, while he does not love it, he also does not hate it. Later, he says that the more he sees the painting, the more he likes it. Early on, Yvan tells Marc that he was not personally moved by the Antrios painting. Later, he begins to say that he is "kind of … taken with it." Unlike Marc, who sees only white in the painting, Yvan sees "various colors," including yellow, gray, and "some slightly ochrish lines." He asserts that he is moved by these colors and that he finds them touching.
The fact that the motel painting that hangs in Yvan's apartment was done by his father suggests that his values in regard to art are based more on Page 14 | Top of Article personal relationships than on intellectual ideas. Toward the end of the play, Yvan says that he has spent most of his life "dying of loneliness." Yvan's sensitive concern for his relationships with others is in part motivated by this sense of loneliness and his desire to connect with other human beings. Yvan is the one who bursts into tears when it looks like the friendship between the three of them has completely fallen apart. He exclaims that he is not interested in having an authoritative opinion of the Antrios painting but just wants to be a friend to Marc and Serge.
Yvan's perspective on Serge's Antrios painting ultimately reflects his perspective on friendship. He is not interested in opinions, arguments, or objectivity but on genuine emotion and lasting human relationships. His final lines in the play are "I can no longer stand any kind of rational argument, nothing formative in this world, nothing great or beautiful in this world has ever been born of rational argument."
Toward the end of Art, when Serge encourages Marc to draw on the white painting with a blue felt-tip pen, the impact of this act is striking. Because the painting comes to represent a rift between the two men, this action demonstrates a strong emotional statement about Serge's desire to repair the friendship. Serge is willing to indulge his friend in drawing on the painting in order to demonstrate that his newly developed social set and values do not mean that he no longer loves Marc as a friend. It is also significant that Yvan is the one who provides the pen. Yvan takes on the role of mediator between Serge and Marc, and the blue pen functions as the instrument of reconciliation between them. When later Serge and Marc work together to clean the ink-drawing off the painting, the activity demonstrates a period of truce and reconciliation in which their friendship has regained a renewed sense of purity.
Early in the play, Yvan comments that the Antrios painting is a genuine work of art with a "system" behind it. He elaborates on this statement in describing the painting as "the completion of a journey." Likewise, the ending of Art, and of "the evening of the white painting," represents the completion of a journey for the three friends. Marc is the character who learns the most from this experience, and the play closes with a poem he has composed that expresses his newfound insight into the significance of the painting.
Marc's poem describes the drawing he made with the blue pen on the white painting, in which "a solitary man glides downhill on his skis." The skier represents the individual on a journey of self-discovery. As more and more snow falls, "the man disappears back into the landscape." Marc continues, "My friend Serge, who's one of my oldest friends, / has bought a painting." He concludes his poem, and the play, adding, "It represents a man who moves across a space / then disappears." This image functions as a metaphor for a single, individual human life. Just as the skier makes a journey for a time and then disappears into the snow, so each human life is a journey that ends in death. Marc's closing words are hopeful, though, focusing not on death but on the idea that the painting has provided him with a new perspective on his journey through life and his place in the world.
Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Art, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2004.
Yasmina Reza with Pearl Sheffy Gefen
In the following interview, Reza discusses her approach to writing and the genesis of her play.
'I don't feel writing is my profession, I don't know what is my profession," confides Yasmina Reza with a gentle laugh. This from the award-winning Parisian author of two novels, four plays, a stage adaptation of Kafka's "Metamorphosis," and a major screenplay.
"I don't write a lot, it's very strange, but I can write anywhere, on anything. It's a great strength, that, so I'm always available for people and ideas." Reza is chatting perched on a red plush chair at a posh Left Bank hotel.
It's a sunny day in Paris and she orders a small lemon Perrier ($10 in a city where coffee costs $6 at a corner cafe). She's small and compact, a young late-30s, pretty in her chic suit, her French accent delicious. Her confident dark eyes smile, with a hint of world-weariness.
Two of her plays—Art and Conversations After a Burial—have already been produced in Israel, and she hopes her new play, The Unexpected Man (L'homme de hazard in the original French) will appear in Israel as well, "because I love that country." The work has already been a hit in Paris and London, and heads for New York in January, where it will star Nick Nolte and Eileen Atkins (Olivier award-winner as Best Actress in the London production). It opened in 1998 at the Barbican, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, and then Page 15 | Top of Article transferred to sold-out audiences on the West End. It has also appeared in other places, from Stockholm to South America.
It's about the gap between dreams and reality. Reza says, "I think dreams and desires are usually higher than reality." A man and a woman, the only characters, share the same train compartment travelling from Paris to Frankfurt. He is a famous author, she a huge fan. Most of the play consists of witty, insightful and often moving monologues as they muse about their lives and each other.
Reza's first novel was Hammerklavier. It appeared in 1997 and earned her an Academie Francaise award. Her second will be published in France this fall, with an English translation to follow. It's tentatively titled Une Desolation, "and it's difficult to tell you what it's about. It's a question I'm never able to answer." Her phenomenal hit play and 1998 Tony winner, Art, has been hailed in over 30 countries for its wit and wisdom, but Reza protests that "people laugh so much they miss some of the lines." She thought it was a flop on opening night in Paris. Pacing backstage, she confided in our interview, "I was completely depressed. I heard the audience laughing, laughing, almost from the first. I thought it's a catastrophe, the play is becoming stupid entertainment. I said if they laughed at a certain point later on, I'd jump out the window. Fortunately, they didn't."
Art isn't really about art. It's about men's friendship, honesty, the obsession with modernism and social status. It revolves around a white-on-white painting which Serge, a dermatologist, has bought for $50,000. This so irritates Marc that his contempt threatens their long-time friendship. Yvan, the third character in the play, vacillates, distracted by his own premarital mess.
After Art opened in France, French filmmaker Claude Berri showed Reza his own collection of all-white paintings by American Robert Ryman. Her reaction: "It's great decoration, very cool, but I absolutely don't understand how it can cost so much money." Christiane Lazard de Bord, a French-American artist who commutes between San Francisco and Paris, notes that "everyone has his own opinion on art, and there's a limit to honesty when it can hurt someone or destroy a friendship. In Art, the painting is just the trigger. The play is about how friendships fall apart over stupidity. And if someone feels he has to spend $50,000 to raise his social status, he's got a problem." Reza is part of the middle-class milieu she describes in her work. Art was born when a friend bought an all-white painting for a lot of money.
When Reza saw it, she laughed. Their friendship survived. "Oh yes, he is my very best friend, he loves the play absolutely. He was the first to read it. I asked him if I should correct anything in the way Serge speaks. He told me, 'No, unfortunately it's accurate.' He laughed a lot, and he still has the painting." Reza had written nothing but school essays ("which I did very well") when, in 1987, she penned her first play, Conversations After a Burial.
It won her the Moliere (French Tony) award as Best Author, as did her second, Winter Crossing, and her third, Art, which also picked up nine other prizes.
Reza had been an actress, but she was fed up waiting for juicier roles. "I wanted to express myself. I knew I would write well, though I'd never had experience. I loved the theatre, and I loved words, so it was logical to write for theatre." She might act again, but "since I became famous as a writer, nobody asks me to act anymore."
Reza was born in Paris, her mother a Hungarian violinist, her father a businessman of Spanish and Persian ancestry. His family's name was Gedaliah until the 19th century, "and the part of my family who eventually went to Israel returned to that name." The family had been forced from both Spain and Persia in turn when, as Jews, they declined to become, first, Catholic and then Moslem.
"Many Jews who remained in Persia changed their names to common Persian names like Reza, and pretended to go to the mosque but observed Judaism at home, a kind of Marrano as in Spain." Her father's parents took the name Rezaiov when they left for Russia.
Yasmina's grandfather, a travelling salesman, was in Moscow when her father was born in 1918, in the middle of the Russian Revolution. They fled again and arrived, penniless, in Paris. The strands of her ancestry tend to make Yasmina feel "an outsider, definitely, but that's good, it's a privilege, it doesn't make me sad at all." She admits that 90 percent of her work is autobiographical. Under the laughter, the themes are often deadly serious, and that mirrors her own nature. "I love to laugh, but that has nothing to do with being happy. Writing helps me survive. I don't believe in happiness. One can be content, but the moment I'm content, I don't write. I don't need to. I write when life is not enough.
"I am very gay and not a sad person, and I grew up with wonderful parents, in cultured and comfortable circumstances, but I was an unhappy child, for some reasons I know and some I don't know. It's nothing to do with my family. I've always known somehow that life is not easy, I was born feeling that life was sad."
Art was translated into English by British playwright Christopher Hampton (who also translated The Unexpected Man, working closely with Reza, and reworked again for New York. Reza says that American English is much closer to French than the language of Shakespeare's soil.
"English is a beautiful language, but in England, it's very formal, it doesn't allow invention. The American language is informal, keen to take influences, to invent words, as I write in French, so it was a real pleasure to adapt it into American." Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote that anyone, even a baboon, could perform the roles "and it would still be funny." Reza disagrees. "I saw a bad production in Dusseldorf. The play looked stupid. The actors tried to be funny, which is a great error. The more sincere you look, the funnier you are." Her writing is economical. "I leave much of the subtext to silence. Plays by people with no experience on stage are often too wordy. I love great actors, and I know the less you give them, the greater they can be. They don't need everything spelled out.
"My way of writing is very intuitive, not intelligent, though it looks intelligent. I write from my intuition, my sense of freedom, my feeling for words and rhythm. Sometimes from my heart, but not very much."
Reza is working on a new play, and her screenplay, Lulu Kreutz's Picnic, about a chamber music group, will be enacted later this year in a film directed by her friend Didier Martiny. Reza also plays piano ("not very well"), raises her two children (girl of 11, boy of six) and "travels too much." She adds: "I am too busy now." Her plays have often been compared to Chekhov's. "Oh, at the beginning, they compared me with everyone," she shrugs, "Schnitzler, Natalie Sarraute, Pinter, the list is very long. I love Chekhov, and I think my first two plays have something of his atmosphere, but The Unexpected Man and the new play I'm writing are very different."
Reza worries about the ravages of time. "I have a fear of death for the people I love, not for my death at all. But I fear aging, I don't know what it will do to my dreams and desires. I fear everything that is a victory for time."
When her considerably older interviewer assures her that age has its distinct compensations, she listens in amazement. "I hope you're right," she sighs. "I would be very happy to be sure of that."
Yasmina Reza with Pearl Sheffy Gefen, "High Flyer with a Fear of Aging," in Jerusalem Post Online, October 8, 1999, pp. 1–5.
Arthur C. Danto
In the following review, Danto explores references to the "politics of aesthetics" found in Art.
L'art contemporain has become an incendiary ex pression in French discourse today, arousing anger and partisanship of a kind largely unknown in the United States, where "contemporary art" merely denotes the art being made these days. In April 1997, what had been a series of heated exchanges in various news papers and journals spilled over into a public disputation at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where advocates of various positions sought to defend them before an exceedingly unruly crowd of about a thousand people, who drowned them out with shouts of "Nazi!" "Fascist!" and the like. It is not that contemporary art in France is especially more audacious or challenging than it is here. Nor are the French necessarily more passionate than Americans on matters of aesthetics. The difference, rather, is a bread-and-butter issue in France, where anything disparaging said about l'art contemporain might be heeded by politicians seeking ways of slashing budgets and wondering how France's heavy financial commitment to l'art contemporain can be defended in the face of high unemployment and a burdensome tax structure. L'art contemporain is subsidized in France to a degree undreamt of in Page 17 | Top of Article America. The FNAC (Fondation nationale d'art contemporain) is charged with a triple mandate: identifying new talent, enriching the national patrimony by purchasing meritorious work for public collections and bringing aesthetic enhancement to public spaces. Very little of l'art contemporain is received with gratitude by its intended beneficiaries, though the assumption would be that experts on matters of art would be able to explain its virtues. But when the experts themselves turn against it, joining, so to speak, the hostile or indifferent public, politicians see a way of cutting costs without losing electoral support. And contemporary artists, facing the loss of subsidy, find themselves defending l'art contemporain against the public, the politicians and such renegade experts as Jean Clair, the director of the Picasso Museum, who expresses an exceedingly sour view of the direction art has taken.
Clair's intelligent and ironic arguments, were they published in an Op-Ed piece here, would at best generate a few carefully balanced letters to the editor. They would hardly detonate a near riot. In the United States, where government support for the arts is marginal to the point of nonexistence, nobody much cares what contemporary artists do unless it appears to violate some alleged standard of decency. It would be brash but doubtless true to say that none of our representatives ever read into the Congressional Record an indictment of monochrome painting, asking whether our taxes should go for this. Since the Armory Show of 1913, Americans have formed a stereotype of nutty artists making nutty but harmless art. In what country other than France, on the other hand, could its best-known contemporary artist (Daniel Buren) consider painting stripes an act of political subversion? In any case, the question of what is art, instead of something mooted in the dispassionate pages of philosophical journals, has taken on the stridency of street politics in France, where l'art contemporain is condemned for not being art—for being instead so much merde.
The widely appreciated play ART (just awarded a Tony as best of the season), by the Parisian playwright Yasmina Reza, is in part an allegory of the politics of aesthetics in France today. The action takes place in three apartments entirely alike except for three paintings, which express the philosophies of art of the play's three characters. The characters are copains—a word not entirely translatable into English since we do not quite have the relevant form of life: "Pal" is too casual and "friend" too close to mere acquaintanceship to convey not only the
warmth and intimacy copains enjoy but the price one has to pay for these undeniable advantages. One can have friends in high places and pals from across the tracks, but copains cannot be separated by great social distances. Perhaps for that reason, copains tend to hold one another in behavioral orbit, in the respect that if one member of the group begins to give himself what the others perceive as airs, the relationship is put at risk, and must be defended. If a copain buys a new suit, the others will mark the purchase with a certain jocular equanimity. But if all at once he goes off on a tangent and buys a silk suit by Armani, the response will be: Who the hell does he think he is? Certain behavior is too wildly off the scale not to be regarded as a threat.
This is the case in ART when Serge, a fairly successful professional, purchases a painting for 200,000 francs (about $40,000) by an artist named Antrios, two of whose paintings—neither of which, Serge claims, are as good as his—are in the collection of the Centre Pompidou. Yvan and Marc—the other two characters—live with radically undistinguished paintings. Yvan's was painted by his father. Marc's is the kind only someone with the most conventional views of pictorial art would choose as Page 18 | Top of Article decoration. But the news that a copain has bought an Antrios transcends the usual indulgent chafing copains let themselves in for. "Suddenly, in some grotesque way," Marc tells Yvan, "Serge fancies himself as a collector.… From now on, our friend Serge is one of the great connoisseurs." Hence, Serge acts as if he is no longer "one of us." The play is a series of confrontations in which, finally, a way is found to assimilate the threatening Antrios to the conception of art that Marc understands. Thus the allegory of l'art contemporain is played out against the copain relationship as an allegory of French society.
It is remarkable that a play so steeped in French sociology should export as easily as ART, first to England, where the play was a great hit, and now to New York, where it is likely to be in place for a long time. Part of the reason for its popularity is the comedy of its conflicts, and the aesthetic bafflement generated by Serge's acquisition—an all-white painting, spontaneously characterized by Marc, and at a certain moment by the conciliatory Yvan, as "a piece of s——." One could (just) forgive a pal who spent $40,000 on an Old Master. An Old Master would recognizably belong to the same overall genre of pictorial representation as Yvan's and Marc's paintings. Marc adopts the indignant voice of a letter writer to the provincial newspaper when FNAC has imposed an all-white painting on the local museum. The comedy of Marc's ultimate conversion lies in the fact that the clever playwright finds a way of getting him to view the painting as a picture—as, so to speak, an imitation of an all-white reality.
The ancient theory that art is imitation can accommodate a monochrome painting providing it mimics a monochrome reality, which means that the very idea of the monochrome picture gives rise to various jokes. (Early in the action, Marc asks Serge, "Where's your sense of humor? Why aren't you laughing?")
In 1897, Alphonse Allais published a portfolio of seven monochromatic images under the title Album primo-avrilesque (April Foolish Album). Each of the differently colored images is displayed in an engraved ornamental frame, without which they would look more or less the way color chips do in the sample charts that paint stores give out. Allais's humor consists in finding a title that describes a monochrome reality of which the chips can be understood as representative. Thus the all-white painting is First Communion of Chlorotic Young Girls in Snowy Weather, a reading quite close, as it turns out, to the one Marc arrives at of Serge's painting. The all-red painting is Harvesting Tomatoes by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Edge of the Red Sea. The all blue painting is Astonishment of Young Recruits Upon First Perceiving Thy Azure Expanse, O Mediterranean! And so on. Allais's album implies a parlor game in which participants imagine chromatically indiscernible images that imitate, hence are "of," different realities. Albino Mountain Troops Crossing the Rhone Glacier would look just like the painting of the snowed-upon girls in communion frocks. But it is difficult to imagine that Allais could have had a real art-world target in mind. Monochromy had been available for literary exploitation since at least 1760, when Laurence Sterne displayed a black square as an emblem of death in Chapter 12 of Tristram Shandy. But it could not represent a serious option for the visual arts at that time. In a 1912 parody of the austere philosophical journal Mind a blank page was titled "The Absolute," doubtless in reference to the philosophy of F.H. Bradley. But even at this late date, art history had not quite evolved to a point where monochrome painting could actually be made without it being a joke.
My favorite monochrome joke comes from Kierkegaard's Either/Or, published in 1848, when monochrome painting could not have been nonhumorously considered as possible. Kierkegaard invented an aphorist, who writes:
The result of my life is simply nothing, a mood, a single color. My result is like the painting of the artist who was to paint a picture of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. To this end, he painted the whole wall red, explaining that the Israelites had already crossed over, and that the Egyptians were drowned.
This suggested to me the possibility of two paintings, entirely alike, one of which was a psychological Page 19 | Top of Article portrait of a monochrome mind and the other a seascape in the same genre as Allais's azure Mediterranean. I went on to imagine an exhibition consisting of about eight all-red canvases, each a picture or a different reality but looking entirely the same. It was essential to include an all-red canvas that was simply a canvas painted red, with no more claim to be a painting than a painted wall has, and ipso facto no claim to picture anything. The difference between this painted square and the remaining square paintings was a different kind of difference from whatever distinguished one from another of them. And I wanted to understand this difference, since the art world had begun to fill up with works of art that could not be told apart from what I termed "mere real things." In the seventies, when I began to think about these matters, it all at once seemed possible that anything could be a work of art. My problem was (and is): What makes this possible when there need be no visual difference between what is art and what is not?
Let us now return to ART, and the all white painting, which, so far as I can make out, has no title (if it had one, it would probably be Untitled, perhaps with a number indicating the order in which it was painted relative to Antrios's others). It turns out that Marc has taken in a great deal of visual information when he stood scoffing in front of the work. It is not quite an undifferentiated white expanse. He describes it to Yvan:
MARC: Imagine a canvas about five foot by four … with a white background … completely white in fact … with fine white diagonal stripes … you know … and maybe another horizontal white line, towards the bottom.…
Yvan: How can you see them?
Yvan: These white lines. If the background's white, how can you see the lines?
MARC: You just do. Because I suppose the lines are slightly gray, or vice versa, or anyway there are degrees of white! There's more than one kind of white!
Those just-discernible white-on-white lines serve, in the course of the play, as a means by which Marc can pictorialize the painting, and so accept it as not all that different from his own painting. He finds a way of preserving the theory that art is imitation.
At a climactic moment, Marc and Serge come to blows, unintentionally hurting Yvan, who consistently illustrates the cynical thesis about no good deed going unpunished—he tried to come between them. At this point the adversaries are in a bind. Serge can go with his painting, leaving his copains behind. Marc can remain Serge's copain only by accepting the painting as legitimate. As if to show that friendship is finally more important to him than art, Serge hands Marc a blue felt-tip pen (borrowed from Yvan, who has just gone into the stationery business) and Marc, after a dramatic pause, all at once defaces the Antrios. He draws a line deliberately from the upper left to the bottom right of the canvas—and then, facing the work, he scribbles something we cannot see until he moves. What he has drawn is a rather crude skier, as it were gliding down the hill. The audience reaction is fascinating. When Marc draws his first iconoclastic line, the audience draws in its breath the way it would were someone's throat slashed on stage. I found this exceedingly reassuring. It showed that a New York audience still attaches a certain value to art that it is not entirely certain is not a joke. By contrast, the recent slashing of a second Barnett Newman in the Netherlands has not, like the first, evoked expressions of shock in the Dutch art world. The attitude, event—or perhaps especially—among Dutch intellectuals, has been that the Newman, which is close to a monochrome blue painting, "had it coming": that a painting like that is merely elitist. That is what gets said about l'art contemporain in Paris. That's the kind of thing Patrick Buchanan tried to say in the 1992 presidential primaries, when he attacked the NEA. It is clearly not the view of those who have been attending ART. I felt that if the NEA were put to a referendum, its enemies would be routed.
Clearly, the diagonal had been obsessing Marc from the beginning, and he saw a way to pictorialize the painting by tracing it in blue. It gave him a way of claiming the painting for his own. The skier was an afterthought—a way of nailing his interpretation down. In a rather poetic soliloquy, which ends the play, Marc says:
Under the white clouds, the snow is falling.
You can't see the white clouds, or the snow.
Or the cold, or the white glow of the earth.
A solitary man glides downhill on his skis The snow is falling.
It falls until the man disappears back into the landscape.
My friend Serge, who's one of my oldest friends, has bought a painting.
It's a canvas about five foot by four. It represents a man who moves across a space and disappears.
It is, according to Marc, like the Jews and the Egyptians in the painting of the Red Sea. The former have left the space and gotten to the other side, the latter have entered the space and drowned. Tranquillity Page 20 | Top of Article reigns, as before the Exodus. Pictorialization decontemporizes l'art contemporain. We all know how to deal with pictures, once we know what they resemble.
Critics have questioned one of the premises of the play. The idea of the monochrome painting belongs to the classical phase of advanced art in this century. It made its appearance in the Suprematist movement of Malevich, around 1915. The implication is that Serge's painting is out of date, and that Marc is out of date and out of touch as well. The cover of the British translation of ART's script shows a canvas with three parallel slashes. It looks like a work by Lucio Fontana, who attacked the surfaces of his canvas in a physical way, perhaps in order to draw attention to the fact that they were physical rather than illusional: Those were real slashes rather than trompe l'oeil depictions of real slashes. Fontana thus rendered any impulse to pictorialize his canvas unfulfillable. Without the possibility of pictorialization, ART could not end. I am not certain one could touch a Fontana today for a mere $40,000. Marc would have found Serge's slashed canvas, had he found one, "a piece of s—t." And the return to friendship would have been out of the question.
Meanwhile, monochrome painting has never been more alive than it is today. Robert Ryman, one of our major painters, scarcely paints anything else. I just got a notice of a show of reddish squares by the artist Marcia Hafif, which I look forward to seeing, having followed her work for years. How are we to appreciate their works, and others like them? There is no single right answer; we have to take them one at a time. The only wrong answer, at least since 1915, is pictorialization. I don't know if Yasmina Reza knows this, but that is of no importance. Her contribution, aside from having composed an amusing play, is to have caused her audience to draw its breath when a work of art is attacked. I wonder what the reaction was in France?
Arthur C. Danto, "Art, from France to the US," in Nation, Vol. 266, No. 23, June 29, 1998, pp. 28–31.
In the following review, Kanfer asserts that ART "fails to live up to the promise it dangles at the opening."
A successful French dermatologist, Serge (Victor Garber), radiates a newfound pride and self-confidence. And why not? He has just acquired the oil painting of his dreams. Not only that, he has obtained it at the bargain price of 200,000 francs (about $40,000). Beaming, he shows the work to his friend of 15 years, Marc (Alan Alda), an aeronautical engineer. The reaction is not exactly what Serge expected. Marc takes a close look at the objet d'art—a white-on-white canvas measuring 5′ by 4′—and exclaims, "You paid 200,000 for this piece of s—t?" With that put-down we are off and limping in the three-man play, ART, at the Royale Theater.
The third member of the trio is Yvan (Alfred Molina), a dark-voiced, sad-eyed bourgeois who openly confesses that he knows nothing, and wants to know nothing, about art. What is he, after all, but the undereducated manager of a stationery supply house? Nonetheless his two friends ask him to arbitrate. Have Serge's pockets been picked by an unscrupulous gallery owner, as Marc proclaims? Or is Serge right? Is Marc a philistine, fearful of anything new and daring, stuck forever in the bland, secure esthetics of the past? Does he hate the painting, or is he jealous of it, because it signifies Serge's recently developed independence from received ideas?
Yvan, distracted by his own approaching nuptials, wants to maintain good relations with both opponents. To that end he affects to find truth on both sides—a stance that only serves to irritate Serge and Marc. Moment by moment the old relationships deconstruct right in front of our eyes. Long-simmering resentments are unearthed, backgrounds are scathingly critiqued, fault is found with families and personalities and habits—all because of this monochromatic abstraction.
An interesting subject for a playwright: Someone puts oil on canvas, it is then represented by a gallery, a patron buys the work, and suddenly it takes on a life and character of its own, upsetting all those who surround it. Unfortunately, Yasmina Reza is not the one to give us that play. Whether she has the wit or intelligence to create such a drama is moot; certainly ART fails to live up to the promise it dangles at the opening.
In the first place, the Abstract Expressionist painting itself is all wrong for '90s Paris. The one-color canvases of, say, Barnett Newman, belong to '50s New York, when it was still possible to shock the public. It was also a time when insecure parvenus Page 21 | Top of Article were easily fleeced by merchants. These con artists sold not only merchandise, they sold an idea: The more expensive the work, the greater its creator. Since then, the market in paintings and sculpture has risen and plummeted like an elevator in the Eiffel Tower. Granted, works of art are still validated by their price tags. But both buyers and sellers are far warier and more sophisticated than they used to be.
In the second place, Reza has not written her bickering copains with much attention to detail. Apart from his opinion about the painting, Marc differs from Serge only in an addiction to homeopathic pills. These he pops at every opportunity—a comic device that wears itself out within a quarter of an hour. Yvan differs from the better educated pair only in his chapfallen look, and in one long monologue about the politics of families. This speech, delivered expertly, is nowhere near as funny as an average solo on Frasier, available gratis every Tuesday night on NBC.
Moreover, when the inevitable reconciliation occurs (Serge allows Marc to disfigure the canvas), the event seems wholly unmotivated. These men have not only mocked each others' taste, they have savagely attacked each other's likes and loves, wives and girlfriends, professions and amusements. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? The reason for the happy ending is as manipulative as it is simple. No matter how unpleasant the personal skirmishing, this intermission-less 90-minute sketch aims to send its audience out in a feelgood mood.
Within the exceedingly restricted limits of ART, the actors do very well indeed. Alda is the personification of wounded arrogance ("I've been replaced by this painting and everything it implies"); Garber, a rising star who can now be seen as the ship's designer in the film Titanic, balances adroitly between self-assurance and insecurity; and Molina, a walking shaggy dog story, neatly pilfers every scene he enters. Christopher Hampton's translation from the French is fluent and idiomatic, and Mark Thompson's costumes and set design have the elegance of illustrations in a coffee-table book. Reza's lines, though, are about as deep as the text in one of those volumes. Matthew Warchus, who directed the likes of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in the London production, has a musical sense of timing; the cast at the Royale Theater often reminded me of the cello, violin and piano in a Haydn trio. A pity that the score is never equal to the players.
Stefan Kanfer, Review of Art, in New Leader, Vol. 81, No. 3, February 23, 1998, pp. 22–23.
In the following review, Wren praises Reza for probing "the ambiguities of art and affection in scenes that are taut, ingeniously structured, and often hilarious."
It is hard, it is hard indeed," a bored theater critic intones in Tom Stoppard's comic masterpiece The Real Inspector Hound, "and therefore I will not attempt, to refrain from invoking the names of Kafka, Sartre, Shakespeare, Saint Paul, Beckett, Birkett, Pinero, Pirandello, Dante, and Dorothy L. Sayers." Shortly after firing this salvo of allusions at the derivative potboiler he is watching, the reviewer finds himself swept helplessly across the footlights, to his doom. Criticizing art is a dangerous business.
Three decades after Stoppard sentenced his critic to death by drama, two delightful new plays from across the Atlantic have picked up on the theme of aesthetic peril. Yasmina Reza's Art is cerebral and tightly woven, an inspired construct of ideas and banter; Conor McPherson's leisurely and enigmatic Saint Nicholas develops organically around a few evocative images. But both works comment incisively on the experience of being a critic—not a professional phrase-monger, necessarily, but anyone who wields an artistic opinion in the face of a hostile or indifferent world.
The protagonist of the one-man play Saint Nichols is, in fact, a theater critic, a world-weary alcoholic whose enthusiasm for show business is Page 22 | Top of Article less substantial than the foam on his beer. After years of churning out withering commentaries, this decaying Dublin hack (Brian Cox) feels both torment and relief when a play—or, more accurately, a player—finally makes an impression. Smitten with an actress in a mediocre production, he forsakes career and family, follows the lady to London, and, as one might expect, falls in with a crowd of … vampires.
Wait a minute! From a character study anchored in Dublin's theater district, whence the inexplicable detour through Anne Rice territory? Up-and-coming Irish playwright McPherson has acknowledged that the idea for Saint Nicholas came to him in a dream; not surprisingly, the monologue merges incommensurates with oneiric nonchalance. Lovers of form will scorn the work for its dreamlike shapelessness. But lopsided stories can have more charm—and even, in a way, more solidity—than narratives with Tiffany contours. Perfect shape smacks of insincerity, while a straggling plot invites belief, since it can have no other justification but truth.
And if any actor can tempt us to swallow McPherson's concept, it is Cox, a craggy, mesmerizing actor whose voice is so thrilling he could transfix listeners by reciting the ingredients on an aspirin bottle. (He was recently sighted in the films The Boxer and Desperate Measures.) Savoring the lines, delivering phrases with idiosyncratic but perfectly chosen shifts in speed, Cox dared the audience to doubt he was the wayward Dublin critic. Apart from a few chairs and milkcrates, the production (directed by McPherson) boasted no set, but the actor moved as if a tangible past surrounded him: a bar packed with wary actors, or dawn-struck vampires melting from a garden littered with bodies.
Cox has a supremely confident stage presence: at one press preview, he delivered a minute or two of the monologue while perched calmly on the armrest of a scribbling reviewer. The artistic authority he exuded underscored one theme linking Saint Nicholas's vampires to its thespians: the relationship between opinion and power.
Professional critics are vampires, the play suggests: they prey on creativity, and grow stronger by sapping artists' strength. Never self-sufficient, they revel in their ability to instill fear. McPherson even hints at how easy it is for critical pedantry to eclipse real understanding: a surefire way to escape vampires, it turns out, is to fling a few handfuls of rice at them. Compulsive connoisseurs of detail, the vampires (critics) will be glued to the spot, oblivious to the broader landscape, until they have counted every last grain.
Aesthetic verdicts wreak yet more havoc in Art, the brilliant comedy by French playwright Reza. Launched on the road to international success when Sean Connery's wife saw it in Paris in 1995, Art was recently a hit in London under the direction of Matthew Warchus, who is also responsible for the stylish, perfectly paced New York production. (The English translation is by playwright/screenwriter/director Christopher Hampton.)
It is hard to know which aspect of Art to admire more: the concept, or the execution. Reza has balanced ninety minutes of human and intellectual insight onto a witty premise: three men—devoted friends for years—find their relationship crumbling after one of them buys a white-on-white painting. The brooding Serge (Victor Garber) thinks the painting is brilliant. The irascible Marc (Alan Alda) thinks it is a joke. Yvan (Alfred Molina), always a moderate, comes down in the middle, to the fury of the other two. As the trio lurches ever closer to violence, the canvas becomes a window onto aesthetic, linguistic, and emotional abysses.
Capitalizing masterfully upon this conceit, Reza probes the ambiguities of art and affection in scenes that are taut, ingeniously structured, and often hilarious. Profundities skim by like ping pong balls. Does an art work have inherent value, or is value created by the market, or the era—or by a spectator's caprice? Is there such a thing as disinterested Page 23 | Top of Article friendship? How about absolute truth? Are modern artists trying to pull one over on us? And is there any delicate way of disposing of olive pits?
Reza gauges the temperaments of her characters with a surgeon's precision, and the script's ever-changing currents of anger, resentment, and sympathy create astonishing suspense in a play that is basically one long discussion. The dialogue has the paradoxical versatility of an optical illusion: Serge, Marc, and Yvan criticize each other by criticizing art, and each betrays himself when attacking the other guy. And their quibbles over words and concepts (Is it the white in the painting, or the idea of whiteness, that is so upsetting?) could admit them to a deconstructionists' convention.
From the opening moments, when Alda peers at Serge's painting, tilts his head, takes off his glasses, steps back, and peers again, expertly-tuned performances by the three stars keep the intellectual debate churning beneath histrionics and deadpan comedy. Indeed, the production is a testament to the way set, lighting, costume, acting, and direction can work together to turn a script to best account.
Mark Thompson's stylized design gives the visual composition a tinge of antinaturalism. The set's stark, unnaturally high walls, dwarfing the actors, flavor the scenes with absurdism reminiscent of a New Yorker cartoon. Three contrasting chairs—one hyper-modern, one antique, and one somewhere in-between—serve as both furniture and symbol. (This set represents the apartment of each of the three friends in turn, with alterations of lighting and the substitution of a single painting making it echo the personality of each man.) Even the actors' matching costumes—blue shirts and ties beneath black suits, for example—subtly undermine the realism.
As Serge, Marc, and Yvan sputter over the tenets of art, the production calls attention to the fact that they themselves are fabrications. Think twice before announcing your critiques, it seems to warn the audience: you may yourselves embellish some tableau whose features you cannot perceive.
Celia Wren, Review of Art, in Commonweal, Vol. 125, No. 9, May 8, 1998, pp. 15–16.
Blanchard, Jayne M., "Painting Friendship in a Corner," in Washington Times, October 20, 2001, p. D2.
Brantley, Brent, "Sometimes the Eye of the Beholder Sees Too Clearly for Its Own Good," in New York Times, March 2, 1998, p. E1.
Canby, Vincent, "Two Reminders of What Theater Is All About," in New York Times, March 8, 1998, p. B1.
Donahue, Anne Marie, "Stage Review," in Boston Globe, July 27, 2001, p. D12.
Ducas, June, "Three Men and a Lady," in the Times (London), October 5, 1996.
Evans, Everett, "3 Views on Art Paint Clever Play," in Houston Chronicle, June 1, 2000, p. 1.
Hurwitt, Robert, "San Jose Rep's Near Gives Art a Fresh Interpretation," in San Francisco Chronicle, May 20, 2002, p. D2.
McKittrick, Ryan, "Merrimack, Trinity Offer Two Kinds of Art," in Boston Globe, May 19, 2001, p. F3.
Nightingale, Benedict, "Friends in the Frame," in the Times (London), March 21, 1997.
———, "The High Price of Friendship," in the Times (London), August 7, 1998.
———, "Introducing a Fine New Set of Friends," in the Times (London), July 31, 1997.
Preston, Rohan, "Male Friendship Finds Open Canvas in Art," in Star Tribune (Minneapolis), February 17, 2000, p. 4B.
Reza, Yasmina, Art, translated by Christopher Hampton, Dramatists Play Service, 1996.
Siegel, Ed, "Art Draws a Squiggly Laugh Line," in the Boston Globe, March 9, 2000, p. F1.
Stearns, David Patrick, "On Broadway, Art for Art's Sake," in USA Today, March 2, 1998, p. 1D.
Warchus, Matthew, quoted in June Ducas, "Three Men and a Lady," in the Times (London), October 5, 1996.
Winn, Steven, "Picture Perfect," in San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 1999, p. E1.
Heller, Nancy G., Why a Painting Is Like a Pizza: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Modern Art, Princeton University Press, 2002.
Heller offers a creative approach to helping the reader understand and appreciate works of modern art.
Laidman, Hugh, How to Make Abstract Paintings, Viking Press, 1961.
Hugh provides an introduction to the ideas, styles, and methods of creating abstract paintings.
Lamar, Celita, Our Voices, Ourselves: Women Writing for the French Theatre, P. Lang, 1991.
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Lamar discusses the works of major French female playwrights of the twentieth century.
Lucie-Smith, Edward, Movements in Art since 1945, Thames & Hudson, 2001.
Lucie-Smith provides an overview of major developments in modern art since World War II.
Nairene, Sandy, ed., Art Now: Interviews with Modern Artists, Continuum, 2002.
This collection includes interviews with modern artists, including Antony Gormley, Howard Hodgkin, Rachel Whiteread, Julian Opie, Mark Wallinger, and Martin Creed.
Ryan, David, ed., Talking Painting: Dialogues with Twelve Contemporary Abstract Painters, Routledge, 2002.
Ryan alternates essays by various critics on contemporary abstract painters with interviews.