What is art? If you’ve ever been confounded by this question as you wandered around a famous art museum, and wondered what you were doing there, you’re not alone.
Art, the Readers’ Theatre’s upcoming performance reading, combines Molière and Woody Allen in a stirring and witty verbal (and ultimately physical) crossfire that cleverly digests the philosophy of art. Yasmina Reza’s 1994 play takes a swipe at any theory about art, and in so doing strips away all pretensions to expose art as it really is. The Readers’ Theatre’s rendition, helmed by artistic director Anne Marie Cummings, makes the question of art absolutely inescapable and pertinent to every facet of life.
The Ithaca cast treads in illustrious footsteps; Christopher Hampton’s translation of Art from French, introduced to Broadway audiences in 1998, won the Tony Award for Best Play. But it’s clear from Wednesday’s preview that the Readers’ Theatre cast is ready to charm and engage. The three Parisian protagonists, Serge (Tony Simione), Marc (Bryan VanCampen) and Yvan (Erik Bjarnar), swing from assurance to fury as they neurotically pace about Serge’s apartment.
When Serge buys a pristine white painting, his 15- year friendship with Marc and Yvan threatens to implode. Serge’s friends are not particularly offended by the painting per se. It’s the exorbitant 200000 francs that Serge lavishes on the painting that sends them reeling. Or so it seems at first.
When Marc learns about the painting’s price tag, he openly derides the painting as a “white piece of shit.” He maintains that the work is a painting about “nothing,” and he scorns Serge for insisting that there is something more to the painting. Serge is appalled and disappointed by his friend’s disagreement. Yvan, ever the peacemaker, embarks on a mission to “make [Serge] laugh” so as to reduce the tension between his two best friends. Unfortunately, when Yvan has had a little too much to drink, he blurts out his honest opinion that Serge’s purchase is ludicrous.
The play is a dazzling homage to the weird and wonderful world of contemporary art. Yves Klein painted with fire (with a fireman on standby, thankfully), while his compatriot Niki Saint-Phalle shot her collages. The violence of these works is matched by the unperturbed “nothingness” of others. Serge’s white painting joins the controversial latter category. Klein once painted a blue square; not just any blue, mind you, but a certain rich and electrifying shade he christened International Klein Blue. Then there’s Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White and Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings which, in Serge’s case, hit closer to home. The question that divides Serge and his friends is whether there can really be “nothing” in a painting. To the disbelief of his friends, Serge continually insists that there’s more than one color in the painting, and takes pains to find the perfect spot for his painting.
Serge joins the ranks of many who have been ridiculed for art’s sake, or rather, their extravagant purchases of art. Even respected institutions are far from immune to explosive criticism. The National Gallery of Canada came under fire when it splashed out $1.8 million for Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire in 1989. Newman’s abstract painting essentially depicts a vertical red stripe interrupting a wall of blue.
But even the irascible Marc eventually surmises that there is something valiant, even “poetic” in Serge’s act of buying the white painting. Furthermore, as Marc might (somewhat dourly) ask, where’s your sense of humor? Local composer and banjo player John Bunge keeps the show lighthearted, putting a sparkling touch to the unfolding comedy by evoking William C. Stahl, Claribel Jeffrey, J. L. Le Barge and Scott Joplin on his banjo.
The real problem, perhaps, lies in how Serge’s fierce assertions of his artistic beliefs reflect his personal values and character. Marc takes particular offense at Serge’s alienating and pompous use of the term “deconstruction” to describe an art work. So who has a right to criticize art? Who imbues our words with authority? The hesitation we might have about throwing around weighty word belies more fundamental questions: How do we accord things with value?
The play raises another question: Should art be fashionable? Marc is clearly enraged when Yvan proposes that this is a legitimate criterion for assessing art. T.S. Eliot’s famous words may apply here, “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo.” “Fashionable” suggests that something is fleeting and arbitrary. Can something be christened as “art” one season, but not during the next season? Marc is overcome with disbelief when Serge suggests that it’s okay if the perplexing painting isn’t considered current or hip in a few months. But if the painting can’t even serve as a lasting status symbol, what can account for its preposterous price tag?
The Readers’ Theatre staging of this play is timely. Art has become a tool for rebranding cities as cosmopolitan and savvy, ready to take on the world. Most recently, Baku, Azerbaijan, unveiled plans to give the Caspian Sea a makeover, just so that television viewers of this year’s Eurovision concert can get properly acquainted with the city. Inspired by the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao, Baku’s glittering new waterfront promenade will be studded with works of art by Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor works alongside a Frank Gehry-designed art museum. Then there’s the ongoing debate in British newspapers: Is Damien Hirst the right artist for the Tate to showcase during the 2012 London Olympics? Hirst is notorious for going “from sharks to riches,” as The Guardian fabulously puts it.
This thoroughly enjoyable play eagerly engages your inner armchair philosopher. The play provokes, right to its buoyant end. After the play, Frank Robinson, former director of the Johnson Museum, will be giving a brief lecture concerning the perennial question of what art is. You might feel like picking up an Alain de Botton novel, taking an art history class, walking proudly and fearlessly into an art museum ... or hopefully, all of the above.
Art runs from February 17 to 19 at the Space next to Greenstar.