Yasmina Reza’s contemporary farce, Art, centers around one man’s acquisition of a two-hundred-thousand-dollar white painting by an obscure artist named Antrios. When the well-off dermatologist Serge purchases the canvas—painted entirely white—for such an exorbitant price, his two closest friends, Marc and Yvan, find themselves wrestling with the aesthetic, intellectual, and existential questions that the essentially blank canvas raises. Reza casts a satirical eye on the world of art and culture, using her characters’ circular, spiral-like dialogue to explore the fine line between meaning and meaninglessness. The play ultimately suggests that while there’s much to poke fun at in the world of art, and while some works may seem devoid of meaning, the beauty of art is that it takes on significance via the experiences, associations, emotions, and interpretations of those who view and discuss it.
The painting is described as a four-by-five-foot canvas that is completely white save for some small, barely discernible off-white stripes that run through the middle of the canvas. Since the play is a send-up of artistic and intellectual pretension, the meaninglessness of the painting, in its exaggerated minimalism, is immediately evident to the audience, if not to all the play’s characters. Reza has chosen a virtually blank canvas onto which her characters will, over the course of the play, project their sadness, rage, insecurity, and ennui.
Serge, whose aesthetic pretensions have been shaped and encouraged by Marc, is very proud of his acquisition. Marc, by contrast, sees Serge’s purchase as a twisted, ridiculous, and pathetic inversion of his own ideals about art, and is deeply “disturbed” that Serge would spend so much on something so ostentatiously void of meaning. He thinks Serge’s attempts to ascribe meaning or beauty to the painting are futile, ridiculous, and upsetting. When Marc spends some one-on-one time with his and Serge’s third wheel, Yvan, Marc warns him of how ridiculous the painting is. When Yvan and Serge meet privately a few days later, however, Yvan finds himself deeply affected by the painting, despite Marc’s description of it as ridiculous and devoid of meaning. Yvan finds the colors of the painting “touching,” and describes a resonant magnetism emanating from the canvas. The revelation that Yvan did not immediately see the painting as ridiculous sends the fragile Marc into a tailspin. He is distressed that Serge’s vain and vapid pretension has now affected Yvan as well, and cannot believe that his friends—whom he’d thought had absorbed his high-minded and carefully-constructed intellectual ideas about art—have strayed so egregiously from what he has taught them.
The ensuing fallout between the trio is less about the painting than it is about the three old friends realizing that their ideas, values, and dreams have diverged so dramatically that they have become unrecognizable to each other, and the men are deeply hurt by their emotional estrangement from one another. Reza then uses the friends’ cataclysmic fight to comment on the ways art takes its meaning from the experiences and emotions that people project onto it. The “blank canvas” of the painting, a pretentious and practically useless aesthetic object, becomes a vehicle for a massive reckoning between the three men as they argue, and their feelings about the painting turn out to reveal volumes about their feelings toward one another.
In Art’s final moments, Marc—who has spent the entire play railing against his friend’s pretentiousness, stilted aestheticism, and blind allegiance to the “concept” of art—describes at last how he himself sees the Antrios. In doing so, he reveals that the meaningless “piece of shit” that has threatened his fifteen-year friendship with Serge actually does mean something to him. The painting, to Marc, “represents a man who moves across a space and disappears.” Though this statement is open to interpretation, Marc possibly sees himself as the disappearing man, and realizes that his ideals and values have been nothing but pretention all along, and that it is time for him to reevaluate what is meaningful and allow the pretentious parts of himself to fall away. In another reading, it’s possible that Marc sees Serge as the disappearing man—his friend’s values have changed so much that he has become a stranger to Marc entirely, and has disappeared into a world Marc can’t ever fully understand. By demonstrating the ways in which one piece of art slowly takes on different meanings for Serge, Marc, and Yvan, Reza argues that although art has no inherent meaning in itself alone, humanity continues to value and celebrate art because of the deep meaning it takes on when human perspective and emotion are applied to it.
Art and Meaning ThemeTracker
Art and Meaning Quotes in Art
SERGE: My friend Marc’s an intelligent enough fellow, I’ve always valued our relationship, he has a good job, but he’s one of those new-style intellectuals, who are not only enemies of modernism, but seem to take some sort of incomprehensible pride in running it down… In recent years, these nostalgia-merchants have become quite breathtakingly arrogant.
MARC: It’s a complete mystery to me, Serge buying this painting. It’s unsettled me, it’s filled me with some indefinable unease. When I left his place, I had to take three capsules of Gelsemium 9X which Paula recommended because I couldn’t begin to understand how Serge, my friend, could have bought that picture. Two hundred thousand francs! He’s comfortably off, but he’s hardly rolling in money. Comfortable, no more, just comfortable. And he spends two hundred grand on a white painting. I must go and see Yvan, he’s a friend of ours, I have to discuss this with Yvan. Mind you, Yvan’s a very tolerant bloke, which of course, when it comes to relationships, is the worst thing you can be. Yvan’s very tolerant because he couldn’t care less. If Yvan tolerates the fact that Serge has spent two hundred grand on some piece of white shit, it’s because he couldn’t care less about Serge. Obviously.
YVAN: As long as it’s not doing any harm to anyone else…
MARC: But it is. It’s doing harm to me! I’m disturbed, I’m disturbed, more than that, I’m hurt, yes, I am, I’m fond of Serge, and to see him let himself be ripped off and lose every ounce of discernment through sheer snobbery.
SERGE: You know Marc’s seen this painting.
SERGE: He told me it was shit. A completely inappropriate description.
SERGE: You can’t call this shit.
SERGE: You can say, I don’t get it, I can’t grasp it, you can’t say “it’s shit.”
YVAN: You’ve seen his place.
SERGE: Nothing to see. It’s like yours, it’s… what I mean is, you couldn’t care less.
SERGE: I don't blame him for not responding to this painting, he hasn't the training, there's a whole apprenticeship you have to go through, which he hasn't, either because he's never wanted to or because he has no particular instinct for it, none of that matters, no, what I blame him for is his tone of voice, his complacency, his tactlessness. I blame him for his insensitivity. I don't blame him for not being interested in modern Art, I couldn’t give a toss about that, I like him for other reasons . . .
YVAN: And he likes you!
SERGE: No, no, no, no, I felt it the other day, a kind of . . . a kind of condescension . . . contempt with a really bitter edge...
YVAN: No, surely not!
SERGE: Oh, yes! Don’t keep trying to smooth things over. Where d'you get this urge to be the great reconciler of the human race?! Why don't you admit that Marc is atrophying? If he hasn't already atrophied.
MARC: He wasn't laughing because his painting is ridiculous, you and he weren't laughing for the same reasons, you were laughing at the painting and he was laughing to ingratiate himself, to put himself on your wavelength, to show you that on top of being an aesthete who can spend more on a painting than you earn in a year, he's still your same old subversive mate who likes a good laugh.
YVAN: Mm hm… You know. . .
YVAN: This is going to amaze you…
MARC: Go on. . .
YVAN: I didn't like the painting . . . but I didn't actually hate it.
MARC: Well, of course. You can’t hate what's invisible, you can't hate nothing.
YVAN: No, no, it has something . . .
MARC: What do you mean?
YVAN: It has something. It's not nothing.
MARC: Why do I have to be so categorical? What possible difference can it make to me, if Serge lets himself be taken in by modern Art? I mean, it is a serious matter. But I could have found some other way to put it to him. I could have taken a less aggressive tone. Even if it makes me physically ill that my best friend has bought a white painting, all the same I ought to avoid attacking him about it. I ought to be nice to him. From now on, I’m on my best behavior.
MARC: Could it be the Antrios, buying the Antrios? No—It started some time ago… To be precise, it started on the day we were discussing some work of art and you uttered, quite seriously, the word deconstruction. It wasn’t so much the word deconstruction which upset me, it was the air of solemnity you imbued it with. You said, humorlessly, unapologetically, without a trace of irony, the word deconstruction, you, my friend. I wasn’t sure how best to deal with the situation, so I made this throwaway remark, and I said I think I must be getting intolerant, and you answered, who do you think you are?
What gives you the right to set yourself apart, Serge answered in the bloodiest possible way. And quite unexpectedly. You’re just Marc, what makes you think you’re so special? That day, I should have punched him in the mouth. And when he was lying there on the ground, half-dead, I should have said to him, what sort of friend are you, Serge, if you don’t think your friends are special?
MARC: It’s true I can’t imagine you genuinely loving that painting.
YVAN: But why?
MARC: Because I love Serge and I can’t love the Serge who’s capable of buying that painting.
SERGE: Why do you say buying, why don’t you say loving?
MARC: Because I can’t say loving, I can’t believe loving.
SERGE: So why would I buy it, if I didn’t love it?
MARC: That’s the nub of the question.
SERGE: (to YVAN) See how smug he is! All I’m doing is teasing him, and his answer is this serenely pompous heavy hint! And it never crossed your mind, [Marc,] for a second, however improbably it might seem, that I might really love it and that your vicious, inflexible opinions and your disgusting assumption[s] might be hurtful to me?
SERGE: Why can’t you learn to love people for themselves, Marc?
MARC: What does that mean, for themselves?
SERGE: For what they are.
MARC: But what are they?! What are they?! Apart from my faith in them I’m desperate to find a friend who has some kind of prior existence. So far, I’ve had no luck. I’ve had to mold you… But you see, it never works. There comes a day when your creature goes off and buys a white painting.
SERGE: When Marc and I succeeded in obliterating the skier, with the aid of Swiss soap with added ox gall, recommended by Paula, I looked at the Antrios and turned to Marc:
“Did you know ink from felt-tips was washable?”
“No,” Marc said… “No, did you?”
“No,” I said, very fast, lying. I came within an inch of saying yes, I did know. But how could I have launched our trial period with such a disappointing admission? On the other hand, was it right to start with a lie? A lie! Let’s be reasonable. Why am I so absurdly virtuous? Why does my relationship with Marc have to be so complicated?
MARC: 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.