This week there has been a proliferation of articles relating to public reaction to works of art. Whether they are produced by well known artists shown at Grand Palais as part of the International Contemporary Art Fair (ICAF) or those of lesser known artists unveiled at Carreau du Temple for the Young International Artists (YIA) Art Fair or for the international city of arts for their Welcome Art Fair, the works shown have elicited a real debate on the value of art today. They have highlighted the divide that exists among viewers; not only those who are for or against but also from all those who follow the developments of contemporary art from afar and who choose to stay away from the media uproar.
Because it portrays of three different kinds of viewer, it’s worthwhile to take another look at the film Art directed by Yves-André Hubert, adapted from the play of the same name that was written in 1994 by Yasmina Reza. Indeed, even if it falls within the context of modern art, the storyline is representative of the tensions that shake up the response to works of art today. In this film, three friends, Serge, Mark and Ivan get into an argument over the purchase of a painting worth 20,000 francs by one of them. The painting in question is about 1.6m by 1,2m; it is a white background on which there are three white intersecting pinstripes. Although the painting is merely an excuse for exploring the relationships among the three men, the discussions it provokes reveal the different criteria used to evaluate the piece. The film’s value lies in the way it is able to highlight them without caricaturing them.
Serge (played by Fabrice Lucchini) is the one who buys the painting. He’s a man of culture with a firm understanding of the laws that dominate contemporary art. It is within the prism of this knowledge that he is able to recognize the value of his purchase and a lack of sophistication is the reason why he rebukes his friend Mark: ”I don’t blame him for not appreciating the painting, he has no education for it, but still there is an apprenticeship that he has not done because he never bothered to”. Serge is convinced of the quality of his painting because, besides his understanding of art history, he has also made the effort to inform himself about the artist whose painting he just purchased. The painting that he bought is representative of one of the painter’s periods as he explains to Ivan. Serge is also convinced of the value of his painting because it has been appraised by experts; the great gallery owner Handtington is ready to buy the painting from him and four other pieces by the painter are represented in the Beaubourg collections. If Serge finds it necessary to surround himself with experts, it’s because he confers art with a particular status, he compares for example, the figure of the artist to a divinity. Serge falls within an old tradition that gives art a revered place. But beyond the art world, Serge is attached to his era, he likes the idea of being a man representative of his time while Mark is determined to distance himself from it because he considers it unbearable.
It is true that style is not a criteria with any value for Mark (played by Pierre Vaneck) who mocks the term “modernism” used by his friend in relation to the essay On the Happy Life by Seneca. Mark does not think that the adjective “modern” is a compliment and when Serge justifies his use of the term by the fact that Seneca’s thoughts are still relevant 2,000 years after they were written, Mark answers him that, “it’s characteristic of the classics”. Mark does not believe in the values of novelty and surprise that govern contemporary art but he is even more indignant that this rule is the prevailing one and it automatically renders any differing opinion obsolete. It is through the lens of this opinion that he analyses Serge’s painting. Mark is incapable of appreciating the painting beyond the dichotomy of old/modern. It’s the reason why he interprets Serge’s attachment to the painting as a desire to belong to a particular social class and accuses Ivan of being, “a slavish little sycophant who is impressed by money, impressed by what he thinks is high culture”. It’s difficult for Mark to understand how Serge and Ivan can be so sincerely moved by the piece because he does not accept the profound relationship to the piece. Furthermore, Mark is not a caricature either. If he resists the practice of deconstruction in modern art, he has better incorporated certain criticisms of the avant-gardes, especially those relating to the special status given to artists and their work, than Serge has; Mark rejects the notion of the creator being above ordinary men and is outraged that assessing art is strictly reserved for specialists whom he does not see as being particularly competent.
If Serge and Mark judge the painting in terms of their knowledge and the values they seek to find in art, the character of Ivan (portrayed by Pierre Arditi) maintains a disinterested relationship to the piece and only considers it from the perspective of his own subjective pleasure. He’s certainly not able to appreciate the painting in terms of art history (he confuses, to Serge’s dismay, the painting with a monochrome) neither does he expect the piece to comply with certain artistic standards (construction, deconstruction) but he has his own criteria for judging the piece, “Everything that’s beautiful and important in the world is never the result of rational discussion”, he asserts. Emotions are what guide Ivan, the emotions brought on by the painting but also all the discussion surrounding it. Accordingly, if his first instinct is to reject the painting which was described in somewhat flattering terms by Mark, he later confesses to him, repeating Serge’s arguments, that he liked the piece. Ivan is guided by his moods which go far beyond the scope of the art world. Finally, when pressed by his two friends to give his personal opinion, he claims that the painting touched him but he also maintains that it is not worth the price paid.
Serge’s approach to art is not ideological, somewhat detached and probably the most reasonable of the three but whichever character we identify with, the film’s strength is to bring them all together within the same space. If Serge finds Mark’s opinions outdated, if Mark believes Serge’s are shallow, if both of them refuse to accept Ivan’s lack of opinion and the latter can’t understand why they are arguing over a painting, the three portrayals of the viewer don’t express themselves by interposing opinions, they debate together. It is the kind of dialogue that has likely been missing this week when some people have been delighted by the price of art pieces while other have been outraged by it without ever explaining the reasons behind their opinions. In the film Art, however, the three characters destroy the painting but the same three also rebuild it.