Premiering in France (and French) in 1994, Yasmina Reza’s Art continues to enjoy sold-out audiences, with an all-star cast of Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson. In a unit set, the play explores the relationships between the three protagonists: the Art Ingratiator, the Art Snob, and the Art Curious. Billed as 'One of the most successful plays ever', and with a collection of prestigious awards to testify, the hype surrounding this play might leave some with high expectations. Tonight, the show pleased: an impressive cast with a tight script echoed confidently in the historic theatre.
At just 90 minutes long, the play packs in a lot: a tour de force of satire, cultural commentary and intricate character acting. Indeed, the performance of the three protagonists reflects and justifies their lucrative individual careers, producing an enjoyable rapport which drives the show forward. More than a few interludes titillate the audience, but for the most part, the play is held back by references that feel dated, aimed at a generation of traditionalists, constrained by backward-facing convention. It should be remembered that 1994 was a very different time for the world of art, and more importantly conversations about art, than the world today.
Centered on a controversial canvas (which this reviewer will reveal nothing further about!), the play cannot help but play into fairly old-hat conversations about what constitutes art in a post-modern landscape. Where are the trees? The impressionism? The semblance of immediately deconstructable meaning? These are the questions the Art Snob (Lawson) poses, yet to the modern viewer they seem redundant, like the quandaries of chivalry from a medieval past. For a play literally about a blank canvas, this reviewer cannot help but feel that the narrative drive feels unsavourily loaded.
In 1994, American artist Jeff Koons first displayed his Balloon Dog, a mirror-polished stainless-steel sculpture in the shape of a clown’s balloon toy, at
We can't know whether this single piece had anything to do with Reza’s original French production of Art, released in the same year. But where Koons’ legacy carries on, one must ask whether Reza’s cynicism towards progress holds much substance in a culture as progressive as the boundary-pushing era of contemporary art we find ourselves in today.
For those well-versed in the politics of contemporary art, this show is a must. For those who sit in the Art Ambivalent or Art Ingratiator camps, however, perhaps a more contemporary production might satiate. Still, what is art if not divisive?