But is it Art?

Dr Sally Marlow reviews Art at the Old Vic; written by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Matthew Warchus. Dr Marlow also speaks to one of the stars of the play, Paul Ritter; and artist Teresa Albor.

Art first burst onto the London theatre scene more than two decades ago in 1996, after a hugely successful reception in France two years earlier. The premise is simple. The relationships between three long-standing friends are tested when one of them, Serge, buys an expensive and fashionable piece of abstract art. Marc is outraged that someone he considers a close friend can make such a purchase, and tries to enlist Yvan to his cause, but Yvan resolutely walks a middle line. Arguments develop, with monologues addressed to the audience, dialogues between two characters, and conversations between all three men, and soon shifting power dynamics in the triad and underlying antagonisms are brought to the surface. A resolution of sorts is reached when Serge invites Marc to deface the painting, and he does. However, there is a sense that the friendships have not really survived, and that they will never be the same again. Most of the play takes place in Serge’s flat, where what some have argued is the fourth character, the painting of white diagonal stripes on a white background, is brought on and off stage at will by Serge. 

I took Teresa Albor with me, a multidisciplinary artist with a studio practice based in London www.TeresaAlbor.com and asked her about the use of the artwork. She was clear that for her this piece of minimalist art and its inaccessibility are simply a metaphor for status. Indeed, discussion of the merits of the work in the play itself are few (although both Serge, and later Yvan, profess to be moved by it). It’s never really clear what Serge sees in the painting other than a desire to possess something desired by others, but out of reach because of its cost. It’s no co-incidence that Serge is a Parisian dermatologist, and Marc is a more provincial aeronautical engineer. However, Albor was also clear that when you do any type of work that is difficult to understand, often people’s response is to make fun and/or mock the work. Also, she was discomfited by the scene where Marc defaces the painting – for her this was an upsetting gesture that she likened to defacing a book (even as it was intended to demonstrate that Mark and Serge’s friendship was more important than the painting). There is a plot punch line on the defacing however - the pen contains washable ink, as Serge knows full well when he invites Marc to draw on the painting with it.  

Arnheim (1969) famously articulated that for us to comprehend a piece of art, we have to see in it our own everyday experiences. Art therefore has meaning for us when we can recognise something in its form and content. And if we can’t? Well, perhaps the answer to that might depend on our need for certainly and on our feelings about our own existence and mortality. Landau et al. (2006) in their fabulously titled paper Windows Into Nothingness: Terror Management, Meaninglessness, and Negative Reactions to Modern Art showed that an individual’s salience of mortality is inversely correlated with a liking for modern art – the more preoccupied with death a person is, the less likely they are to engage with art which is perceived as meaningless. In the interests of good science it should be pointed out that as with many psychological experiments of the modern day, Landau et al’s sample group was psychology students, and to my knowledge the findings have not been replicated. It’s also based on their own theory of terror management. However, I found their paper and its discussion of our reactions to modern art very thought provoking. They also pose the question, is it feelings of mortality or perceptions of meaninglessness which are the most threatening? They come down on the side of mortality, but then feelings about mortality, although difficult, are in many ways easier to research and quantify than feelings of meaninglessness. Death is after all objective – it happens, and to everyone. Meaning is subjective, both in terms of what it is, and in terms of how important it is. 

Certainly a sense of existential angst had come across for me in watching the disintegration of Marc throughout the play, culminating in his final speech, which revealed a life void of meaning and full of terror. For me, this play was not just about friendships unravelling, it was also about Marc unravelling. I understood why, when collecting an Olivier Award for best comedy, the playwright Reza stated ‘I’m surprised, I thought that I had written a tragedy’. Tragedy and comedy have long been bedfellows, and this production of Art pulls off a near perfect balance of the two.

A couple of days after I saw the play, the actor who plays Marc, Paul Ritter (Friday Night Dinner, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) met me and shone more light. His interpretation is that Marc protests too much. He finds the painting so threatening because he feels he is being whited out himself, and that something about the painting reflects back to Marc that he is a man in deep crisis. He does his damnedest to keep these feeling at bay by unleashing a great lexicon of grievance. He fears and loathes the painting, but he also fears and loathes Yvan’s psychoanalysis, and denigrates that in the same way he denigrates the painting. Ritter loves the comic certainty of Marc, and his role as the professional burglar who is outraged when his own things are stolen.

Ritter also believes the play is about tolerance, which is interesting because there is so little tolerance evident in the play, although it must have been there once for the friendship between these three disparate men to survive and thrive. Now however, it’s the contempt Serge and Marc have for each other, and for Yvan, which takes centre stage. Contempt is known to be extremely damaging in relationships. In one study Fisher and Roseman (2007) found that contempt emerges when one person feels they cannot control the behaviour of another. Marc can no longer control Serge, whereas for 15 years he has seen himself as Serge’s mentor. Serge and Marc cannot prevent Yvan’s outbursts, Serge joining Marc in behaviour he previously berated Marc for – using Yvan as his ‘punching bag’. 

The seemingly hapless Yvan appears to understand more (or at least is trying to understand more) about the nature of their existence than either of them. He has written down a gem from his psychoanalyst Finkelzone and reads it out to them: ‘If I'm who I am because I'm who I am, and you're who you are because you're who you are, then I'm who I am and you're who you are. If however... I'm who I am because you're who you are, and you're who you are because I'm who I am, then I'm not who I am and you're not who you are." Perhaps it’s here that the play is at its most French. Without wishing to conform too much to nationalistic stereotypes, it’s obvious the playwright is not British, and certainly it’s difficult to imagine British men discussing their friendships and psychoanalysis in quite the same way. 

Given this, it’s a testament to Reza, and to the translation by Christopher Hampton, that the play has been such an enduring favourite in the UK, having over the years featured actors and comedians as diverse as Ken Stott and Jack Dee. It’s perhaps important to remember that the play itself was hugely controversial in the mid 1990s, because it was short at 90 minutes long, and had no interval.  Like the painting, it challenged existing ideas of form and therefore existing ideas of meaning. Both my interviewees for this article, Teresa Albor and Paul Ritter, have themselves created or participated in art that audiences have found underwhelming, or not understood; and have then dismissed as meaningless, or pretentious or silly. For Albor this happens “all the time”, and for Ritter, “that’s an actor’s lot really”. 

I suspect in another two decades we’ll still be wrestling with the questions Art raises. In the meantime, do go and see it if you can. 

Art runs until 18 February at the Old Vic, London.

Dr Sally Marlow is a Public Engagement Fellow in the Addictions Department at King's College London.


Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press

Fisher, A.H. & Roseman, I.J. (2007). Beat Them or Ban Them: The Characteristics and Social Functions of Anger and Contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(1), 103 – 115.

Landau, M.J., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S. et al. (2006). Windows Into Nothingness: Terror Management, Meaninglessness, and Negative Reactions to Modern Art. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(6), 879-892.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber