Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

Yasmina Reza got the idea for this play when a friend named Serge Goldszal bought a white painting for 200,000 francs, and she told him that he “must be mad,” and then they both laughed. Later, she wondered what might have happened if her friend had not laughed.

“Art” is...

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Yasmina Reza got the idea for this play when a friend named Serge Goldszal bought a white painting for 200,000 francs, and she told him that he “must be mad,” and then they both laughed. Later, she wondered what might have happened if her friend had not laughed.

“Art” is widely acclaimed as a glittering study of male psychology. Marc, controlling and aggressive, is hurt that Serge could buy the painting without first consulting him. Marc does not understand Serge’s assertion that the Antrios painting has a “system,” that its minimalism builds upon the centuries of art that preceded it. To Marc, Serge is self-deluded, and in acting without Marc’s cultural guidance, he is a traitor. Both view Yvan, the conciliator, as weak. Serge is perhaps the most likable—always the first to admit he might be wrong—but those not familiar with art may find him snooty.

Reza told interviewer Simon Hattenstone, “Things are never clear in real life, so why should they be in art?” The play tackles the age-old question, “What is art?” For Serge, the answer lies in the judgment of the critics. When confronted by Marc’s astonishment at the price he paid, Serge notes he could resell it “for two hundred and twenty.” He feels smug for owning a work by a “well-known” artist. Still, Serge wants his friends’ approval, too.

Serge talks twice about Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Stoic first century philosopher who wrote De vita beata (c. 58 c.e.; On the Happy Life, 1614). Seneca wrote that one attains happiness by allowing reason to free oneself from fear and desire. A happy life is gained through virtue; one should “do the right thing” and be indifferent toward everything else. Serge tells Marc he will be calmer if he reads Seneca; later, Marc sarcastically tells Yvan to read Seneca.

The themes of this play, art and friendship, are subjects of enormous emotional value and conflict, so it is difficult to be stoical about them. Critics interpret Yvan’s statement about nothing great or beautiful ever being born of rational argument in different ways. Reza’s plays are called comedies, but she calls them “funny tragedies” and regards “Art” as heartbreaking.

The play’s shocking climax comes when Serge demonstrates that friendship is more valuable than artistic opinions by giving Marc a pen to defile his expensive canvas. However, the audience later sees that Serge has done this knowing he would be able to clean the ink off the canvas, so his gesture is essentially a lie. The drawing of a skiing man represented, as Marc says, “a man who moves across a space and disappears.” Each of them has become solitary, and each will “disappear” from the others if they cannot rebuild their friendship.

The audience may take hope from the fact that Reza’s friendship with the real-life Serge survived. When asked by interviewer Pearl Sheffy Gefen in 1999 about his reaction to having a character based on him, Reza said, “Oh yes, he is my very best friend, he loves the play absolutely. He was the first to read it. I asked him if I should correct anything in the way Serge speaks. He told me, ’No, unfortunately it’s accurate.’ He laughed a lot, and he still has the painting.”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841

The Nature of Friendship
The central theme of Art is the nature of friendship. The play revolves around the interactions of three middle-aged men who have been friends for some fifteen years. This long-standing friendship is thrown into crisis when Serge purchases an expensive work of art. The severity of this crisis demonstrates the fragile nature of friendship because a simple change in the status quo brings up longstanding tensions between the three friends. Anne Marie Donahue observed in a Boston Globe review that Art concerns ‘‘the sadness and confusion that can result when long-term friendships collapse for no clear reason.’’ Benedict Nightingale noted in a review in the Times (London) that Art is about elements of ‘‘the politics of friendship,’’ such as ‘‘dominance, control, insecurity, and the place of compromise and fibs in most relationships.’’ By the play’s end, Serge and Marc have agreed to ‘‘reconstruct’’ their friendship, and they intend to have a ‘‘trial period’’ of reconciliation. Thus, while the friendship between the three men is temporarily patched up, the fragility of these relationships has been established, and the future of the friendship is left up in the air.

Friendship and Change
Marc feels that Serge’s purchase of the Antrios painting is a symbol of a major change in the nature of their friendship. Marc explains that Serge once looked up to him as a role model and adopted many of Marc’s basic values and attitudes. However, as the two have grown apart, Serge has begun to associate and socialize with a new set of people who do not necessarily share Marc’s perspective. Everett Evans commented in the Houston Chronicle that the painting in Art ‘‘comes to represent the friends’ growing apart, Serge’s rejection of former mentor Marc, and his move to a different circle with different values.’’ Marc admits that he feels abandoned by Serge because of these recent changes in the dynamics of their friendship.

Friendship and Individual Identity
Marc’s sense of individual identity, his sense of who he is as a person, is dependent on feeling that his friends look up to him and follow his lead in forming their opinions. Marc is threatened by Serge’s show of independent thought and taste because he interprets this act as a personal rejection. Marc’s feelings toward his friends are thus very self-centered and are based more on flattering his own ego than on a real affection for others. Marc tells Serge, ‘‘I loved the way you saw me,’’ not that he loved Serge for who he was as an individual. Serge exclaims to Marc, ‘‘Everything has to revolve around you! Why can’t you learn to love people for themselves, Marc?’’ Because Marc is so insecure about his individual identity, he feels unloved by his friends if they demonstrate any independence from him.

Friendship and Male-Female Relationships
Although no female characters appear in Art, the conversations between the three men reveal a lot about their relationships with women. More significant to the central theme of the play, the tensions between these three friends are reflected or acted out through the comments they make about each other’s relationships with women. Yvan is engaged to be married in a couple of weeks to a woman named Catherine; Marc is either married to or in a long-term relationship with a woman named Paula; and Serge is divorced from a woman named Francoise, with whom he has two children. As the tensions between the three friends escalate, they begin to express their anger toward one another by criticizing each other’s relationships.

Serge comes across as the most hostile to the women in his friends’ lives, probably because he is divorced and seems to feel bitter about it, as well as that he himself does not seem to be in a steady relationship with a woman. When the argument over the painting heats up, Serge tells Yvan that Catherine is a ‘‘gorgon’’ and that if he goes through with his marriage to her, he is going to have ‘‘a hideous future.’’ Yvan points out that Serge is ‘‘not necessarily the person I’d come to for matrimonial advice,’’ adding, ‘‘You can’t claim to have been a great success in that field.’’ Later, Serge says insulting things about Paula, which provokes Marc to the point where he attempts to physically attack his friend.

The men’s commentary on the women in each other’s lives functions as a means of expressing tensions that already exist within their friendship. Serge chooses to attack Paula in order to hurt Marc and demonstrate that Marc’s disdain for the Antrios painting is just as hurtful as being told one’s loved one is an awful person. Serge and Marc gang up in criticizing Catherine as a means of expressing their resentment toward Yvan for trying to remain neutral in the conflict over the painting. Reza thus demonstrates the ways in which relationships with others can become a focus for acting out tensions and conflicts between friends.

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