Artists in the presence of Art

Artists in the presence of Art

Ars Gratia Artis

The band plays an overture, and the lights rise on New York of the not-too-distant future. Mary, an MFA grad student studying painting is at a Catholic mass — to get inspiration, she tells her lover Françoise (for non-francophones that’s the female version of François), who is also an MFA student in sculpture. Kate, Mary’s sister and an aspiring art dealer, arrives to ask Mary for her signature on some documents related to their dead parents’ estate. Mary has been using her inheritance to fund her studies, which bothers both Kate and Mary’s conscience. But no matter, Mary hears a higher calling, and she feels she has no other choice: create art or die.

In preparation for their juries, Mary and Françoise tease each other with very theoretical critiques on what art is “supposed” to do. Mary believes art is sensual, visceral and intuitive. Colors produce ecstatic emotional states in Mary. Françoise is bored and frustrated with sculpture. Positive space is positively repulsive, and her attempts to create negative space reduce her sculpture to nearly nothing. Kate doesn’t understand Mary’s work, presumably because Kate lacks the innate aesthetic sense Mary possesses, but Kate understands Françoise very well. Kate understands that the concept sells the art; the art does not create the (aesthetic) concept in the mind of the customer. At the jury, both Mary and Kate fail, and they take their revenge on art snobs everywhere by pissing in Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.”

Their protest lands Mary in jail. When she gets out, Mary convinces Françoise to move with her to Françoise’s hometown, Vancouver, BC to start their lives over. In Vancouver, Mary and Françoise wed, but their views on art move farther apart. Françoise accuses Mary of living in the 19th century, and Mary accuses Françoise of falling for the cynical, commercial, post-Modern idea (advocated by Kate the art dealer and, of course, Duchamp) that art is whatever convinces a collector to pull out their wallet. In a climactic throwdown, Françoise discovers Mary stabbing her canvas with a cheese knife. They fight and Françoise cuts Mary’s ear half off, Van Gogh style. Disgusted, Françoise announces she is leaving — for good. Mary is involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. In the last act, Mary, Kate and Françoise are reunited in Shanghai three years later, where Mary and Françoise will produce their last, most horrifying statement on life and art. (Hint: it is a conflation of body and spirit, like the transubstantiation of the host in a Catholic mass.)

Mass, a musical animated by highbrow, art world concepts, runs an elliptical course around two foci. Mary sits at one point, a gay, female Van Gogh, who represents corporeality, essence and authenticity. At the other point is Françoise, who represents a cynical post-Moderism — the commercial impulse behind abstract art. Mary believes in art for art’s sake in the same way that a religious true-believer feels the power of God but can’t articulate it rationally. For her, true art follows Plato’s definition in the Ion: it is a peculiar manifestation of the divine. (Oddly, Mary dismisses Françoise’s foray into music because music isn’t art. I wonder what she thinks of theatre?) Françoise (under the influence of Kate — the Theo to Mary’s Van Gogh) eventually goes all-in on conceptualism, changing her name to Pablo and assuming a Dali-esque demeanor. In the process she becomes the Pontius Pilate, evil, passive, guiltless and banal, to Mary’s Jesus.

Mass has some strange contradictions. On one hand, we are clearly meant to identify with Mary as the heroine and despise the unholy marriage of commerce and cultishness between Kate and Françoise. On the other hand, Mary’s rejection of music and concept in art argues for a rejection of the spiritual in favor of the physical. That can’t possibly be the case, because Mary also embodies the divine madness of the artist-genius, who, in popular mythology, channels energy from the spiritual to the physical world. Mary rejects the “halo effect” of the author’s reputation — what Foucault called the “author function.” But Van Gogh is a paradigmatic example of the success of the author function. His paintings may catch and please your eye, or you may think they look like a child’s finger paintings, but the story of his life, including his very literary letters, and the instantaneous legend that grew up about him after he died, added so much value to his work that it has become iconic (religious pun intended). The effect of his reputation has completely overwhelmed the individual (authentic) aesthetic experience in the eye of an individual beholder.

Art’s aesthetic effect operates on the individual, and its social effect increases as the reputation of the work (and the author) grows. The two effects are overlapping, not necessarily coterminous, but impossible to extricate from one another. To make the confusion all the more annoying, “serious” artists want to have it both ways — they want individual people to be turned on by their work and they want social recognition for being the god-like creators of your good feeling. Unfortunately, people are different in an infinite number of ways, so everyone’s individual experience of a work of art will also be incrementally, marginally different. Consequently, any popular work of art will necessarily lose its boundaries and its form; it will be reduced to its most salient characteristics and broadest outlines, the impressions that stick with the greatest number. It will become insipid — like God. Maybe this is why so many artists find inspiration with Jesus. He’s the incarnation of an abstract — and absolutely unassailable — principle.

The show “NYC 1993: Jet Set, Trash, and No Star” at The New Museum shows that the questions raised by Mass and articulated since the discovery of Modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century have become central to our understanding of what makes “serious” art. On one hand you have the materialists who insist that the thing itself is unique and authentic. On the other hand you have the entire social machinery of the art world promoting the idea that orange, wall-to-wall carpet becomes a work of art when it is installed in a museum and accompanied by an explanatory wall plaque. (As a critic, I can’t help but think the plaque is the actual art work and its unnamed, unsung writer the real artist.) Mass, a performance with music and beautiful visual effects produced by bodies moving in space, set installations and video projections, makes a better argument for the inseparability of spirit and matter (form and content, if you will), than any of the characters in the play make with their learned speeches.

At The Brick Theater through April 30th.