Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 199-206
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Notes and Fragments
Art and Friendship
YASMINA REZA'S PLAY Art is about one man, Serge, who buys a painting, and the reactions of his friends, Marc and Yvan, to his purchase. 1 Marc's response is quite volcanic; for him, Serge's purchase of the painting threatens to wreck their friendship. Yvan tries to mediate the disaffection between Serge and Marc, often at the cost of redirecting their hostilities at himself.
As the play opens, Marc addresses the audience directly. He says:
My friend Serge has bought a painting. It's a canvas about five foot by four: white. The background is white and if you screw up your eyes, you can make out some fine white diagonal lines.
Serge is one of my oldest friends.
He's done very well for himself, he's a dermatologist and he's keen on art.
On Monday, I went to see the painting; Serge had actually got hold of it on the Saturday, but he's been lusting after it for several months.
This white painting with white lines. 2
This prelude explicitly connects the two major themes of the play—art and friendship (Serge is one of Marc's oldest friends), and the relation thereof. After this brief exposition, then, there is a flashback to the scene where Marc first sees Serge's painting, a painting by Antrios, a famous artist. At first Marc reacts warily, tentatively, but, in almost no time at all, he denounces the painting as shit, despite its whiteness. Marc tries to pass off his vituperation as humor and invites Serge to [End Page 199] laugh along with him. But Serge finds nothing funny about the situation, which deteriorates throughout the play as everyone's nerves fray and angers mount.
The action of the play raises an immediate question. Why is Marc's reaction to the painting by Antrios so intense, so violent? Why would a painting endanger a friendship? Why do Marc and Serge seem to be willing to split apart after fifteen years over a matter of taste? Can't they just agree to disagree and leave it at that?
But Marc, at least, cannot. He says, "It's a complete mystery to me, Serge buying this painting. It's unsettled me, it's filled me with some undefinable unease." And that undefinable unease is enough to motivate Marc to attack Serge and Yvan savagely to the point where the friendship among them seems no longer possible. But what is the nature of this undefinable unease and what does its existence tell us about the relation of art to friendship?
Marc and Serge obviously see the painting very differently. Marc keeps referring to the Antrios as white, prompting Serge to correct him—pointing out that it has diagonals as well as bits of various other colors in it. Perhaps this is author Yasmina Reza's way of signaling that Serge, so to speak, sees something in the painting—sees that there's something to it—whereas for Marc, it's a blank, it's empty, it's nothing, it's worthless. Marc continues to be amazed that Serge has paid two hundred thousand francs for the painting. But it's not the money, as such, that bothers Marc; it is what the money symbolizes: that Serge sees something worthy in that which Marc finds worthless. And this threatens their friendship. Why?
One of the earliest conceptions of friendship in Western thought is Aristotle's notion of what he calls the friendship of character or character friendship. This is not the only type of friendship there is—there are also friendships based on such things as expediency—but, for Aristotle, character friendship is the highest sort. This is the type of friendship that obtains between equals—people of equal virtue and excellence.
Now you might think that people who are virtuous and excellent already should have little need of friends. They already have it all. 3 But Aristotle suggests that without friends—friends who are...