–In Yasmina Reza’s play, Art (1994), three Parisian friends—Serge, Marc and Yvan—argue over an almost completely white abstract painting that Serge has proudly bought for 200,000 francs. Marc is irate that his friend has spent a fortune on “a piece of white [excrement].” The play is an exquisite meditation on the nature of art, its status as commodity and its ability to say and do things to us that make us cry, and laugh, and get uncomfortable with each other.
Now when I tell you the actors who appeared on Broadway playing these characters in the English language version of the play, translated by Christopher Hampton, which ran from February 1998 to August 1999, something unexpected and important is revealed. Of the list of Alan Alda (who played Marc at the New York premiere), Victor Garber, Alfred Molina, Judd Hirsch, Joe Morton, George Wendt, Buck Henry, George Segal, and Wayne Knight, all are accomplished comedians, as befits a terrific comic play, but half are famous not for high art theater, nor even film, but as stars of American television sitcoms, that purportedly lowest of cultural forms: Alan Alda from M*A*S*H, George Wendt from Cheers, Judd Hirsch from Taxi, and Wayne Knight from Seinfeld.
I thought of this as I watched a recent episode of Louie, comedian Louie C.K.’s sitcom on the FX cable network. Since last season, C.K. has been taking the American sitcom to new artistic heights, mixing his political stand-up with a full blown high art Surrealism. As far as I can tell, this move on the show, now having just finished its fourth season, began in August 2012, when Louie’s character was improbably given a chance to host the “Late Show” on CBS upon the retirement of David Letterman. Of course, it turns out not to be, but as training, Louie is asked to go visit industry veteran Jack Dall, played by David Lynch, in full Twin Peaks mode.
The appearance of Lynch, famous for having turned American suburbia into a sex and drug-infused nightmare in Blue Velvet (1986), seems to have infected Louie’s sitcom with Surreal-itis. Louie’s agent is a 14-year old kid, who seems to know nothing about show business, presented to us with a straight face, and no commentary. It is both hilarious and profoundly moving, taking the beleaguered loser of the American sitcom, from Ralph Kramden onward, giving him the full palate of New York City in which to romp.
In the wake of this Surrealist turn, the fourth season of Louie has presented every episode in a dream-like shroud, never confirming whether the drole comic hijinks should be read in a realist vein or not. In the episode, “Model” (first aired on May 5, 2014), Louie improbably sleeps with a young supermodel. When she begins tickling him in a post-coital moment of pique, he accidentally smashes her in the nose with his elbow, knocking her unconscious. In the middle of the Hamptons, desperate to stay out of jail, Louie finds an incompetent lawyer who condemns him to pay $5,000 a month to the model as recompense for her lost income. Of course, we never hear about this in the subsequent episodes, especially an explanation of how a working class comedian can afford to pay $5,000 a month to anyone, and still make his rent while raising two kids in the middle of Manhattan.
The closest the show has come to tipping its hand to acknowledge it is now speaking in the language of Surrealism, Freudian dream-states and the like, is when his youngest daughter slips off of the subway right before the doors close. A frantic Louie rushes with his elder daughter, dashing to the train running in the opposite direction on the other track, thankfully finding her a half an hour later, still standing on the platform, unharmed. When he gets her back home, she simply declares that he shouldn’t be so upset, that it’s all just a part of her dream.
So, during the last episode of the season, when Louie takes his date Pamela to a modern art museum, it is clear that we are no longer in the world of conventional sitcom dates, as when a very different Louie (played by Danny DeVito) took out Rhea Perlman for a predictably disastrous night on the town in Taxi. Instead of I Love Lucy or All in the Family, C.K. takes us to the world of Reza’s Art, where human interaction is presented to mine the full complexities of what life means, and why it matters.
Louie and Pamela’s journey through the art museum is a sublime exploration of what art does when it is working. They laugh at a pile of dog excrement on the floor, presented as sculpture. Pamela embarrasses Louie as she points to the rear end of a papier-mâché dog, claiming perhaps that he is the culprit for the excremental artwork in the other room. But the sequence achieves its climax as Louie stares at the inversion of Reza’s tabula rasa, a completely black canvas. Louie jokes, “It says, Jews.” Pamela turns away from him, walks into the next room, in which is simply a pedestal on which rests an old timey radio. On the front of the pedestal, huge black letters say “press” with a large arrow pointing upward toward the button. Pamela, in disbelief, questions Louie, “So you press a thing just because it says so?” Pamela connects this encounter back to Louie’s narrativization of the black painting: “You would not have survived the camps.” Not yet understanding, Louie insists on pushing the button, which he does. Out of the radio’s loudspeaker emerges a voice that shouts a vile racial epithet. Everyone in the museum turns to look at Louie, who they now assume is a racist. When Louie tries to explain about the button, he presses it again and again, but each time, the button only mocks him, lowing like a cow, meowing as a cat. The rest of the patrons walk away in disgust, and Louie must skulk out of the museum, humiliated.
The crescendo in the art museum recalls most directly “Fallen Leaves,” the most powerful piece of art I have ever experienced. Created by Menashe Kadishman, “Shalechet” is an installation in the Jewish Museum Berlin that consists of a huge array of (some 10,000) metal “faces” lying on the ground. Each is unique, individually crafted from hand-cut disks of inch-thick sheet metal, haphazardly piled three or four deep in a long corridor. The card as you enter tells you that the artist requests that you walk upon it. It takes a step or two to realize you are stomping on representations of Holocaust victims, a shock exacerbated by the unbearably loud clanking generated by stepping on the stacked faces in the concrete tunnel. I could not bear it and turned back.
Both horrified and morbidly curious, I wondered what other visitors would make of the exhibit. To my fascination, as I found a nearby bench to unobtrusively observe others interact with it, I saw a number of visitors (mostly German high school students) traverse the sea of faces with little problem. But however far each went, confused at such unusual instructions, but without thinking about disobeying the artist, we all walked on the faces. We were just “following orders.”
Even more disturbing was my inherent fascination with the whole exhibit, watching quietly to see what others would do. It thus turns out this artwork, like Reza’s Art is also about spectatorship: it asks us to question not only what kind of human being walks on others, but, What kind of human watches such stomping and does nothing? “Fallen Leaves” viscerally encourages one to come to terms with one’s role as perpetrator, something that even the U.S. Holocaust Museum, at which one is given a passport to identify with a victim, refuses to do.
It is hard to imagine an American sitcom before Louie working at this sophisticated of a theoretical level. But, the date with Pamela episode is not just a wonderful representation of the importance of art to thinking people, it is itself an experiment in spectatorship. Louie C.K. asks us to mature as viewers while watching his reinvented sitcom. He asks us to ponder whether it is the correct thing to push the button. By taking abstract questions about culpability out of the realm of Kadishman’s installation art, and into people’s homes on the television screen, Louie joins Reza as an artist who allows us to interrogate our proper role in the world. Like Serge’s painting, Louie will not be to everyone’s taste; but, for those of us who care to know how art can guide us through the world, it is breathtaking to behold.
– Walter Metz