In front of a house sinking into the street, a group of nine performers — four women, five men, all white, clad in shabby dark suits — chants loudly in French. An audience gathers on one side. Some take out their phones to record; others tilt their heads. One man, wearing a bright blue T-shirt, starts yelling back at the performers. He is agitated, disgusted and has to be physically restrained.
Welcome to art in Paris.
This past Saturday was “La Nuit Blanche,” the elegant term for the annual art installations that take over public spaces in the French capital for an entire night, lasting until the wee hours of dawn.
This year’s theme, inspired by the United Nations Climate Change Conference that will take place in Paris in November, was ecology, asking artists to imagine new ways of representing the relationship between humans and Earth. One installation, for example, featured a group of ice figurines representing people. By the time I arrived at its location around 11 p.m., the only remnant was a trickling stream of water. The people had melted away.
The house sinking into the street was another installation, and, whether planned or not, the performers, who chanted tirades against materialism and the destruction of the environment with a carefully coordinated choreography, quickly became part of the “Nuit Blanche” experienceas well, aiming to overwhelm the senses. But the man in the blue T-shirt was having none of it. After being restrained and led away, he continued to linger around, shouting (among other things), “Ce n’est pas l’art.” “This isn’t art.”
Maybe. It certainly wasn’t anything like the art you think of when you think of Paris. But what exactly is “art”?
In a city that houses the “Mona Lisa,” Monet’s “Water Lilies” and Rodin’s “Thinker,” that question should be pretty easy to answer. Turn too quickly in a museum and your backpack will probably knock at least three priceless paintings off a wall. Everyone seems to be an expert, too — the professor who directed my orientation program in Paris specialized in economics and yet had an encyclopedic knowledge of art history and museums. It seems to be part of the French heritage.
So, let’s say Da Vinci, Monet and Rodin all get entry passes into the hall of art. But could we say the same for a desk? What about cutlery? The Museum of Decorative Arts, housed in a wing of the Louvre, seems to think so and as I gazed at the intricate craftsmanshipof a wood-paneled wardrobe that combines form with function (and set off an alarm as I tried to touch it), I felt compelled to agree.
A room with video screens on each wall playing rapid-fire clips of Hollywood movies with people shooting at the camera, overwhelming the senses with the sound of gunfire? The Fondation Louis Vuitton, a modern art museum, displayed this alarming work of Christian Marclay, and as I stumbled out of the room flinching from the shots continuing to ring in my ears, my heart wouldn’t stop racing. Maybe that’s the reaction you expect from art.
A rectangle of blue paint? No, seriously, just a rectangle of solid blue paint. I rolled my eyes in the Centre Georges Pompidou, another modern art museum,when I saw it, and I doubt that was the reaction the painter was anticipating when he created it. I’ll cross that off the list.
What is art? I suppose it’s the job of this section of the newspaper to find an answer, and I can give it a try. Art is personal and emotional, so I think we each know it when we see it. For me, art is thought-provoking, intentional, skillful and aesthetically beautiful. But the ways that those vague words can be expressed are infinite.
So I don’t know what art looks like. But I’ll say this for Paris and for the man in the blue T-shirt: For someone who still hasn’t been to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (oops), I’m impressed that this city — in its overabundance of sculpture, painting, music, theater, literature and expression — forced me to at least ask the question.
At the end of “La Nuit Blanche,” I found myself on a bridge that spanned an extensive network of railway tracks. A crowd had gathered around a contraption that released water from the top of the bridge in the form of seemingly unconnected words: Actualités. Faits. Race. L’Australie. Idées. Web. Demandez. Once I was directly underneath the water, though, I could no longer see the words that the water was creating. All that was left were the sounds of saxophones triumphantly playing in the background and people dancing in the artificial rain.
Welcome to art in Paris.
Kshithij Shrinath is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. LETTERS FROM ABROAD appears every other Friday.