For a certain breed of relatively cultured wags (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay Abaire and, less exaltedly, me), Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box at the Museum of Modern Art is a comedic source that just keeps on giving. After all, this is an Academy Award-winning actor with a distinctly unique personal style ensconcing herself in a terrarium on random days for hours at a time. Modern art, performance art, personal eccentricity or creative vision – all grist for the humor mill. The piece has a name, incidentally — “The Maybe” — which only serves as a dog-whistle call to those who would poke fun at it; that Swinton first “performed” it in 1995 only increases the volume.
I freely admit I am unequipped to assess “The Maybe” as fine art or performance art. But in contrast to my own tweeted gibes and my enthusiastic embrace of David’s seemingly endless variations on the theme, I’d like to dispense with the humor and take the piece vaguely seriously, stipulating to the court that it is worthy of consideration, since experts have apparently deemed it as such.
If it is art of any stripe, why has it touched off such a sensation? If just anyone was asleep, or feigning sleep in a glass box at MOMA for hours at a time, it would be a curiosity, at best worthy of a squib on websites or the kicker story on local news. On occasion, I happen to talk with some coherence while I sleep, and I am known (by a very select few) to thrash about involuntarily as well; I’d be much more engaging lying in that box, but wouldn’t raise much media comment.
If there was no apparent air source to the box, this would rise to the dwindling level of interest of a David Blaine stunt. If there was an adorable kitty or puppy in the box it might find attention as an internet video, or arouse ire and concern over the animal’s treatment. If we learned someone was being paid $50,000 a night to do this, it might prove as enraging as the new Virginia bus stop that cost $1 million to build.
The only reason the general public knows about this piece of art is because Swinton already has a level of fame. She’s got that Oscar and she’s a highly respected actress, though hardly a household name. She might be called a star, but certainly not a celebrity; this isn’t Hasselhoff or a Kardashian lounging about on view. But Tilda’s well enough known to raise oddity into spectacle, more than willing to exploit her renown for this “work,” which has surely generated international headlines for MOMA this week. Let’s remember, when she did this in the 90s, she hadn’t yet gone toe to toe with Clooney onscreen.
Some of the same cultural outlets that are quick to question when “name” actors are announced for theatre productions have covered the Swinton event, and while they’ve noted its peculiarity, many have left the withering and witty comments to those on social media. Silly as the whole thing may seem, I feel they’ve given Swinton some leeway, while shows on and off-Broadway with famous actors are damned right out of the gate as “star-driven,” even when the actor is impeccably cast (admittedly, not all are). No one that I’ve seen has reported the weekend grosses at MOMA, despite their surprise deployment of a celebrity and the subsequent press; however, it is often implied that when a stage piece with a star in it does well at the box office, it has somehow cheated its way to success. Are there different standards for museums and theatres? Or am I just not tuned in to the art world?
“The Maybe”’s emergence this weekend happened to coincide with the premiere of a new production of Hamlet at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Perhaps you’ve heard about it? Normally, a regional production of Hamlet might not evoke much attention, but this one has lured the New York theatre press onto I-95 and Metro-North almost en masse. Why? Because the melancholy Dane is being played by the very fine actor Paul Giamatti, a screen stalwart little seen on stage in recent years. The announcement of the show generated the first wave of press, given the incongruity of his appearance and manner with most visions of the sweet prince; the performance itself has yielded many more reviews than a typical show at a Connecticut theatre.
Some of the outlets that rushed to see the “famous” Paul Giamatti as Hamlet are the same ones who rail against the damage celebrity casting has done to New York theatre, yet here they are responding to its siren call (along with audiences, who made the show a sell-out even before performances began). I’m not denigrating Giamatti’s considerable talents, but dollars to doughnuts some other fine actor, unexpected or not, but without copious entries on the IMDB, wouldn’t have taxed arts travel budgets. It would have been “just another regional theatre show,” left to the local press.
This is all a long way of saying that whether the box is a small glass display case or grand theatre, fame gets to the head of the media line, even when it comes to the arts, even in media that decry the ascendance of celebrity. I don’t begrudge MOMA or Yale Rep the attention they’re getting, but I wonder whether that attention may play into the hands of celebrity culture, saying to other organizations that they’ll get their shot at the spotlight when and if they too offer the media “names.” Will not-for-profits of every stripe, not just commercial enterprises, be driven towards stunts and stars, even if the examples I’ve given were staged with the utmost sincerity? Or can stardom be made secondary when contemplating the arts?
When we get a gift, part of the excitement is not knowing what’s in the box, the joy of discovery. But if the admittedly embattled media increasingly attends only to boxes – be they glass, canvas, concrete or brick and mortar – because they and we are already attracted to what’s inside, we’ll keep seeing more and more known quantities as companies vie for attention, and without it, it’ll be harder and harder to sustain work that retains the thrill of surprise.