The Californians Who ‘Act Out’ Classic Art

Photo: David Bro/Corbis

The New York Times Magazine’s culture issue has a really interesting story by Sam Anderson on the Pageant of the Masters festival in Laguna Beach, California, an 80-year-old event (famously spoofed in Arrested Development) in which participants “act out” famous works of art with a lot of makeup and old-school stagecraft. The article and the festival both connect to the idea that in the ages of mechanical and then electronic reproduction, classic art has been replicated and flattened and disseminated to the point where it’s stripped of a lot of its magic.

Maybe that’s why this, a description of the scene immediately preceding the unveiling of Portrait of Madame X, a famous painting by John Singer Sargent housed at the Met, is such a wonderful passage:

Outside her frame, it must be said, Madame X was not looking elegant or languorous or commanding. She would not have dominated Paris with the force of her strange beauty. Laura walked slowly, awkwardly, arms held out to protect the makeup all over her body. Her hair was covered with a painted canvas headpiece meant to look like Madame X’s hair. She wore a white apron to keep the makeup off her famous black dress. She looked like a hospital patient on her first walk after major surgery.

The process of creating art is a frequently painful, unwieldy, slipshod one; a lot of hidden sweat goes into the masterpieces that elicit effortless marvel for centuries — when Michelangelo’s David was first revealed to the public, Anderson writes, it took four days to move the sculpture a third of a mile. Today, with David and the Mona Lisa a click away at all times, with The Scream known more as a hip cultural (and advertising) referent than four actual works of art that were created one paint and pastel stroke at a time, it’s easy to forget that.