Books

Steve Martin Attempts to Skewer the Art World & Fails

Steve Martin, An Object of Beauty, 2010, Grand Central Publishing

You may know Steve Martin from being one of our time’s defining comedians, actors and celebrity figures. But along with those first few titles, the man is also a renowned collector of contemporary art, as well as a novelist and a playwright. These pursuits could be called hobbies if they didn’t require quite so much dedication. Martin’s An Object of Beauty (2010), his third novel, attempts to combine the actor’s sidelines in writing and art into a narrative showpiece that aims a satirical skewer at the art world. Unfortunately, the punch never lands. Object of Beauty is too simplistic and editorializing for an art world-savvy audience and too limping for readers just looking for a punchy narrative.

The novel’s premise is harmless enough: Daniel Franks is a young art writer and the narrator of our story, from a knowing, top-down perspective. He introduces us to his long-time friend and fellow art world-er Lacey Yeager, an upwardly-mobile young woman who jumps into the shark pool with a bottom rung job at Sotheby’s auction house. Together, Lacey and Daniel make up the classic Steve Martin protagonist, Daniel providing the sarcastic, cynical self awareness that came across so sharply in Martin’s earlier Shopgirl, and Lacey playing the attractive ingenue, yanking men around and forever plotting her rise, at least until momentum runs out. The pairing works in personality and temperament while playing into two art world archetypes that we’re all familiar with — the spectator scribe and the ambitious gallerina.

Through a roughly-sketched training period in Sotheby’s storage basement, Lacey gains an appreciation for and a knowledge of what makes an artwork good, largely equated with being highly salable. She moves up the ladder, gaining the notice of superiors and fending off rivals, eventually parlaying her skills (and, Martin emphasizes, her intuitive fashion sense) into a job at a blue-chip commercial gallery, dipping her toe into the glitz, sex and solo shows of the less corporate side of the art world. Backroom deals are brokered, paintings are sold, Lacey travels to Russia to negotiate an object exchange between museums. There’s one memorable scene in which Lacey and an older male collector fornicate on top of her dealer-boss’s desk, in viewing distance of a particularly striking Matisse. Of course, the collector later buys the Matisse, and Lacey nets a commission.

Oh yeah, and during this time, our heroine suddenly falls into a large amount of money, sets herself up with a downtown loft in high New York fashion, and flits about town paying for dinners for luckless friends and followers. Explaining how she did it would be to ruin the few plot elements in the novel that are actually suspenseful. Daniel, our writer, sits back and watches this unfold with barely a waver outside of a dull monotone, while charting his own increasing stature as a critic for ARTnews. Though the book is set up as Daniel narrating his experience of Lacey’s career to the reader, what actually results is a third-person omniscient view of Lacey’s every exploit. These aren’t the kinds of things that can be vicariously experienced in every detail over drinks.

The problem is, apart from a loose plot that goes by in a flurry of pages, there is little central conflict to the Object of Beauty. Any potential scandals gently unravel in ways that harm no character, while the narrator cites famous paintings (actually pictured in the book), artists and movements like passing ships. The book reads at times like an Idiot’s Guide to the Art World, introducing genres and art works with the same panache as a high school art history textbook. Similar to the narrative action, Martin’s descriptions of art never really get going; any feeling of freewheeling aesthetic inspiration is held back by the author’s pithy, movie-script tone that he uses to deal with his characters.

Ultimately, the most satisfying part of the book is its slow denouement, an end brokered by the twin apocalypses of the financial crisis and the Chinese contemporary art bubble. By the novel’s end in 2009, things aren’t exactly looking up either. Object of Beauty is a fun, breezy read, but it can’t match the pointed poignancy or the sad humor of Shopgirl; for all its attempts at satire, this art world novel isn’t embedded enough to provide a real sense of voyeurism, particularly failing at depicting the present day diversification of New York City’s art scene. Put it this way: Brooklyn may as well not exist in this book’s uptown-downtown Manhattan spectrum, which should tell you enough about its understanding of the current state of the art world, in which the Lower East Side is eroding Chelsea’s credibility as a gallery neighborhood and no can even afford to live on the island anyway.

The book aims for the art community but only ends up hitting the art market. Life in Steve Martin’s art world must be nice, though.

An Object of Beauty is available on Amazon and in all major bookstores.

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