Steve Martin, An Object of Beauty, Grand Central Publishing, 2010. 295 pages, $26.99
In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag argued that there is a radical disconnect in our culture between literary concerns and the visual arts. A version of the same divide can be seen at museum openings, where a certain percentage of visitors have cassettes in their ears, telling them what they are seeing, while others are fixated on curatorial captions, as if terrified of being hurled into pure seeing, enjoying it or not, finding meaning or its absence, arriving at their own conclusions.
Something similar is at work in the reception afforded two recent novels set in New York’s art world. The first is Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall. The novel got good reviews, but most centered on relationships among the characters. None that I know of (except, if I may say so, my own) attended much to the art objects themselves, though these, apart from their inherent, often perplexing allure, as well-described and worried over by Cunningham, shape his characters and their demands on each other.
The same split is evident, yet again, albeit in more debased form, in the reception being given Steve Martin’s new novel An Object of Beauty. A notorious example was the November interchange between Martin and critic Deborah Solomon at Manhattan’s 92 St. Y, a discussion that was interrupted when an employee of the Y dashed up to inform the discussants that the Y was besieged by emails demanding less talk about art and more about Martin’s career.
This act of Internet interruptus was crude, ugly and absurd — comparable to a demand that a discussion of a war novel stay away from the topic of war. True, Martin’s cast of characters were not ducking Japanese ordinance, but they are no more detachable from the art world that subsumes them than the characters in Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead are detachable from World War II.
Turning away from the art involved in An Object of Beauty makes it impossible to see what an achievement the book is — not a perfect novel but a remarkable one. Martin gives the art world over the last twenty years an exquisitely balanced sort of attention. He sees careerism, fakery, elitism, and pretension for what they are; he grasps aesthetic group think (and drivel); and he never fails to zero in on the effect big— increasingly global —money has on art. Yet he never permits these factors to stifle the driving passion of the book — the acute, knowing, appreciation of art, which enjoins Martin’s critical patience toward the scene that frames and foments it.
The book’s main character, Lacey Yeager, is smart, ruthless, hot, and, when it furthers her career, a thief. Fresh from a small college, she starts out working in the basement of Sotheby’s auction house, where she develops an eye for quality in paintings by accredited Masters —a term that, circa 1990, when the book begins, excluded anyone after Picasso and Matisse. Lacey quickly moves beyond Sotheby’s restricted uptown purview toward the gallery scene burgeoning in Chelsea. On her journey from Vermeers to an affair with the downtown installation artist Pilot Mouse, Lacey finds herself transfixed by De Kooning’s Women, I, once an object of feminist scorn.
Martin writes: “Lacey, staring at de Kooning, taking in the roiling flesh and teeth, recognized herself. This painting was not an attack; this was an acknowledgement of her strength. . . Yes, she had a ghoul’s teeth, yes, she had seductive breasts, long, pink legs, and a ferocious sway. She knew she had sexual resources that remained sheathed. But one day, when she used them, she knew her true face would resemble de Kooning’s painted woman.”
Daniel, the novel’s narrator, went to college with Lacey and quickly learned that her “knack for causing heartbreak was innate.” His goal, when he, too, comes to New York for a career in the arts, is to write about art “with effortless clarity.” Chronicling the art scene means that following the comet trail left by Lacey is a part of his job.
It’s from Daniel that the book gets considered art-historical commentary like the following: “If Cubism was speaking from the intellect, and Abstract Expressionism from the psyche, then Pop was speaking from the unbrain, and just to drive home the point, its leader Warhol resembled a zombie.” And like this apropos Chelsea: “There were blatant messages hanging opposite indecipherable jabberwocky. . . kids’ stuff, crass stuff, smart stuff, and porn stuff. . . labor-intensive works that sold for two thousand dollars and flimsy slap-ups that cost thirty thousand. And taking it all in were the muscled, the pretty, the pretty strange, and the thoughtful.”
It’s hard to imagine better guides to this world and its fibrillating aesthetic than the combo of Lacey and Daniel. Apropos the Recession, which marks the book’s end, Daniel writes: “Art as an aesthetic principle was supported by thousands of years of discernment and psychic reward, but art as a commodity was held up by air. The loss of confidence that affected banks and financial instruments was now affecting, cherubs, cupids, and [paintings of] flattened popes.”
An Object of Beauty includes reproductions of many of the paintings discussed — hardly coffee table quality but very narrative- and reader-friendly. (The De Kooning, for example, is on page 53, Marizio Cattelan’s flattened Pope — La Nona Ora — on page 234). And rather than try to make up an art critic like the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, Martin just gives him well-timed cameos. In the same vein, Lacey spends a train trip from D.C. conversing with an older man who, when he finds out what she does for a living, gets them some wine, and launches into his theory about the vexed relationship between art and money. “Paintings,” he has come to believe, “are Darwinian. They drift toward money for the same reason toads drift toward stereoscopic vision. If the masterpieces weren’t coveted, they would rot in basements and garbage heaps. So they make themselves necessary.”
Lacey laughs flirtatiously, “and crank[s] her body sideways to better see his pleased response.” A month later, she sees a photo of this man on a book’s dust cover and recognizes him as none other than the acclaimed art critic (cum novelist) John Updike.
The book, as I’ve indicated, is not without flaws. Steve Martin, the stand-up comic, intrudes too often, which is most noticeable and annoying when the jokes flop and the prose is clichéd. And sometimes Martin, a devoted collector in real life, makes Daniel a bit too encyclopedic a tour guide to fit the plot— not that his commentary is dull or inapt.
But mostly what An Object of Beauty proves is that while people were fixated on his Hollywood day job, Martin had made himself into a genuine novelist. Of course, in the case of An Object of Beauty, you’d need a tolerance for art to see it.