An Object of Beauty

I wasinspired to pick up Steve Martin’s new novel, An Object of Beauty, by a ridiculous kerfuffle that took place at NewYork’s 92nd Street Y at the end of November. As just about everyoneseems to know by now, Martin and a moderator, Deborah Solomon of The New York Times, were conducting anopen discussion about the novel and its subject, the contemporary art world. Then,halfway through the talk, the two speakers were given the thumbs-down American Idol-style, with a Y employeecoming on stage with a note for Solomon: “Discuss Steve’s career.” Itseems that the event was being telecast on closed-circuit TV across thecountry, and viewers were emailing in their displeasure that Martin and Solomonwere focusing too much on art and not enough on Martin’s showbiz reminiscences.

Backlash ensued, withbloggers ridiculing the philistine viewers and Martin taking a measure ofrevenge on The Times‘ op-ed page. Thewhole thing was a disaster for the Y, which had impulsively offered the liveaudience their money back, thereby insulting Martin even more and reapingsneers from New York’s chattering class: here, after all, was one of the city’spremiere cultural institutions catering to lowbrow taste and privileging vapidentertainment over intellectual substance. For Martin the incident seems tohave proved a bonanza, drawing much more attention to An Object of Beauty than the book might have garnered under normalcircumstances.

After all this drama Ireally, really wanted to like An Objectof Beauty. The excesses and vicissitudes of the art market are alwaysriveting, and Martin’s intelligence is evident from the way he has conductedhis multifaceted career. But a sad disappointment was in store: the book,though mildly diverting, turns out to be the sort of thing that might not havefound a publisher if it hadn’t had a famous name attached. To be perfectlyhonest it’s like chick-lit, only written from a male point of view.

Martinhas chosen to satirize the art business through the device of the rake’sprogress. In this case the rake is a woman, the ruthless and ambitious youngLacey Yeager. Over the course of twenty years or so she goes from “thespice rack of girls at Sotheby’s” to a position at a high-end MadisonAvenue gallery to, finally, a downtown gallery of her own. As she moves onwardand upward Lacey leaves a trail of lustful males in her wake, and Martinhimself is so busy slobbering over his heroine that he seems not to havenoticed that she doesn’t quite come alive as a character: she is neithersomeone readers can root for nor someone who fascinates by repelling, in thegreat tradition of Becky Sharp. She is just a not-very-likeable female, more adevice for reflecting the Zeitgeistthan a living human being.

Not that Martin can’t nailhis targets when he has a mind to. It’s clear that he knows a great deal aboutthe art business and understands the submerged psychological forces governingits ebb and flow: the group-think and mass hysteria, the exhibitionism, theDarwinian forces that elevate some works and kill others. And when Martin getsto the contemporary art bubble of the late 1990s he really moves into hiselement:

Artwas about to acquire the aura of an internationally recognizable asset, aunique and emotional emblem of the good life….

       …Whether itwas any good or not, the sheer amount of it—to the dismay of cranky critics—wasredefining what art could be. Since the 1970s, art schools had shied away fromteaching skills and concentrated on teaching thought. Yet this was the firsttime in conventional art history where no single movement dominated, nomanifesto declared its superiority, and diversity bounced around like spilledmarbles on concrete.

Indeed. Martin has funwith fads of the period: “pale art” (“faint things with not muchgoing on in them”); “high-craft OCD” (“those guys who takea thousand pinheads and paint a picture of their grandmother on every one”);”low-craft ironic” (“a fancy name for wink-wink nudge-nudge”)—andlet’s not forget “angry pussy”: art made with menstrual blood. DanielFranks, Martin’s self-effacing, Nick Carraway-style narrator, is a congenialguide to the scene and its tribal rites.

“Indialogue” [Daniel comments] was a new phrase that art writers could nolonger live without. It meant that hanging two works next to or opposite eachother produced a third thing, a dialogue, and that we were now all the betterfor it. I suppose the old phrase would have been “an art show,” butnow we were listening. It also hilariously implied that when the room was emptyof viewers, the two works were still chatting.

Allthis is amusing enough, and if only Martin would stick to cultural satire hewould be fine. But he keeps reverting obsessively to overheated melodrama andtacky soft-core sex reminiscent, oddly enough, of the work of pulp-mistressJudith Krantz. Here for instance is Lacey enjoying the high life with her richParisian beau, Patrice Claire:

       They walkedaround the block first, each proud to be on the other’s arm. The sun was justdropping, and the bedecked, bejeweled mannequins in the store windows were likesaluting soldiers as they strolled in their enchanted state of opulentseduction….

       Now,feeling the kind of euphoria that can overtake you at this time of day, at thistemperature, at this level of breeze, after one drink, when the person besideyou is making you alert and keen and the idea of being with anyone else is notimaginable, Lacey and Patrice went back to the Carlyle….

       Theyordered room service, sat at their own corner table with views across and upManhattan, and sipped a bottle of wine until there was nothing left to do butkiss, and kiss again, for anyone with a pair of binoculars to see. Lacey ledhim into the bedroom, where the hotel sheets were fresh and rich, where thelighting had been preset, and where, placed opposite the bed, illuminated bytwo candles that threw their light upward, was the Matisse that had overseentheir last coupling….

The scene goes on for sometime in this vein, with Lacey donning, after sex, “a robe that swathed herlike meringue.” (Could this be a hotel bathrobe, or one stashed away byPatrice for just such an occasion? There is no mention of Lacey having broughtan overnight bag to their date.) AnObject of Beauty contains any number of such episodes, revealing thesurprising fact that at the age of sixty-five, and having enjoyed spectacularsuccess and world fame for four decades now, Steve Martin is still as bedazzledby glamour as any young man from the provinces.

Such starry-eyed wondersits awkwardly with Martin’s knowing cynicism about the business and marketingof art. Just what kind of a book was Martin attempting to write? A satiricalnovel? A serious novel? A novel of ideas? A sour romance? Sophisticated gossip?An Object of Beauty never quitesucceeds on any of these levels; it may please for an hour or two, in themanner of a magazine article, but it is too artificial and contrived to holdour interest for very long.