Monday, June 25, 2012
Prompted by my colleague David Balzer's excellent summer reading list generated for Canadianartschool.ca (Canadian Art's student and careers site), I have fiiiiiiiiiiiinally read Steve Martin's 2010 novel An Object of Beauty.
Set mainly in the commercial side of the New York art world from the 1990s to the date of publication, An Object of Beauty certainly does have a kind of light, gossipy dishiness to recommend it (though that's not all). I am quite unfamiliar with the commercial and auction parts of the art world—much, much less familiar than Martin, who is a prolific collector and, fortunately for the reader, a great observer and conveyor of human social dynamics—and it was entertaining to read scenes of a dealer sticking to her monied client like glue, for sure. He also does a great job of mapping out various strata of the NY art realm, as far as I can tell: uptown vs. downtown, East Side vs. West Side, modern vs. contemporary, etc.
(Publishers Weekly put this observation much better: "Martin (an art collector himself) is an astute miniaturist as he exposes the sound and fury of the rarified Manhattan art world.")
I also enjoyed the ways in which Martin conveys, in this book, the different ways that dealers, auction houses, collectors, and critics attribute or signal value in art. Is this value monetary, spiritual, acquisitive, social, human, humane? All of the above, or none, depending on the character and context of the individual.
Also, the fact that the narrator of the book is a critic prompted both a sense of thrill and embarrassment for me, as I empathized with his peripheral role to the art world (including the one of his own narrative), with his small, tiny publication triumphs, and most centrally, at least for this novel, with his need to get the himself the hell out of the way of the story, while also being enmeshed in it in a way.
In fact, I found this choice of narrator somewhat curious, whether a critic or not--it's rare that I read a novel (well, these days, it's rare I read at all, so I'm no expert) where the narrator has such a peripheral role to the narrative, and alternates between an individual perspective and a slightly more omniscient (or as he puts it at the beginning, a more imaginative) point of view. Could this be interpreted as a kind of reading of art criticism in general? I don't think Martin intended it as such, but criticism does tend to reach across that whole spectrum of voice, from first-person memoir to third-person "objectivity" or omniscience, so... fun to think about, I guess.
Finally, let me say that Martin is very good at conveying the dynamics in a courtship/relationship where one person is much more invested than another. It kind of made me think, man, who could really have turned down or burned Steve Martin so bad? Dude plays the banjo and has been attached to a bazillion famous things. Also, he prolly has a really nice art collection. A reminder that in matters of the heart, we are all vulnerable and imperfect, I suppose.
Overall, not a must-read, but very much a nice-to-read, especially if you are involved with art in some way, shape or form.
(Image: Image of the book's cover from Stevemartin.com)
Posted by Leah Sandals at 3:07 PM