Monday, June 25, 2012

Fiiiiiiiiiiiiinally Read: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

Prompted by my colleague David Balzer's excellent summer reading list generated for (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


Ingrid Mida said...

This sounds like a good summer read. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

Leah Sandals said...

Thanks Ingrid! I do recommend the reading list David drew up (and that I proofread over at CA)

And if you have any good summer reads, let me know! I'm trying to catch up...

Anonymous said...

I totally enjoyed reading that book

Leah Sandals said...

Yeah, it's a good one... again, any recommendations for other good reads, please let me know!

Anonymous said...

Hi Leah,

Your review really captured the essence of the book, but I'm left wondering, what did you think of Lacey Yeager?

Heather Saunders

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Heather,

I think a lot of other reviews captured the book a bit better. Some of these compared the novel to the Great Gatsby in terms of Art and Money being the main protagonists or driving forces. (Excerpts can be viewed at

I've never read Gatsby (perhaps that's another one for the summer list) so I can't speak to that, but I did wonder about Lacey being a kind of figure capitalizing on a boom time with little regret or remorse before encountering a moral and economic crash--something that may be relevant to the Gatsby theme. (?)

As a character, I felt a bit alienated when considering Lacey. Alienation can be a bit of a default position for me, something it is easy for me to feel, so I wouldn't put too much stock in that reaction. By this I mean that I couldn't really identify with her way of life or social position in her sphere, or the way she conducted herself in the world. Beyond our shared interests in art and to a certain extent the art market, it felt hard for me to connect with her.

At the same time, it read Lacey as one of the potentially commodified objects of beauty of the book's title. I likely feel this way having spent a lot of time in my life thinking about the objectification of women and feeling upset about that. Just as some of the book's paintings were something that both the narrator and other characters felt desire for and wanted to in some way acquire, Lacey also had the potential to fall into that position--in fact, in many ways, she cultivated that position and tried to use it to her personal advantage.

I wondered while reading if this was something Martin was conscious of while writing the book--of attempting to portray, at times, Lacey as an object among objects whose values rose and fall depending on trends or markets, or whether this was something I simply experienced given my own personal interests and sensitivities.

Still, I think his use of the constant third-person voice when addressing Lacey's story certainly accentuated this possible reading of her character.

What did you think of Lacey?

Leah Sandals said...

Sorry, that should be "At the same time, *I* read Lacey as one of the potentially commodified objects of beauty of the book's title."

Anonymous said...

Hi Leah,

I can definitely relate to your reaction of feeling alienated by Lacey Yeager's character. She brings to mind the Bobby Brown lyric, "Too hot to handle, too cold to hold."

While it should feel like a relief that someone so superficial and manipulative is fictional, the new Bravo show Gallery Girls looks like it's out to prove there are a whole bunch of real-life Lacey Yeagers out there. Yikes!


Leah Sandals said...

Hi Heather,

Whoa, nice Bobby Brown reference! Unexpected.

I haven't seen Gallery Girls, but the most appealing thing about reality TV for me is how far it seems to be removed from reality. I guess in that respect it will be interesting to see (or guess) how much the personality of these GG characters is molded like those fictional character.

Also on the topic of books I've never read: Martin's Shopgirl, which also addresses desire for a girl who works in a retail environment. I wonder how it relates to Object of Beauty...