(Martin has actually invented a new “writing” strand in the last few weeks: Celebrity juror. Called for jury duty, he’s been tweeting on his experience as a potential juror — you will have to find the links for yourself — in a predictably disruptive manner.)
Disclosure: The KfC’s collect art (mainly Canadian) and do know a little bit about it. We have been in attendance, and bought works, at auctions where, far beyond our means or interests, records have been set for various Canadian artists. The art auction world is an intriguing (and potentially expensive) one — if you ever want a cheap evening’s entertainment go to an art auction and watch both the crowd and the results. As Steve Martin opens this novel, it is also the central focus.
Lacey Yeager is one of those young women who make the Manhattan art world work. Beautiful, smart and ambitious, they arrive from the hinterlands (which may be only 20 miles away), determined to make Manhattan and its attractions “work” for them. They find “jobs” that pay just enough to cover a share of the rent in an over-crowded flat; they take their nourishment and future hopes from the openings and parties that are part of the high expense art world.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the two premier auction houses in New York, drew young, crisp talent from Harvard and its look-alikes. Majors in art history were welcomed over majors in art making, and pretty was preferred in either sex. The houses wanted the staff to look swell as they crisscrossed the busy galleries on exhibition days, holding in their arms files, faxes, and transparencies. Because the pay was low, the young staff was generally financed from home. Parents thought well of it because their children were at respectable firms, working in a glamorous business, with money of all nations charging the atmosphere. The auction houses seemed not as dull as their counterparts on Wall Street, where parents of daughters imagined glass ceilings and bottom painting.
Lacey is from Georgia and she arrives in New York with both some training and, more important, an attractive face and figure and a lot of ambition. The narrator of the novel, Daniel Chester French Franks (yes, you can guess the puns Martin will play off that), arrives at roughly the same time. Lacey wants major success, Daniel wants to find a road to survival. His version of his goal is worth considering:
I left Stockbridge (Massachusetts), a town set under the glow of its even more famous citizen, the painter of glad America, Norman Rockwell. It is a town that is comfortable with art, although uncomplicated art, not the kind that is taught in educational institutions after high school. My goal, once I discovered that my artistic aspirations were not accompanied by artistic talent, was to learn to write about art with effortless clarity. This is not as easy as it sounds: Whenever I attempted it, I found myself in a convoluted rhetorical tangle from which there was no exit.
Obviously, Norman Rockwell is not a part of the world that either Lacey or Daniel enter.
Those two quotes frame the central conflict in this novel: Lacey wants to get ahead by whatever means are required, the narrator wants to document the process of artistic creation. Martin’s screen-writing ability is present throughout the process. The “get-ahead” story line drives the plot, the value of the novel lies in the documentation of what happens along the way.
I was, and am, more interested in that latter story line and I think the author delivers on it very well. Before she gets fired from Sotheby’s, Lacey’s job provides Martin with the opportunity of showing what the high-end (that means tens of millions of dollars) art auction world looks like, and he does that very well. Like John Updike, who was an accomplished art critic as well as being an excellent fiction writer, Martin knows his art — part of the charm of the novel is the 22 plates of artworks that are reproduced as they show up in the plot.
Lacey wants to climb up the wall of that world and through a combination of skill, beauty, sex and intrigue, she does — albeit with a disastrous fall awaiting each move forward. The narrator, taking a much more conservative course, moves along as well, although much more slowly. Martin uses that narrative structure to supply his own version of what was happening in the New York art world at the time — creators, dealers and buyers are all part of the mix. For this reader, that stream was by far the strongest in the book.
The result of all of this is a very intriguing read. If you are interested at all in the international art world, it is a fascinating picture. If you aren’t, it is probably a work best avoided — Martin as an art world chronicler is much better than Martin as a traditional novelist. An Object of Beauty offers a fascinating, populist take on a world that not many people know. If you are interested or curious about that world, it is worth the read — if you aren’t, checking out Steve Martin’s movies is probably a better investment of your time.