Saturday, January 3, 2015

An Object of Beauty

by Drew Martin
One of my recent light reads about art was Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty. I actually took it from a lonely, makeshift library in my parents' church, which I attended on my father's 75th birthday in November.

The summary provided by the publisher reads "Steve Martin's latest novel examines the glamour and the subterfuge of the fine art world in New York City."  The feeling I got while reading it, however, was a kind of Art World 101 but not as in-the-know as Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World. And this is not an introspective book about art for artists as is Anne Truitt's Day Book or Lawrence Weschler’s A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, but rather more like a showcase of Martin's peripheral experience as a collector and his understanding of art as a final commercial product, which might also have the benefit as something pleasing to look at.

That being said, I enjoyed reading it for Martin's casual understanding of the art market, which is greater than my own, and the book itself is nicely designed. What works is the main character, Lacey Yeager, a young, sassy, smart (but not intelligent), millennial go-getter who, less politely, could be classified as an art whore. Martin uses her flirtatious personality the same way she does, to get our attention.

What does not work (because it is totally unnecessary) is the fizzless character Martin dons for his guise, a young art writer named Daniel Chester French Franks, who wants to write about art clearly, and idolizes (as does Martin in real life) The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl.

While Martin and Schjeldahl are absolutely right about the befuddlement of bad art writing, Schjeldhal is a little too smug in his assertion that artists should, in his words, “shut up” and let him explain their work. Martin’s shortcoming is that in his attempt to write clearly about art he ends up dumbing it down. But while the reflections within the novel do not work the way he wants them to, what does work is the use of the novel to explore a theme of art in a way that none of the aforementioned books can envelope. In this regard, An Object of Beauty is very much like The Devil Wears Prada, only that the fashion backdrop is swapped for one that shows us some characters you might find in auction houses and galleries.

What I would liked to have seen less of in this book is Martin's attempt to create hype around a hip, trending fictitious artist named Pilot Mouse who has a Banksy-like (yawn) aura to him. And I would liked to have seen more of the character Martin eventually and romantically pairs up with Yeager, an FBI agent investigating some of her dealings; not his wham-bam-thank you-ma'am visits to her gallery office, but rather his understanding, and one could say appreciation, of art through his agency's training, with which he can carry on a post-coital conversation about the varnish finish of a painting.

Likewise, regarding the artists he focuses on, Martin does better with the lesser knowns, and if he does not stray too far from painting. Instead of trying to work out why Warhol is important, I enjoyed more his writings about Milton Avery, Rockwell Kent, and Giorgio Morandi. 

I am glad I just now saw that Amy Adams was cast for the movie version to play Yeager, otherwise I would have not been able to see the character as anyone else. I do not know where the movie is at this point. The announcements about it going forward are a couple years old, without any further mention of the project being delayed or abandoned. Adams would be a good choice, and I would love to see it made into a movie although a lot of this material was already covered in Boogie Woogie, which came out at the same time as Martin’s book.