Sunday, December 05, 2010
Book review: Steve Martin explores art world
The multitalented comedian, musician and writer finds his muse in painting a serious look at New York's art scene.
Reading Steve Martin's latest novel, "An Object of Beauty," is much like staring at a painting.
The initial reaction includes the emotional response to the story, laid out carefully before the reader on the palette of the page.
Next comes an intellectual reaction, leaving the reader to ponder the deeper meaning of the work. What did the artist intend? Are the images symbolic or simply meant to represent what the eye perceives?
Balancing the emotional experience with the meaning of the story is the craft of the skilled writer, but in this work, Martin leaves mixed messages.
The entertainer does not write in the voice of his zany comedy routines of the 1970s that launched his career. His prose here is more reminiscent of his screenplay, "L.A. Story."
It's both playful and cynical, sometimes reverent, occasionally snarky and consistently delightful.
As a landscape of the art scene in Manhattan, which Martin knows from his years as an art collector, the novel is a great success, giving the reader insight into a world that typically only a moneyed few are privileged to see.
Photos of prominent works mentioned in the book are scattered throughout the pages. When the story concentrates on art, those who create it and those who trade it, the novel soars.
It is in the portrait of the main characters where Martin is more abstract and less effective.
While the secondary characters seem fleshed and fully focused, the primary characters are, unfortunately, devoid of depth.
The title of the book seems to have a multilayered meaning, referring to the desires of the protagonist, Lacey Yeager, an ambitious young woman navigating her career in the art world through New York's auction houses and galleries, and most certainly referring to the attitude of Daniel Franks, the book's omniscient narrator, toward Lacey.
The reader meets Lacey and Daniel, just out of college in New York City, in the early 1990s.
She is beginning her career as a clerk at Sotheby's and he finds work as a freelance reporter covering art.
Daniel's narration is like a voice-over, and his presence hovers near, around and sometimes over Lacey -- observing, projecting and analyzing her.
He describes in intimate detail events he did not witness.
He is clearly more than a casual acquaintance, once a lover but never in love with her, and his obsession with her wobbles at the precipice of the creepy stalker abyss.
Lacey makes no emotional commitments; she uses her sexuality as a tool in building her career and she seems to take little joy in the beauty that surrounds her.
Her admirers, Daniel tells us, find her charming and vivacious, but few of those traits are demonstrated in her actions.
Her every move is coldly calculated and she lacks any vulnerability.
"She was rash with people, with her body, her remarks. She had an extraordinary sense of position: who was above her, who was below her. However, she considered no one her peer," Daniel explains. "She was equally reckless with all."
A little more than three-quarters of the way through the book, it seems that Martin perhaps neglected one of the most important components of a novel: a plot.
The book reads like an interesting conversation about the Manhattan art scene with an entertaining and informed insider, and it covers many of the trends over the last 20 years -- but, other than the obsession with Lacey, the story seems pointless.
Then suddenly the tale takes a sharp turn, weaving in a morality tale about blind ambition, tightly wrapping itself in the collapse of Wall Street, until finally it winds down to an open-ended conclusion.
Aside from the bizarre relationship between Daniel and Lacey, the book is an analysis of how money, and the status of those spending it, can influence not only the financial value of the art, but also its perceived worth as artistic expression.
"The theory of relativity certainly applies to art: just as gravity distorts space, an important collector distorts aesthetics," Martin writes.
Despite his own status as a notable art collector -- he once sold a painting for more than $26 million -- Martin's narrator waxes poetic about how private possession keeps great works from being shared with the masses.
"There are dozens of masterpieces in high apartments along Fifth Avenue, in sight of the Met, longing to make the leap into its comforting arms."
"An Object of Beauty" may be lacking in sympathetic characters, but it's a story rich in texture and style, giving insight into art and the business of art.
Much like a walk through a gallery, meaning is open to the interpretation of the reader.