|Steve Martins, An Object of Beauty, Grand Central Publishing, 2010|
Steve Martin’s novel, An Object of Beauty, provides an enticing view into the fictional life of protagonist Lacey Yeager. Though the story is about Lacey, it is told in first person, omniscient through Daniel Franks, a long-term acquaintance of Lacey and writer for ARTnews. This proves to be effective, as the words of the novel flow flawlessly together. At times the words feel as though they are pieces of a larger art critique, metaphorically of Lacey Yeager as a piece of art, or better said, an object of beauty.
I must admit I had my reservations when I picked up An Object of Beauty; a comedian wrote it, after all. Reading the book, I found myself holding onto this sentiment, particularly when a work I studied in History of Modern Art came up. In the book, the characters will discuss one particular piece to the length of only one or two written paragraphs, paired with a full color photo reproduction of the work. This bothered me. Instead of the characters discussing in lengthy detail how each work serves as a monumental key to the movement it’s classified within; they discuss art in terms of monetary value and popularity. At some point in the novel, I let go of my reservations and saw the work for what it’s worth, a fictional, yet intriguingly wonderful view into the New York art world as it is happening for the characters.
In the beginning of the novel, Lacey Yeager is virtually a nobody in the art world. Though she works at one of New York’s prestigious auction houses, Sotheby’s, filled with masterpieces of the early twentieth century, Lacey is low on the totem pole. She tries to navigate the gallery world without the bankroll required to do so. Despite her lack of wealth, Lacey seems to live a full and envied life, revolving around art and speckled with sexy encounters. Between her lack of remorse and emotional detachment, she’s a woman that’s hard to relate to. This, however, only makes her all the more intriguing, and even harder for the reader to put the book down.
After an incident at Sotheby’s, Lacey mysteriously rents a more expensive apartment and begins to work in the modern art realm for gallery owned Barton Talley. Here, Lacey continues to do what she does best, charming any person that has the misfortune to cross her path. One such individual, wealthy European collector, Patrice Claire, falls for Lacey. The reader pities Patrice, desperate for Lacey’s love, and scorns Lacey for growing bored with him. During this period, Lacey acquires a few small art pieces for her small apartment, and eventually gains enough green to start her own gallery in Chelsea.
Though Lacey’s exciting adventures and romance carried me well through the first two-thirds of the book, it is the final part that truly incites critical thinking about art today. Lacey has her own contemporary gallery now, but her big breaks meet bad timing. Real world events, including the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001 and the collapse of the economy in 2008 prevent Lacey from ever turning a real profit or making a real name for herself. Martin uses these real events to explain how much the economy affects the sale of art. This is important in contemporary art because sale determines an artist’s worth. Martin writes:
Lacey knew the contemporary market didn’t have the buoyancy of the modern art she had sold at Talley’s. Even the lamest Picasso could coax a bid from someone, but work by an unknown artist was valueless until someone decided to buy it (Martin 264).
Though this was my belief before I read An Object of Beauty, this no longer makes me cynical. In fact it makes me optimistic. With an unpredictable financial cushion to support the arts, what better time to create work that is for anything but monetary gain? If you have nothing to lose (or gain, rather), what’s to stop artists from creating amazing work?
Overall, Martin’s An Object of Beauty provides a wonderful take on one determined girl’s experience through three very different gallery settings. It reaffirms one’s own thoughts on art, and perhaps generates new thoughts as well. Though I once only held “the greats” in the highest regard, this book has given me a new appreciation for contemporary art and makes me think and question my own art-making practices and motivations. Most importantly, An Object of Beauty makes me grateful to be learning and creating work during no other time but now.
- Krista Quiroga