February must be my New York City month because I had just finished reading Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which was a definite New York City book, when I casually picked up An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin, which was sitting on my bedside table, another New York City book, coincidentally. But the similarity stops there.
An Object of Beauty is one that I had been looking forward to for some time, in fact, ever since it came out. I was only looking for the right time to read it. I’d tried reading it thrice before and ended up giving up after the first few lines because I wasn’t in the mood. So from those first lines I knew to expect a light read, something I could read without having to invest my heart and soul in too deeply. But I also knew I would love it for the art, which is its blatant subject.
I was right. The book as a novel is a little disappointing. It feels a bit flat, although Martin’s writing is still truly wonderful, eloquent and straightforward. I love his style, but this one doesn’t match the cleverness and poignancy that Shopgirl achieved. The characters in An Object of Beauty feel in some ways like skeletons, there but to frame the real star which is Art. They are fringes. Even the story are bits of fringes.
On the surface, the heroine, Lacey Yeager, appears to be the object of beauty, to the eye of the quite invisible and unnecessary narrator, Daniel Franks (and to other men besides). But in truth the real objects of beauty here are the pieces of art that collectors and art lovers covet and yearn and ache for. The narrator’s telling of Lacey’s life is a disguise for Martin to be able to navigate through the contemporary Manhattan art scene. Lacey and Daniel aren’t convincing; they don’t feel substantial nor authentic; they are tools. But what’s authentic in this book is the way Martin writes so lucidly about art collecting—its highs and lows, its corporeality—and most of all, the passion with which people are seduced by art.
I love this not for the novel but for the art. The novel wasn’t very bad, even delightful at times, but I’ve mentally dismissed the story and will continue to adore this book as a fantastic piece of narrative on the contemporary art world. Martin is truly impressive as an inside voice in art collecting and this novel may be a book suited mainly to readers who are invested in a whole lot of art love.
If you were older and believed in the philosophy of art as rapture, and didn’t expect the next great development in art to be a retreat from beauty and an exploitation of ordinariness, then you couldn’t endorse Warhol as the next great master. But if you were young, with essentially no stake in art’s past, not caring about the difficulty of paint versus the ease of silk screen, you saw the images unencumbered, as bright and funny, but most of all ironic. This new art started with the implied tag “This is ironic, so I’m just kidding,” but shortly the tag changed to “This is ironic, and I’m not kidding.” (102-103)