Saturday, February 02, 2013

Reviewlet: Steve Martin's Object of Beauty

Just had the best dentist appointment of my life (friendly, clear prices, online booking, neat video technology, efficient cleaning by the dentist instead of a hygeneist) on the 7th floor of the Gallery building in midtown Manhattan chock full of little art galleries selling both contemporary art but also niches like Duchamp and Picasso sketches. Walked into one, where a gallery girl (like the eponymous awful Bravo reality show) was listening to a live art auction, which was appropriate since I just finished Steve Martin's Object of Beauty, about the contemporary art world over the past 20 years that starts off in the back rooms of Sotheby's.

The title refers to a line about when a painting goes from being an object of beauty to an object of value, or if you want to be fancy, the commodification of art. Though the title could be read also as the Objective of Beauty, or equally as a reference to the main character, Lacey Yeagar, an eager ruthless bright pretty young object, a gallery girl who is compelling and irresistible but ultimately empty and flat. She stands in contrast to the paintings that she sells the best of which pop and come to life. The book follows Lacey's career from art world debutante in the 1990s (like HBO's Marni) to running her own gallery in the present day (like HBO's Charlotte).

Calling it a novel is misleading, because there is no plot, no conflict, the characters don't change. The characters are mostly as lifeless and empty as a Popper street scene, a Chardin stil life, or a Warhol silk screen (perhaps intentionally), the book is more like what Sophie's World did for philosophy, or Atlas Shrugged for Objectivism, a portrait of the world of art commerce that hangs on a novel-like frame.

Given what I do for a living, its perhaps surprising that I know far about the aesthetic side of art rather than the commercial, so I was fascinated about the "insider's perspective" of art gallery careers, art patrimony from Russia to China, art criticism, art crime, art auctions, and the manufacture of value for something as inherently valueless as a dollar bill. All while bouncing around what are still fashionable Manhattan locales.

The book contains beautiful reproductions of a dozen or so paintings that does fairly well much of mostly American art (rendered beautifully in the kindle App), and does a nice job in helping appreciate these paintings through the mind of a collector.

While an enjoyable read (you can occassionally here Steve Martin's voice in the narration), it wasn't quite a rich experience, and I probably would have gained just as much from a long form New Yorker article on the same subjects.
Final Grade: C+

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