Reviewed by Andrew Butterfield
The New Republic
"I couldn't be a woman," Steve Martin once joked, "because I'd play with my breasts all day." Now he has written a novel about a young woman, but nearly the only thing he can imagine about her is wanting to play with her breasts. An Object of Beauty is a nasty exercise in narcissism, particularly in the narcissism of the famous.
The novel narrates the tale of Lacey Yeager, a recent college graduate who comes to New York, gets a junior position at Sotheby's, and quickly works her way up in the art world, eventually opening a gallery of her own in Chelsea. Martin describes very little about this character, other than that she has blonde hair, dresses well, and is really, really sexy. He seems to think that a novel about the art world should suffice with appearances. Every man who sees Lacey wants her, and she is always on the hunt for another conquest. She is the main "object of beauty" of the title. Yet Martin never makes her seem genuinely interesting or beautiful or lovely or intelligent; he just tears her out of the Style pages and tells you that she is desirable.
The book is narrated by a friend of Lacey's from college, Daniel, who works as an art journalist. Daniel made the mistake of sleeping with her once at school, and he has never recovered: he simply cannot move on and find real post-Lacey love. He is writing the book as an attempt to free himself from her spell. Perhaps Martin wants the reader to think of Nick Carraway writing about Gatsby, or Sal Paradise musing about Dean Moriarty; but Daniel comes across as merely pathetic and emasculated, rather like the non-Steve Martin character in Shopgirl.
A mix of artists, collectors, dealers, and writers wander in and out of the plot, which is contrived to include all parts of the New York art scene, from private Upper East Side galleries to downtown alternative spaces, and the story includes a few standard art world misdeeds: stolen paintings, fakes, self-dealing. Martin interposes fictional characters with real people -- Larry Gagosian, William Acquavella, John Updike, John Richardson, Peter Schjeldahl, and other well-known figures make cameo appearances. Many of the settings of the book are stenographically rendered as well -- the restaurants, the bars, and the galleries where the glitterati of the art world actually hang out.
An Object of Beauty masquerades as a social satire -- a sort of Bonfire of the Vanities, updated to cover the recent bubble in contemporary art -- but really the book is a just a drab soap opera about the doings of one superficially hot but deeply unappealing young woman. Martin is too lazy or too diffident to try to describe this universe freshly or in any detail. Instead he lazily relies on knowingness. He drops names of famous people and famous restaurants without bothering in the slightest to tell you anything precise or new or imaginative about them. They are merely brands; shorthands for chic. If you already know what Sant'Ambroeus looks like, or who Bill Acquavella and Larry Gagosian are, you do not need to read the book. If you do not know who they are, or why they might have a claim on your time and attention, Martin will not tell you anything that will enable you to picture them. He does not even tell you why you should find them humanly interesting. All he makes you feel is that your ignorance should arouse your envy -- that you, poor thing, are less fortunate than he and the fancy people in his book. The reader of this novel is like a tourist banished to the outside of the velvet rope.
What makes the book odder still is that when Martin does bother to take you inside this world by means of the fictional characters that he invents, he gets the scene nearly always wrong. Martin seemingly prides himself on being a collector, that is, on being himself a part of the scene that is his subject; but his insider's powers of observation have sorrily failed him here. The way people dress, how they talk, what they do: he misses almost all of it. He has put all this together out of banalities and cliches, as if he did his research by skimming back issues of Vanity Fair and watching re-runs of Sex and the City.
A small but typical example: a key character in the book is a European collector of paintings, and when he first appears he has oily hair and an open silk shirt, exposing gold chains and a hairy chest (like the characters in Martin's "Wild and Crazy Guys" skits). Later he is seen wearing an Armani suit. I have met hundreds of collectors in New York and elsewhere, and not one ever went about with an open shirt and gold chains or wore a suit that said Armani. Not one. The men tend to wear custom-made clothing, and in a range of styles of business attire. Other than the quality of the fabric and the stitching, which you have to look to see, rarely does it proclaim its high sartorial quality. It is not ostentatious, and it is not a recognizable brand. But with unintended irony, everything in Martin's book is a brand, a mass-produced badge of belonging to the elite.
Martin's personal experience of the art scene is presented as evidence of the book's accuracy -- the jacket calls the novel "both a primer on the business of art and a close study of the personalities that make it run." So it is particularly remarkable how little he has troubled to learn about this world. Lacey Yeager works at Sotheby's, but she does not know that she can attend auctions there without an invitation (even many junior employees start handling telephone bids almost from the start). She works as a cataloguer for a year, but she is mystified the first time that she encounters measurements of a painting in centimeters, which are the standard unit of measure in the art world. She opens her gallery in Chelsea without capital or a financial backer -- that is not merely fiction, it is magical realism; and she pays only $700 a month in rent for it -- another fantasy. Details matter, especially in a book that is vain about its fidelity to details, and claims to possess an insider's authority.
The writing in the novel is by turns dull, flat, ugly, and inept. Especially grim are the passages when anyone says anything about art. For example: "However opposite these pictures were, they both worked as historical objects, and they worked as objects of beauty. While the Picasso was deep and serious, the Warhol was radiant and buoyant. The Picasso added up to the sum of its parts: artistic genius combined with powerful thought combined with prodigious skill combined with the guided hand equals masterpiece. The Warhol was more than the sum of its parts: silk-screen, photo image of popular actress, repetitive imagery, the unguided hand, equals . . . masterpiece." This is so bad, so silly, that one must charitably wonder if Martin means it to be a parody; but what it most resembles is the writing of a college student hurriedly answering an exam question. No dealer or critic, no one who really knows or cares about the history of art and aesthetics, would spout such vacant nonsense. Martin writes of people who "talk art," but no one in his book is actually capable of doing so, at least not in any interesting or arresting way.
Most of the time An Object of Beauty reads like a document of the values and the forces that it purports to expose. If it is a satire, it satirizes itself. Martin does not appear to have reflected very deeply on the people and the events and the artworks that he describes. His main objection to contemporary art is not to the art itself. It is that the scene is too much about celebrity and marketing, thereby turning art into a commodity. This is a perfectly fine objection, but it is also true of this complacent and forgettable book.
Andrew Butterfield is the President of Andrew Butterfield Fine Arts, LLC.
Books mentioned in this post