OneMansView, December 07, 2010
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Fiction or non-fiction? (3.25*s)
In this illuminating, insider exploration of the NYC art scene, the sometimes narrator, journalist Daniel Chester French - stand-in for author and dedicated art collector Steve Martin - informs leading character Lacey Yeager that he is writing a tell-all novel. Later, he informs Sotheby’s auction house executive Tanya Ross that he may well go the non-fiction route with his book. In actuality, this novel is a faintly disguised documentary on all of the particulars of the NYC art-world: the auction houses, galleries, dealers, artists, collectors, etc. And then there are the subtleties of the various painting genres in terms of history, continents, movements, schools, etc; the significance of uptown versus downtown to insiders; and the intricacies of pricing and bidding. While there is the usual disclaimer of fictional context, many of the locales and individuals do exist.
The few fictional characters included are generally no more than mere sketches, fulfilling necessary roles in the art-world landscape. By far the most attention is given to Lacey, a Southern girl with an art history degree, who arrives in NYC around 1993 determined to become a known player in the art-world. It is through her movements, beginning in the basement of Sotheby’s, that the art-world is explored. Not stunningly beautiful, she is a head-turner with an alluring side; her remarkable self-confidence permits her to seize opportunities, more than willing to defy convention, even legalities. Though including a few perfunctory scenes, the author inadequately captures her implicit assumption that her body is for her use to get ahead, any pleasure derived is totally secondary. Despite her centrality in the book, Lacey seems more an example of a type of character who should exist in this context, rather than a fully fleshed out individual. There has to be more to a person than simply ambition
The author does capture the risks and fragility of the art-world and the willingness of players to operate in that uncertain environment. There is no certainty in pricing items produced purely for aesthetics, such as paintings – it is what that very narrow market can bear. But the market for an item or all of the work of an artist can change dramatically. And in times of economic downturn, such as those brought on by 9/11 or the Wall St. failures of 2008, big investors tend to cut back on extravagant spending, leaving many holding overpriced art. On the other hand, there is also the psychology of wanting to capture a corner of the market, to create enviable collections. It is fringe players, those without deep pockets, such as Lacey, who invariably find themselves hurt by such market instabilities.
The book is actually quite interesting. The author’s knowledge of the NYC art scene, the players, and the inventory of paintings is impressive. There is a bit of a sense of information overload. Unfortunately, compelling characters – finally, even Lacey - and a plot beyond the daily moving of paintings are largely absent from this latest work by the author. Perhaps it should be read as non-fiction.