Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Object of Beauty: Steve Martin's new novel explores the seedier underside of the New York art market

Hollywood actor, screenwriter, comedian, art collector, and musician Steve Martin has added another string to his banjo. He has written an entertaining and well-informed novel set in the goldfish bowl of the New York art world.

At first, An Object of Beauty comes across as a gentle romantic comedy in the style of a typical Steve Martin movie, and for a moment it even seemed poised to recover the pictures stolen in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist. It's that mixture of the sweet and sour that makes it so enjoyable. One can imagine him intoning the book's funnier lines through his ironic, twinkling smile.

But underpinning it is a darker vision of an art market peopled by vacuous, money-obsessed snobs and corrupt social climbers, which, as anyone with any experience of the art market knows, is not far from the truth. 

It's clear that after Tinseltown, Martin has spent much of his time meditating on art, collecting art, reading about art and generally rubbing shoulders with many of the real-life insiders who appear in his book either as themselves or as thinly disguised walk-ons. It is even illustrated with what one assumes are some of Martin's favourite works of art, or which are appropriate to the tale he tells, and this gives him an opportunity to enjoy himself, adding an instinct for art criticism to his many other talents.

The book's main flaw is its central character, the beautiful, metrosexual Lacey Yeager who is determined to screw and scheme her way up the greasy pole of the New York art market. Martin writes with wit and elegance, but as a middle-aged sophisticate he struggles to construct a convincing portrait of an ambitious female in her late twenties/early thirties. When she's not hatching Machiavellian plans to compete with the Larry Gagosians and the Mary Boones, she's communing with her vibrator or obligingly bending over her desk for one of her legion of admiring hunks.

The book is at its strongest when Martin's young male narrator opines on the art world's institutions, from downtown exhibitions of conceptual art to Art Basel Miami Beach — the art world's leviathan shopping mall that happens every December.

There's a scene half way through when Lacey and her chums visit a Manhattan gallery where a typical conceptual art installation leaves them all entertained but mystified. "How the hell do they sell that?" asks Lacey. She has clearly not read her Noah Horowitz.

Later, describing the period after 2002, when the art market engine began revving up to screaming pitch, Martin sketches the ridiculous lengths to which the auction houses went to promote their sales:

"Their catalog entries now had lengthy analytical essays and illuminating reproductions of other pictures, whether they related or not: a minimalist Agnes Martin might be accompanied by an illustration of the Mona Lisa, whose best connection to the picture in question might come under a TV game show category: 'things that are rectangular'. The catalogs' weight increased, and weary postmen in expensive zip codes must have hated it when auction season came around."

Spot on. Those of us who received the 2.9 kilogram boxed set of Damien Hirst's epochal 'Beautiful Inside My Head Forever' catalogues get the joke. I thought I was taking delivery of a Richard Serra sculpture when the grimacing postman passed it over that morning in 2008. I assume he was wearing a truss. Fortunately I live in a seedy part of South London where billionaire collectors are pretty thin on the ground, so my postie only had the one to deliver.

It was hugely rewarding reading this book as a lighthearted counterpoint to Noah Horowitz's analytical Art of the Deal, which I reviewed below. Despite their contrasting tones, there were moments when I forgot which book I was reading. Here's Steve Martin on the irrational behaviour that fuelled art market inflation:

"The publicity that convinced broke home-owners that they could make nice profits flipping their houses was the same as that which motivated moneyed art collectors to go further into the market than was practical. The lure in art collecting and its financial rewards, not counting for a moment its aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual rewards, is like the trust in paper money: it makes no sense when you really think about it."

Like Horowitz, Steve Martin astutely identifies the root causes of the last bubble, although it's hardly rocket science to anyone with any experience of the art world and its recent history.

Mr Martin's book must have gone to press before the market's recent Lazarus-like recovery, however. That is perhaps just as well. Had Lacey Yeager known the bounce-back was coming, she might never have moved to Atlanta and the art market would still be saddled with the sort of duplicitous operator it can do without.

Steve Martin: An Object of Beauty, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010, hardback, £16.99 (Amazon price £10.87)

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