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An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

August 24, 2013


Don’t pick up a Steve Martin novel thinking of the banjo-playing comedian with an arrow stuck through his head. Martin is a legit novelist (add that to the list of things he’s really good at. Jerk.), with a very light touch and a knack for building characters who are compelling, if not completely likable.

At the center of An Object of Beauty is Lacey Yeager, an über-ambitious art dealer who works her way up from Sotheby’s to eventually owning her own gallery in lower Manhattan. Told from the convincing POV of an art critic friend of Lacey’s (Steve Martin is a knowledgeable art collector himself), the narrator serves as our guide to the Manhattan art world and to Lacey’s complicated life.

There are two lines that describe well the central characteristics of the novel. The first comes early and is about Lacey, when she works at Sotheby’s and develops a habit of guessing the worth of the art as it comes through the auction house. “When Lacey began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.” There is judgment of Lacey in this line—this is her Robert Johnson moment, her selling her soul at the crossroads. She trades in her moral compass and puts ambition above all else.

The other line is in an explanation of why galleries began painting their walls bright white in the 1920s (as a revolt against preceding art movements). “A painting looked good against it: there was only it to look at…The only things that didn’t look good against it were people.” This is buried in a longer description of galleries, but it’s also a commentary on the people in the book—nobody looks good here. They are all flawed—often greedy narcissists, climbers of the social ladder. One particularly hilarious couple of clueless collectors buy a famous piece—a suit jacket meant to hang on a gallery wall—then proceed to have it dry-cleaned. Martin comes close to out-rightly mocking the people of the high-end art scene, painting them as close cousins to their neighbors, the Wall Street bankers. It is all very seedy, but sometimes pretty funny.

There are many things to like about An Object of Beauty. Martin’s style is easy to read, and there’s usually more depth than his straightforward prose would let on. As a peek into the world of art dealers, it’s informative and interesting. The book even has images of much of the artwork. And I thought the plot structure was inventive and entertaining, with several genuine surprises. Even if you’re not into art (or Steve Martin), this is a very accessible, enjoyable story.

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