One of the many reasons I read books is to learn about subjects I know nothing about. And one of the many subjects I know nothing about is art. I don’t understand classical art, let alone modern art, or the world of galleries and shows and museums and auctions in which people enjoy and purchase art. So I appreciated An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin (you may know him better as an actor) on two different levels–as a well-told story, and as a kind of art world crash course.
The novel focuses on Lacey Yeager, who is beautiful, manipulative, and mercilessly ambitious, the kind of character who doesn’t engender much loyalty or affection but is absolutely fascinating to read about. The plot follows her rise through New York City’s art world, from an intern at Sotheby’s auction house to a bona fide gallery owner. As in the Great Gatsby, the novel is narrated by a much more passive character, in this case an old friend of Lacey’s, an art journalist named Daniel Franks.
Martin has a gift for sharp, lovely observations–about people, as well as art. Take this passage about Lacey’s training at Sotheby’s:
At Sotheby’s, she started to look at paintings differently. She became an efficient computer of values. The endless stream of pictures that passed through the auction house helped her develop a calculus of worth. Auction records were available in the Sotheby’s library, and when a picture of note came in, she diligently searched the Art Price Index to see if it had auction history. She factored in condition, size, and subject matter. A Renoir of a young girl, she had witnessed, was worth more than one of an old woman. An American western picture with five tepees was worth more than a painting with one tepee. If a picture had been on the market recently without a sale, she knew it would be less desirable. A deserted painting scared buyers. Why did no one want it? In the trade, it was known as being “burned.” Once a picture was burned, the owner had to either drastically reduce the price or sit on it for another seven years until it faded from memory. When Lacy began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.
Another great thing about this novel–there are pictures in it! Lovely, full color art reproductions that appear whenever Martin discusses a specific painting. As an art ignoramus, I found these incredibly helpful.
In front of them was Sargent’s El Jaleo. At almost twelve feet long, it had not been imagined by Lacey to be so monumental, and she felt now that as she approached it, the picture would engulf her. A Spanish dancer, her head thrown back, an arm reaching forward with a castanet, her other hand dramatically raising her white dress, steps hard on the floor. Behind, a bank of guitarists strum a flamenco rhythm that is impossible for us not to think we hear, and one hombre is caught in midclap, a clap we finish in our minds. Another is snoring. The scene is lit from below, as though by a fire, throwing up a wild plume of shadow behind the dancer. The frenzy and fever of the dance, the musicians, and the audience are palpable.
In Lacey, the picture aroused her deeper hunger for wild adventure that could not be fulfilled by a trip to Boston in modern times. She longed for wanton evenings spent in a different century, her own head tiled back, flashing a castanet and a slip of leg, and sex with young men no longer among the living.