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The Object of Some Affection

April 13, 2011

An Object to Beauty by Steve Martin

Much noise has been made surrounding Steve Martin’s latest book. Supposedly written as a reflection on the art world (Martin is known in some circles for his impressive personal collection) it has instead become a sticking point between him and his readers who expect. . . well, less. They seem to want less of Martin as an art elitist and more of his “wild and crazy” comedic persona.

Whatever cinematic images his name conjures, Martin is an author. In this novel he weaves the real with the surreal, dropping the names of well known artists and conjuring the spirits of others under fictional aliases. The book spans the career of Lacey Yeager, who enters as an inexperienced auction house intern and quickly proves herself a skilled social climber. Wildly opportunistic, self-centered, and a self-described “petty person”, Lacey is as unlikeable a protagonist as one may be able to tolerate. But there is enough wit and art world wisdom in this book to make for a satisfying read.

An Object of Beauty is not only for art fans, though. Martin makes even unpleasant plot turns darkly humorous and adds a spark to dialogue. He may have a soft spot for young attractive female characters, but he does not allow Lacey’s charm to obscure her unlikeable core. The supporting cast is thinly drawn at times but features enough variety to keep the reader engaged and manages to lampoon art stereotypes without being cruel or superficial.

My favorite aspect of  this book was the insight it gives into the mind of a collector. When Lacey  begins to amass a collection, her musings on the value of having art in one’s life make a painting seem as practical as a blender (if not more so–I have never been calmed and uplifted by my Kitchen Aid).  Although Martin makes a point of introducing the sticky subject of today’s faltering economy he nonetheless vividly conveys the unending enrichment that is gained from living with art and continuing to seek it out as a means of pleasure and self-fulfillment. Anyone who has ever wondered why people continue to buy art even as others struggle to buy essentials will enjoy this serious side to what is otherwise a quick, amusing jaunt through the art culture of New York City.  A supplemental viewing of The Jerk is, of course, optional.

Julia Ruda, Museum Shop Assistant

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