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Book Review
‘An Object of Beauty’ by Steve Martin
There’s an object, and there’s a beauty with an objective: To make it big in the world of art, at any cost. ‘An Object of Beauty’ is a curious mix of fact and fiction revolving around the painterly realm and extreme human emotions evoked by the central character of his part real, part fictional tale. The drama begins in the mid 1990s, leading up to the recent recessionary phase wherein author Steve Martin mixes his flair for words an utmost passion for art.

‘An Object of Beauty’ is woven around a flowing narrative as chronicled by an art writer Daniel Chester French Franks. A Nick Carraway figure; this bit of a bore & a bit-part player has a sole am n of immersing himself in contemporary art and writing about it with effortless ease and clarity. But, alas, as the narrator himself readily concedes: "The task is not as easy as it seem: whenever I tried my hands at it, I found myself caught in a convoluted rhetorical tangle. There was no exit from it."

Lacey Yeager is Daniel's Jay Gatsby, now touching 40. He narrates her tale from her early 20s. Determined to launch her own gallery, she is little concerned of consequences of her quest; no matter who would get crushed and bruised along the way. She starts out at the bottom, quietly working in the basement at an auction house. ("During her first year, she checked the fronts and backs of literally thousands of paintings. She understood to precisely tap a painting with the back of her finger.")

Revealing her intriguing persona, an introduction to her fictional account aptly recounts: “Lacey is captivating enough, ambitious of taking the NYC art world by storm. Initially groomed at Sotheby's and keen to keep climbing the social and career ladders fast, she charms old and young, the rich and even richer, men and women with her liveliness. Her magnetic charisma results in ascension to the highest tiers of the city. It’s a journey parallel to the soaring highs and also the lows of the art world and the country, starting from the late 1990s through today.”

Lacey quickly grasps how to convert objects of beauty into those of value - be it works of art or, indeed, herself! She climbs the social ladder, by hook and by crook, becoming professionally involved with a top gallery owner, and getting romantically involved with a rich collector. Then 9/11 happens, followed by recession, leading to the art market crash. The story takes a sudden turn …”

Steve Martin is a renowned actor (‘Father of the Bride’, ‘Bringing Down the House’, ‘The Spanish Prisoner,’ as well as ‘Roxanne’ and Bowfinger, for which he penned the screenplays), who has won Emmys for his TV writing apart from a couple of Grammys for comedy albums. A collection of comic pieces, entitled ‘Pure Drivel’, novels (Shopgirl, The Pleasure of My Company), a play (Picasso at the Lapin Agile), and his memoir ‘Born Standing Up’ (2007) are among his other literary achievements. He regularly writes for the New Yorker. Importantly, he loves and collects art - Seurats, De Koonings, Hoppers. So what could get more logical or natural than to blend his love of fiction with his love of art?

Incidentally, ‘An Object of Beauty’ (Grand Central Publishing; 292 pages, $32.99) is his first full-length novel. It’s an intense examination of how commerce and art intersect in New York (‘Auctions were, and still are, spectator sports, wherein the contestants are money.’). “Providing a peek inside the auction house along with the back rooms of various Chelsea galleries (‘from which new art was mined and trucked into residences of Manhattan’) the novel exposes logic-defying prices and strange rituals of the contemporary art world,” notes The Guardian, a prestigious UK publication

Steve Martin makes nuanced observations about the nature and approach to collecting, such as: "These objects - with cooperating input from the collector's mind - were transformed into things that healed. Collectors thought this one work would make everything right, would complete the jigsaw of their lives, and would satisfy (them) eternally." On the flipside, the novel reads like a bit of BBC4 documentary voiceover, at times, like "Auctions were, and still are, spectator sports, where the contestants are money. In the 19th century, pictures were wheeled out to hoots and clapping, like boxers entering the ring, and the spectators responded, escalating bids as if they were hard lefts and roundhouse rights."

However, more often than not, ‘An Object of Beauty’ makes a serious attempt to document the financial and creative ripples largely made possible by Andy Warhol’s self-aware pop art. Largely, it makes an interesting read for the intriguing insight it offers into the world of contemporary art.