Short Fuse: Steve Martin’s Balanced Vision of Beauty

What An Object of Beauty proves is that while people were fixated on his Hollywood day job, Steve Martin has made himself into a genuine novelist who gives the art world over the last 20 years an exquisitely balanced sort of attention.

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. Grand Central Publishing,295 pages, $26.99.

By Harvey Blume.

In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag argued that there is a radical disconnect in our culture between literary concerns and the visual arts. A version of the same divide can be seen at museum openings, where a certain percentage of visitors have cassettes playing in their ears telling them what they are seeing while others are fixated on curatorial captions, as if terrified of being hurled into pure seeing, enjoying it or not, finding meaning or its absence, arriving at their own conclusions.

Something similar is at work in the reception afforded two recent novels set in New York’s art world. The first is Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall. The novel got good reviews, but most centered on relationships among the characters. None that I know of (except, if I may say so, my own) attended much to the art objects themselves though these, apart from their inherent, often perplexing allure, as well-described and worried over by Cunningham, shape his characters and their demands on each other.

The same split is evident yet again, albeit in more debased form, in the reception being given Steve Martin’s new novel An Object of Beauty. A notorious example was the November interchange between Martin and critic Deborah Solomon at Manhattan’s 92 St. Y, a discussion that was interrupted when an employee of the Y dashed up to inform the discussants that the Y was besieged by emails demanding less talk about art and more about Martin’s career.

This act of Internet interruptus was crude, ugly, and absurd—comparable to a demand that a discussion of a war novel stay away from the topic of war. True, Martin’s cast of characters were not ducking Japanese ordinance, but they are no more detachable from the art world that subsumes them than the characters in Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead are detachable from World War II.

Turning away from the art involved in An Object of Beauty makes it impossible to see what an achievement the book is—not a perfect novel but a remarkable one. Martin gives the art world over the last 20 years an exquisitely balanced sort of attention. He sees careerism, fakery, elitism, and pretension for what they are; he grasps aesthetic group think (and drivel); and he never fails to zero in on the effect big—increasingly global—money has on art. Yet he never permits these factors to stifle the driving passion of the book—the acute, knowing appreciation of art, which enjoins Martin’s critical patience toward the scene that frames and foments it.

The book’s main character, Lacey Yeager, is smart, ruthless, hot, and, when it furthers her career, a thief. Fresh from a small college, she starts out working in the basement of Sotheby’s auction house, where she develops an eye for quality in paintings by accredited Masters—a term that, circa 1990 when the book begins, excluded anyone after Picasso and Matisse. Lacey quickly moves beyond Sotheby’s restricted uptown purview toward the gallery scene burgeoning in Chelsea. On her journey from Vermeers to an affair with the downtown installation artist Pilot Mouse, Lacey finds herself transfixed by De Kooning’s Women, I, once an object of feminist scorn.

Martin writes: “Lacey, staring at de Kooning, taking in the roiling flesh and teeth, recognized herself. This painting was not an attack; this was an acknowledgment of her strength. . . Yes, she had a ghoul’s teeth, yes, she had seductive breasts, long, pink legs, and a ferocious sway. She knew she had sexual resources that remained sheathed. But one day, when she used them, she knew her true face would resemble de Kooning’s painted woman.”

Daniel, the novel’s narrator, went to college with Lacey and quickly learned that her “knack for causing heartbreak was innate.” His goal, when he, too, comes to New York for a career in the arts, is to write about art “with effortless clarity.” Chronicling the art scene means that following the comet trail left by Lacey is a part of his job.

It’s from Daniel that the book gets considered art-historical commentary like the following: “If Cubism was speaking from the intellect, and Abstract Expressionism from the psyche, then Pop was speaking from the unbrain, and just to drive home the point, its leader Warhol resembled a zombie.” And like this apropos Chelsea, “There were blatant messages hanging opposite indecipherable jabberwocky. . . kids’ stuff, crass stuff, smart stuff, and porn stuff. . . labor-intensive works that sold for two thousand dollars and flimsy slap-ups that cost thirty thousand. And taking it all in were the muscled, the pretty, the pretty strange, and the thoughtful.”

Steve Martin on TV discussing his novel AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY

It’s hard to imagine better guides to this world and its fibrillating aesthetic than the combo of Lacey and Daniel. Apropos the Recession, which marks the book’s end, Daniel writes, “Art as an aesthetic principle was supported by thousands of years of discernment and psychic reward, but art as a commodity was held up by air. The loss of confidence that affected banks and financial instruments was now affecting, cherubs, cupids, and [paintings of] flattened popes.”

An Object of Beauty includes reproductions of many of the paintings discussed—hardly coffee table quality but very narrative- and reader-friendly. (The De Kooning, for example, is on page 53, Marizio Cattelan’s flattened Pope—La Nona Ora—on page 234). And rather than try to make up an art critic like the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, Martin just gives him well-timed cameos.

In the same vein, Lacey spends a train trip from D.C. conversing with an older man who, when he finds out what she does for a living, gets them some wine, and launches into his theory about the vexed relationship between art and money. “Paintings,” he has come to believe, “are Darwinian. They drift toward money for the same reason toads drift toward stereoscopic vision. If the masterpieces weren’t coveted, they would rot in basements and garbage heaps. So they make themselves necessary.” Lacey laughs flirtatiously, “and crank[s] her body sideways to better see his pleased response.” A month later, she sees a photo of this man on a book’s dust cover and recognizes him as none other than the acclaimed art critic (cum novelist) John Updike.

The book, as I’ve indicated, is not without flaws. Steve Martin the stand-up comic intrudes too often, which is most noticeable and annoying when the jokes flop and the prose is clichéd. And sometimes Martin, a devoted collector in real life, makes Daniel a bit too encyclopedic a tour guide to fit the plot—not that his commentary is dull or inapt.

But mostly what An Object of Beauty proves is that while people were fixated on his Hollywood day job, Martin made himself into a genuine novelist. Of course, in the case of An Object of Beauty, you’d need a tolerance for art to see it.


  1. Jeff Millett on December 30, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Thank you, Harvey. After reading your engaging review, I can’t wait to download Martin’s book to see if he did as well as you.

  2. Harvey Blume on December 31, 2010 at 5:51 pm


    All I did was know how to frame and quote a bit of him.

  3. kathran siegel on December 31, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Daniel writes, “Art as an aesthetic principle was supported by thousands of years of discernment and psychic reward, but art as a commodity was held up by air. The loss of confidence that affected banks and financial instruments was now affecting, cherubs, cupids, and [paintings of] flattened popes.”

    How much of Steve Martin’s book is on this theme? Or is it just one of many off-the-cuff insights passed along to the reader?

    It is interesting to me that Daniel is speaking in the past tense. So where does that leave us now that a “loss of confidence” is affecting paintings of “. . . . cherubs, cupids and (paintings of) flattened popes?” I guess that covers past and present art. Will artworks be “rotting in basements and garbage heaps?” Does S. Martin point out another reason to appreciate and/or covet art? Does his protagonist consider “an object of beauty” to be a fixed or (it seems more likely) an object dictated by its times? Maybe she is just stuck inside the business of art? Do you think Steve Martin is critical of that business world? Why does he value art? Does it come across in his novel?

    • Harvey Blume on January 1, 2011 at 10:50 am


      Thanks for your comment.

      I’ve tried to say the book is animated by Martin’s genuine love of visual art and the beauty Martin finds in it. And therefore that he cares about permutations in the art scene over the last 20 years or so, and does, I think, a pretty good job of chronicling them in his story. (One glaring absence from his account is digital art, which he ignores. I was about to say there could be more about sculpture, too, when I remembered how many nice takes on Richard Serra he has.)

      Does his protagonist consider “an object of beauty” to be a fixed or (it seems more likely) an object dictated by its times?

      Tough question, no?

      Martin’s protagonist(s) are buffeted and challenged by changes in ideas of beauty and notions of what art can be. They are kept on their toes, sharpened, expanded, and also wearied by the flux.

      Yes, Martin is critical of money and motives in the art world, critical without becoming cynical.

  4. kathran siegel on January 1, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Ok. Guess I will have to read this. It’s rare to find a thought provoking book on why/how visual art continues to have importance in our lives (if we are art minded people) without it also being a dense and difficult accounting.

    This novel sounds like you “get it” through the characters while you are immersed in their lives through their stories. I think it is good that Martin just stays with what he knows and likes. From your comment, that sounds primarily to be painting. Not having to deal with everything out there on a topic is another difference between writing a novel and writing a scholarly accounting

    (I think Serra matters to sculpture. But his impact is narrow. Not unimportant, but limited. He wouldn’t be the sculptor in my story.)

    Thanks, Harvey for your additional thoughts.

  5. Harvey Blume on January 2, 2011 at 11:26 am

    If you do read it, I’d love to know what you think. (Btw, Martin does attend to installation art.)

  6. kathran siegel on January 15, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    I just finished reading this book. To me it seemed to be mostly about what happens when “an object of beauty” is seen primarily as “an object of value.” This is the change in perspective that happens for Lacey shortly after she launches her career on the commercial side of art, and we are along for her ride inside this world view.

    I found Martin’s book illuminating. I had never given much thought to how this mind-set navigates.

    Have to say that Lacey was beginning to annoy me with her self centeredness and her inability to form any genuine attachments outside of fame and fortune for herself. Maybe S. Martin feels that this is a common or even necessary quality in those who are successful at the business side of art. What was your take on her?

    • Harvey Blume on January 16, 2011 at 6:29 pm


      You’re right that Martin is interested in the interchange between aesthetic and market value. The novel serves as a pretty good guide to the art market during the period it covers (roughly 1990 to the recession).

      But he is even more interested, I think, in how aesthetic value comes to be accepted as such. Here, for example, is Lacey commenting on a small Warhol painting she has finagled:

      After her years of looking a pictures that were working so hard, here was something exerted no effort at all. And yet, hanging there on the wall, lit, it looked strangely like art.

      It pisses purists of all sorts off, but modern and contemporary art is in no small part about how things that look “strangely like art” do become art. It’s not just market forces that drive this process. Duchamp took the frame off. Picasso took the old frame off. (How many people before that happened would have allowed that Rauschenberg, for example, wasn’t making garbage? And, had that not happened, how could a Rauschenberg, for example, ever have imagined he was making art?)

      We’re stuck with and/or enjoy having to make discriminations about what is junk and what isn’t. One reason I like the book as much as I do is that Martin confronts you throughout with the uncertainties of that situation.

      About Lacey, I should have said I think the main fault of the book is that she gets off so easy. Martin has a sort of sweet tooth as a writer. It’s the same, even more so, in Shopgirl, his novella. Its three main characters have sudden (not really credible) emotional growth spurts that save them from the disasters they seem destined for.

      If Martin wants to grow as a novelist, he will have to get over wanting to spare his characters pain.

      • kathran siegel on January 17, 2011 at 3:14 pm

        Her lack of attachment kept Lacey from ever feeling the kind of pain that we feel in our hearts. I think that Martin was true to the character he had built in the case of Lacey.

        I thought that, post Warhol, Martin painted contemporary art with a very broad brush as far as its aesthetic value. There were treasures, possibly, but you had to wade through a whole lot of junk to find them. And even then, he stayed vague. So I think I’m mostly agreeing with you.

        It would like to see S. Martin’s art collection on exhibition sometime.

  7. Harvey Blume on January 19, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    > Her lack of attachment kept Lacey from ever feeling the kind of pain that we feel in our hearts.

    I think that’s a really fine take on Lacey, and I appreciate it. You’re right: she’s not attached to anyone really. Not lovers, not family. A truly “postmodern” chic.

    I would add, though, to complicate matters, that she does have real attachment to art. It’s bred in her, in a way. In a way, it’s all she’s got (besides looks, youth, charm).

    (So maybe Martin is saying art is what’s left when you subtract the traditional kinds of attachments?)

    And Lacey’s attachment to art is not reducible to art as market value. Sure, that’s part of it. Not all.

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