Steve Martin is one of my favorite authors. I read Shopgirl at a time when I was perfectly suited to live through someone else’s melancholy state. I was wrapping up college where I had an impressively inconsequential love life and needed validation for my whole “subdued romance and awkwardness toward dating is healthy” thing. From that point on, I devoured The Pleasure of My Company and re-picked up Pure Drivel, which I had bought years before. Though I unfortunately can’t relate to any of Martin’s stand-up and can’t say I really “get” bluegrass, I get his writing. I love how matte it all is. (Is it that obvious I’m not a book reviewer and can’t find the correct words to describe Martin’s appeal?)
It was by luck that I happened upon An Object of Beauty in Costco last week, and I’m already finished with the thing. While the writing is quick and easy to read, it was my engagement in the story that had me reading by myself at lunchtime and plowing through the pages before bed.
If it’s not already evident, I also love The Great Gatsby. Bittersweetness is the shit, and TGG was one of the few books I actually read in whole in high school. (I paid a lot of attention to lectures and didn’t have much problem grasping themes and symbolism, which meant I left a lot of required reading unread and never learned my lesson as far as earnest work goes.) Instead of East Egg and West Egg, Martin’s world for Lacey Yeager is set in the downtown and uptown fine art markets.
I consider myself “into” art, but I’m not a fine art enthusiast. I know excellent work when I see it (Sargent) but I have just a meager understanding of art history. An Object of Beauty is a bit of a rapid trip through the most notable names and pieces in Western art, and Martin certainly knows his stuff. I’m fascinated by the man for more reasons than just his writing. He can describe changes in art writing as if he was a journalist covering that time, and he picks up on the nuances of key artists’ influences at a degree which just makes me think, “Man, Steve Martin reads a lot about art.” In all seriousness, it’s clearly written by a true collector. There are even inclusions of the pieces Martin references so that you can pretend you knew what he was talking about. They’re low quality reproductions, but worth the convenience of seeing a pope crushed by a meteor right there in your hands, in 2-D. Oh, that Maurizio Cattelan!
Perhaps unsurprising for a comedian, Martin’s every word seems intentional. His careful methodology with rhetoric, though, results in a very calm tone. Something you may not expect from the guy who did that King Tut musical sketch for SNL. I find his prose poetic, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the narrator, art writer Daniel Chester French Franks, was Gatsby’s “Old Sport,” just in a different era and in a very specific industry.
I cannot adequately express how perfect and refreshing An Object of Beauty was after trying to force feed myself Social Nation. I needed fiction, I needed something less dense than Atonement, and I needed a good excuse to not read The Paleo Diet. (I’m reading it now. The things we do for love.)
Since I don’t predict I’ll ever enter the fine art collector market, I appreciated the little fictional vignette Martin gave me privy to.
“How,” said Lacey, “can an artist have no effect on you for years and then one day it has an effect on you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Warhol. I’m a proud owner, you know. A small flower picture, but still…”
“Darling, I call that the perverse effect. Those things that you hate for so long are insidiously working on you, until one day you can’t resist them anymore. They turn into favorites. It just takes a while to sort out the complications in them. Those artworks that come all ready to love empty out pretty quickly. It’s why outsiders hate the art we love; they haven’t spent time with it. You and I see things again and again whether we want to or not. We see them in galleries, we see them in homes, we see them in the art magazines, they come up at auction. Outsiders see it once, or hear about it after it’s been reduced to an insult: ‘It’s a bunch of squiggles that my kid could do’. I would like to see a kid who could paint a Jackson Pollock. In a half a second, any pro could tell the difference. People want to think Pollock’s not struggling, that he’s kidding. He’s not kidding. You want to know how I think art should be taught to children? Take them to a museum and say, ‘This is art, and you can’t do it.'”
…By Jove, I think Martin’s figured out why people love Jersey Shore. And he’s won my heart. Again. Not as big as with Shopgirl, but he at least succeeded in making me want to move to New York.