Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

The Price of Beauty: Two novels set in the art market

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham
An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin

The art world has everything a social historian could desire- glamour, money, and power. I grant that fashion models are more glamorous than art dealers; hedge fund managers, much richer; and politicians, infinitely more powerful. But commerce in visual art raises some great questions. Why do collectors desire artifacts that serve no practical functions? It is easy to understand the desire for grand houses and yachts. But because for several decades, there has been so much anti-aesthetic art, it is a little surprising that this relationship between visual art and money has, if anything, become more intimate. Those academic scholars, who produce the elaborate theorizing accompanying this art, are not the right people to discuss these issues. But Michael Cunningham and Steve Martin are, for their novels provide subtle dissections of the social worlds of art dealing.

Most art world people come from the middle classes, and so for us these luxuries are an acquired taste.  Lacey Yeager, Martin’s anti-heroine is a middle class girl who is aggressive, manipulative and promiscuous. Working at Sotheby’s, she soon finds the contrast between her impoverished everyday life on the Lower East Side and uptown intolerable. Yeager is a quick study. Very good at networking, she discovers not just the power of her good looks—plenty of men want to bed her (and some do)—and the banal economic realities of auction house business, but something more interesting. Lust, she learns, makes men, especially art collectors, controllable. Recognizing her sexual powers, she sees herself in one of Willem de Kooning’s famous images of savage women. In An Object of Beauty, it’s the art that is erotic. When Lacey has sex while looking at a Matisse, that picture, not her lover, is what arouses her.

Reviewers praise Martin for his knowledge of the art world, but although he drops names of critics, dealers and restaurants (and his book is illustrated with  various paintings and sculptures), any intelligent writer could pick up this much information in a long weekend or two. What, however, is miraculously suggestive is Martin’s account of collecting. Lacey’s great transfiguring moment comes when storing a fine painting (a Milton Avery) in her apartment changes her life. Suddenly, she sees, all of her other possessions look tawdry. Once she is aroused by the Avery, Lacey’s career takes off. She leaves Sotheby’s, works for a private dealer, and soon accumulates (in part by devious means) the capital needed to open her own Chelsea gallery. Lacey moves downtown at the moment when the market in contemporary art takes off. In an exploding market, it’s hard for a smart dealer to go wrong, at least until our present recession catches up with her. Many people fall in love with paintings in museums. But Lacey only falls in love with beauty when she temporarily possesses a work of art. Indeed she is far more stimulated by visual art than by the men who fuck her. One of them rapes her, an experience she does not find disturbing. Pinned to her desk, using the occasion to read the mail, she admires this man because he doesn’t care about her feelings, any more than she cares about the feelings of the men who desire her.

Martin develops his plot as effortlessly as a shrewd detective writer. Cunningham, a great aesthetic writer, comes from a different world.  By Nightfall is about a middle aged, mid-level art dealer. Sheltered by his money from the tough street world, a privileged man who worries so much about relatively minor personal troubles that he barely has time left to deal with his business, Peter Harris is well-prepared for a midlife crisis. It comes when his wife’s brother Ethan, a beautiful young drug abuser, come to stay with them. Ethan wants to do something in the arts, but has no actual job. Looking into the shower, seeing Ethan and momentarily confusing this boy with his wife, Harris recalls an earlier experience.  When young, he was charmed by the gorgeous girl his brother was dating, feeling not exactly lust, but the power of beauty as divine presence. But built into that experience also was homoerotic incestuous desire for that gifted brother.

Cunningham, a gay man, does marvelous descriptions of straight sex that feel real in a way that Martin’s strangely dispassionate accounts aren’t. But Harris’s beautifully presented narcissism is wearing, and the self-made Yeager is a more interesting person.  An Object of Beauty draws the connection drawn between aesthetic pleasure and erotic desire, and By Nightfall suggests that selling art involves desires that are not so different in kind from banal sexual desire. Both novels motivate analysis of the intimate links between erotic pleasure and visual art by taking us from uptown dealing in late modernism to Chelsea’s contemporary art. And although neither book gives art writers more than cameo roles, both toy with the equation, familiar from Laura Mulvey’s famous essay on the male gaze, that there is some deep similarity between a desiring male looking at a pretty girl and viewing a work of art.

By focusing on art marketing in these novels, Cunningham and Martin bring a useful practical perspective to our understanding of contemporary art. And yet, for all of the subtlety of their narratives, what is missing is some sense of why art matters.  Lacey and Peter are concerned, in their very different ways, with the way that desire defines personal identity. And that, of course, is a central theme of a great deal of that contemporary art they sell. But they go about their lives as if totally unaware that there might be some intimate connection between their everyday lives and the commodities that they display. My dissatisfactions with these books came to a head after I happened to read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, her recent memoir. Smith and her lover Robert Mapplethorpe really lived for their art. It’s only thanks to kids like them of all ages that we have a commercial art world.

Michael Cunningham, By Nightfall .  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-10: 0374299080, 256pp. $25

Steve Martin, An Object of Beauty. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010, ISBN-10: 0446573647, 304 pp. $26.99

  • Ben

    I don’t understand. Should the goal be to have a commercial art world? And seeing the commercial art world we do have, isn’t it actually appropriate that an art-dealer and an auctioneer would, as you have beautifully written, “go about their lives as if totally unaware that there might some intimate connection between their everyday lives and the commodities that they display?” Isn’t that just it? That they are merely commodities, merely objects to be bought and sold? And so the intimate connection is that these objects are, like any others in their lives, merely objects that are bought and sold whose sole worth is to be determined by what they can bear on the market?

    (And in any of these recent art documentaries, like “Radiant Child” for instance, this fact is immediately apparent whenever we see a gallerist on screen, the way they talk about their amazement of this man is completely through this lens of a painting being solely an art object, a commercial thing, and not just the painting but the artist who makes it. But of course, it’s not just them, but the entire world of scenesters and so-called-friends that he invited to cannibalize him. (Though to be fair, it was not just them, but also the flimsy ideas he invited in and his need for the acceptance by the art world, of those who lived a world he despised, that devoured him from the inside.) For them, he too was just a commodity and not quite a man. Rather, a place to find a party, someone they could use, an object of fascination, etc . . .)

    So isn’t it quite fitting that they wouldn’t find any deep spiritual, emotional, psychic capitol, even in De Kooning? If that’s the point of these books, than at least there, it seems apt. So in that case is your disappointment really with the books or with the commercial art world? And might that disappointment also have something to do with the fact that this world, like almost any other micro-world we find in this country, and ever more in the world beyond, is indeed commercial? What the hell, are we all morticians?

    But it’s not like this is some great big change, and not even going all the way back to Marx. Even in the time of Smith and Mapplethorpe. Or you wouldn’t have that wonderful Colette Roberts interview of Peter Agostini in 1968 with this fantastic exchange, though it is only one of many such exchanges:

    PA You know when they are selling slaves. He [ie. the gallerist] was the gatherer of the slaves so that they could pick which slaves they wanted for their harem.

    CR It’s a nice image. But you don’t think that [artists] are enslaved, though, by their galleries?

    PA Of course they are. They are enslaved to their own enjoyment. Because otherwise they would just be useless human beings running around from one place to another. Nine tenths of the artists want to be ensalved to something- the only reason they are working is for the enslavement. Enslaved by the things they are given, enslaved by popularity and the publicity they get. That’s another thing that has happened today: this beautiful sense of being ensalved by a social order.

    Boy, that guy could talk! And yes, perhaps we should be disappointed by the state of things, by how willingly, and not just willingly, but with a sense of gladness, we let ourselves be enslaved. But if these books are getting at that point, then i suppose i’m much more likely to read them today than i was before.

    Or perhaps the two writers just don’t have the necessary machinery to feel their lives in a work of art? Or at least to write about it. After all, to come face to face with such a work is to be confronted by a sacred moment. And such a moment is of course unsayable, except perhaps with sacred speech, and what’s more, it is beyond-all-things dangerous, though as Holderlin says, “Where there is danger, there grows what saves.”

  • Melany Terranova

    David,your words….”what is missing is some sense of why art matters”
    and Ben, your words…”to feel their lives in a work of art – to come face to face….” are important and remarkable. Yes, yeah and yep about all we
    know about sexuality, desire, being “charged” by art. But Ahhhhhhh, those of us who also know something more….well, there is deep satisfaction and entry into another dimension. I find this element exists in some incredible artists I am having the privilege of meeting, who are not enslaved…(meaning they are better known by their peers than by the world)of great skill and knowledge…perhaps living more hermitically….but so worthy to know. And, the richnesss of conversation….well, you can’t beat that because it is so honest. For those of us who have a roof over our heads and food in our belly, then this is the privileged path to follow. (The commercial path, I must admit is somewhat entertaining though and simply reveals more about who we are as a people.)

  • Melany Terranova

    Gee David….just finished An Object of Beauty at the beach, and there the book will stay…in the beach house library. It is a good, light book that
    serves as an introduction to anyone who is new to “the game of life(!)” and to anyone who is just beginning to place their toe into the NY art world.

    That being said, there are three thoughts I delighted in reading!

    Page 197. “It was impossible to know if this new art was good, because,
    mostly, good art had been defined by its endurance over time. But even though this new art had not yet faced that jury, collectively it had a significant effect: it made art of Tally’s generation seem old and stodgy.”

    Page 190. “Oh please,no! Have you ever heard an artist talk about their
    art? It’s Chinese! What they describe in their work is absolutely not there. And it’s guaranteed that what you think is their worst picture, they
    think is their best picture.”

    Page 106. When visitors came, if they didn’t admire the picture – or worse, didn’t notice it – she would think them stupid or confused, and they
    were moved to the bottom of her list of worthwhile people.

    So I am “thinking” of giving Cunningham’s book a shot…but am more eager
    to go directly to Patti Smith’s book! And, if you don’t mind, I will order
    YOUR book….A World Art History and It’s Objects! I like your way with words. They have weight.

  • Michael Angelo Tata

    David is quite right to underscore the uneasy junction where art and life meet, a seismic hotspot as tragicomic for making art and living as it is for the economics and chrematistics of the objet. I appreciate this insight for reasons that transcend the instances of the novels being reviewed, as it underscores the problems of production and consumption that accompany phenomena like the transformation of Chelsea from party zone to art Mecca and the daily life of the auctioneer, as well as the very Wildean concern for the functioning of mimesis and dethroning of Nature as primary substratum or raw material to be manipulated by the artist.

    For me, the problem of the Anti-aesthetic cannot be emphasized enough, especially as it relates to collectability and the defusing of the project of épatisme, which is rendered quite innocent through its co-optation. With this thought in mind, Gianni and Donatella Versace’s use of punk and street style are one place I turn. I also recall Slavoj Zizek’s comment in “The Fragile Absolute” that after Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde,” that perverted gaze identified in the work of Mulvey (and even more vividly, in Linda Williams’ pornology) has had its fill, and art is free to enshrine the trash object it had previously disavowed, displacing it toward the sublime. Through the anti-aesthetic, it can de-sublimate, and so can we: no wonder it makes for such good buying!

    The Smith/Mapplethorpe nexus, a thoroughly queer place, indeed, seems just the place to end this exposition, as it is here that gender, sexuality, currency and aesthetics intertwine most beautifully and inextricably. I don’t want to untie this knot, just enjoy its tautness and coarse revelation that history is a series of spacetime clots warping a fabric I am mysteriously asked to wear.