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