My thoughts on An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin
A few months back when I found myself having to drive for hours I realized I just didn't want to listen to music or cable news while I was inside the car anymore. I thought, how about I have Siri read me a book? I only read real books now but I thought I sure must have a kindle book that I hadn't gotten around to reading which could be entertaining and easy enough to comprehend while driving and spoken by Siri herself. Sure enough I found An Object of Beauty written by Steve Martin, the actor, writer and producer. I had purchased it way back when and now it was time to have it read.
The book is about Lacey, an ambitious young woman entering the art business, as it is told by his male friend. It is about this man’s impressions of her to be exact, which show how devoid of knowledge—how ambitious yet superficial—she is. He gives the account of a young woman whom you really don’t know much about. The narrator does this while also providing information about the art world, certain artists, some art works, aesthetics, the collectors, exhibitions, the auction world and how they work, the art business, and how the art market is affected by world events such as a financial crisis and September 11. I guess somebody who doesn’t know about the contemporary art world might find some information interesting: Like provenance, auction catalogs, collectors' influence on art, or ways to avoid sales tax, and the inclusion of pictures of works of art that are mentioned in the book. Maybe.
But what Martin’s An Object of Beauty does is make you wonder who Lacey really is. What drives her? What are her thoughts, and true desires? Is she really as shallow, superficial and incapable of real relationships as the narrator tells us? We don’t really get to know her. At one point in the book looking at the painting of a nighttime seascape at the Hermitage, she hears the commentary, “I like the way the moonlight is reflected on the water”, which she repeats when she is asked about what she likes about an Andy Warhol silkscreen of flowers, which doesn’t have anything do to with the sea, moon, or its reflection for that matter. Why is this in the book? Is it because she knows nothing about art and is purely motivated to make money? And that she doesn’t have the knowledge, brains to make opinions of herself? Or is she just shrugging the people around her, just for the fun of it. We cannot know. Like I said we really don’t know her. At all.
As I was reading—or rather having Siri read me the book—I also thought about Steve Martin. I remembered one of his films from years ago called LA Story and how much I was reminded of the movie when I first went to LA for the first time in the 90s. Just as I was exploring this book I also happened upon a wonderful documentary called Vermeer, Beyond Time, on PBS that is narrated by Steve Martin, which I recommend to everybody.
Screenshot of Vermeer, Beyond Time, as seen on PBS
In addition to his acting, and collecting, I found out that Steve Martin had written articles and two books before An Object of Beauty: The first is a novel called The Pleasure of My Company, and the other is Shopgirl: A Novella, which received generally good reviews. I didn’t read either book but I did watch the film of Shopgirl in which Steve Martin himself and Clare Danes share the screen with Jason Schwartzman. And let me tell you how much Shopgirl, the movie, is like An Object of Beauty, the book:
Shopgirl is about Mirabelle, a shop girl, played by Clare Danes. She is nice, good looking, struggling financially, who one day is approached by an older man in the store, who sees her as an object of desire in a way, and thus starts their relationship. But we learn actually nothing about her. Why is she acting the way she does? Why is she really with him? What are her thought processes? What drives her? I in fact found it quite disturbing. It is the same with An Object of Beauty.
The parallels don’t even end there. Mirabelle of Shopgirl in the end becomes a gallery assistant, quite like Lacey in An Object of Beauty. And not only that, at one point a very similar exchange takes place in both works: Looking out the narrator's, the male character's home window one can see the subject's, the female character’s, home. What does this mean? I can watch and observe you, admire you, or we can see each other, from a distance. From a distance only, perhaps?
Now back to, An Object of Beauty. Sure there is no real plot. And nothing really interesting. You think for a while that something about Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee stolen during the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft is going to happen. But then doesn’t. All we read about is this young woman, but then nothing really of substance. There are these observations which are accounted here, but they give out no clues about her.
I understand Steve Martin is a smart man. Very thoughtful. But why women? Martin chooses women as his subjects, and then describes them as being distant, incomprehensible, at times neurotic, even hysterical beings who would do anything to advance their positions. Perhaps this book is trying to tell you that this is how men see women. That they don’t understand women. This is only as much they can see of women. While good art is telling you something—nonstop at times—without telling you openly what it really is and that you innately are drawn to it, it is the same with men vis-à-vis women. Sure, they are drawn to them, but no matter how much you want them to understand you, they just don’t. Newsflash: You want men to get you, they just want to “get” you.
Overall Steve Martin explores a love, a connection one might have with a piece of art: An object that is desirable, as something to admire, to covet, to acquire, to want to “own”. Martin choosing as his subject, women like Mirabelle (Mira à Belle = Look at Beauty) in Shopgirl (the girl who works at the shop, or the girl whom you can SHOP), and Lacey (of lace, or “Lass-y” = girl-y) in An Object of Beauty, says to me that just as art, women are just beautiful objects.
This also got me thinking. I remembered a time in art class all the way back in elementary school when I was surprised to see that one of my classmates, a boy, was drawing a boy, while I always drew girls. I remember how difficult I found it to draw boys. Mentioning this, he had said, “because you are a girl, you draw girls and I, draw boys.” I guess we can only really know what our own experiences are. When we look at literature, specifically to books by women writers, I notice that almost always their main characters are women. We have women telling stories of women. Yet, on the other hand, we also have women characters told by male writers. So many of them in fact. This book, An Object of Beauty too, is a book by a man, about a woman, that is narrated by a man. And I wondered, surely there must be some male characters of fiction, created/written by women. Well, I thought and came upon Harry Potter, written by J.K. Rowling (who of course chose to use her initials so her gender wouldn’t be understood). But does it count? I mean not only was Harry Potter a child when his story started to be told, but not an ordinary one to begin with: He is in fact a wizard, and the "Chosen One". Another male fiction character created by a woman is by Mary Shelley, and the character is of course, Frankenstein. Frankenstein! Needless to say, he is not your average male man either, to say the least.
My conclusion on An Object of Beauty was that here were the subjective views of a man. Of a woman. How and what "He" sees in any and all women. And that—a man—even an intelligent and thoughtful man like Martin can only understand so much, which is not much. He chooses “women" as his subject, seeing them as “objects”, and ultimately shows them to be the subject people of the empire of Man.
So was this a total loss? A complete waste of time? Most certainly, no. I hate driving, but I ended up looking forward to driving as I wanted to go on with the book. I realized time flew although I was stuck in traffic. And it got me thinking of course. It would have been nice to have a plot, or a real story, but maybe that is not contemporary writing, and we object to it very much like some people do not understand hence don't like contemporary art.
More importantly I realized that I want to hear more stories of women, written by women. There are so many more stories of us that need to be told. And to be heard. But we shouldn’t stop there. Women should also tell stories of men. There should also be as many women writers who write about men, as there have been men who wrote about women. And that just as women had to mold their behavior as deemed correct or appropriate by men’s writing throughout history, men then can start identifying themselves through these stories of men as told by women. And it is then, and only then, that we can finally say “and that is herstory”.