The other day I learnt a new word: polymath, meaning, a person of great learning in several fields of study. I first heard it applied to Stephen Fry, but after An Object of Beauty I think it could also describe Steve Martin.

Shame on me, I didn’t even know he was also a writer until Steph’s review. This book was the perfect choice for my Art Restoration & Business theme (One, Two, Theme Challenge).

The story follows Lacey Yeager’s career in the New York art world, from her bottom-of-the-food-chain job at Sotheby’s in the early 90s to owning her own gallery. She’s ambitious, cunning, has good art instincts and she not afraid to use sex to get ahead (“When she was alone, she was potential; with others she was realized.”).

Usually authors get us to dislike such a woman character, but Lacey never becomes a predator who does anything to go ahead and I respected her for having no regrets when a gamble failed. I think this might be what Martin had in mind, because he decided to tell the story from the POV of a man who’s half in love with her. I was rooting for Lacey, even if in a somewhat dispassionate way, like when I’m watching a game when my team isn’t playing and decide to support one just to make the watching more interesting.

Most of the reviews I’ve read can be divided between the readers who focused on Lacey and the ones who focused on Martin’s take on the art world. I’m more inclined to the last group.

Lacey was an interesting woman to get to know but what really fascinated me was Martin’s clear love affair with art. At certain moments in the book he goes off on a speech on art history and hilarious conversations between intellectuals and nouveau riche collectors.

What for another writer might have been a sleep-inducing exercise, Martin uses his skills as a comedian to make everything seen vivid and slightly insane, which is how I always saw the art world in the first place.

(Mr. Martin, if you’re reading this, please write a non-fiction book just with your thoughts on art!)

By 1997, the art market, becalmed over the previous seven years, was beginning to catch wind. A day spent trekking from Sotheby’s to Christie’s with a lunch stop at Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue was a collector’s version of the Grand Tour. Increased foot traffic at galleries and auction houses indicated a widening public interest. Prices were what acclimated to the art world while writing fledgling reviews for ARTnews or Artforum, I was still surprised that no belligerent letters appeared in the paper condemning huge sums spent on art that could be better spent on children’s hospitals.

The public seemed to accept these sudden escalations with either resignation or glee. I couldn’t tell which. I can’t imagine that art prices reported around the water cooler were ever responded to with a “That’s fantastic” – except the water cooler at the auction houses – and than likely they were met with a dismissive sniff or complaint.

Some of the dialogues were very similar to the ones I had with my friends at art school. I wasn’t part of the cool, “real” artists group, but fell in with the designers, illustrators and graphic novel artists (some of them are doing amazing work, including for Marvel, check out Ricardo and João’s blogs) so we felt we were entitled to a bit of fun at their expense.

Let’s say you’re going to buy a puppy. You’re going to buy a yellow lab. A cuddly yellow lab. So you read that you should go to a breeder because you don’t want to get one that’s going to go sick on you. Now you get to the breeder and you find out there’s English labs and American labs. American labs are good for hunting because they’re kind of lithe. But you don’t want to hunt him, so you go for an English lab, more stocky. Then you’re told that the real prize of the Labrador breed is one with a big head.

So you wait and wait, and finally you get one with a big head. Now you take it home and proudly show your big-headed puppy to friend. You’re thinking, I’ve got this great show dog, and English lab with a big head, and your friend is thinking, What an ugly puppy.

So in the end I was left with one question: what did the art world think of An Object of Beauty? Did they see themselves reflected in it or simply dismissed it?

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Other thoughts: Steph & Tony Investigate, Unputdownables (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 5: Art business/restoration

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