December 24, 2010

Martin To Go

“The lure in art collecting and its financial rewards, not counting for a moment its aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual rewards, is like the trust in paper money: it makes no sense when you really think about it. New artistic images are so vulnerable to opinion that it wouldn’t take much more than a whim for a small group of collectors to decide that a contemporary artist was not so wonderful anymore, was so last year. In the ebb and flow of artists’ desirability, some collectors wondered how a beautiful painting, once it had fallen from favor, could turn ugly so quickly.”(1)

As squeamish indictment of the fickleness of a certain type of art collector, Steve Martin’s description of moneyed and presumably powerfully influential collectors goes a long way to unveil the kinds of goings-on in the art world that we’d rather not know about. True, we are aware of the fact that artworks are not always collected by people because they are so absolutely moved by them that they cannot live without them. Certainly there is a jaded realization that art achieved its full commodity-status sometime in the late 1950s, if not sooner, and that art world predators are currently scouring the globe looking to corner the market on the next “Big Thing.”

Martin’s novel, albeit a work of fiction, intrigued a few of us denizens of academia because of its potential to reveal some of those inner machinations of that art collecting-art dealing world that someone of his collector status would be privy to.(2) After all, he is a multi-millionaire and former trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who has collected the work of Diebenkorn, De Kooning, Kline, Twombly, Hopper, O’Keefe and Picasso, among others. And while Martin made his fortune from his comedy and acting careers, he has self-taught knowledge of art history and theory, knowledge benefited through close relationships with more than a few art world stars and scribes who undoubtedly shared their expertise.(3)

An Object of Beauty is a mostly gossipy tome about a young woman named Lacey Yeager who works her way up the art world ladder, from Sotheby’s auction-house flunky to owning her own Chelsea gallery. However, interspersed infrequently, and not enough among the book’s narrative arc of the art world’s financial stresses, shenanigans and furtive couplings, are Martin’s rather insightful if not cynical takes on what our 21st Century art world has become. Particularly devastating are the sporadic glimpses of this seemingly small handful of billionaire collectors who have that kind of Collector Clout detailed above; a kind of competitiveness and take-no-prisoners attitude to art collecting that begins to become a bit more of a scorched earth policy to out-doing one another’s contemporary art collections:

“His [Pilot Mouse, a fictional DJ-artist] breakthrough had come when collector Hinton Alberg, the American equivalent of the dynamic English collector Charles Saatchi, swept through a modest downtown show and bought every one of Mouse’s paintings. The paintings, in retrospect, weren’t that good, but when Hinton Alberg bought them out, they suddenly became good. The theory of relativity certainly applies to art: just as gravity distorts space, an important collector distorts aesthetics. The difference is that gravity distorts space eternally, and a collector distorts aesthetics for only a few years.”(4)

Perhaps the more intriguing thing to explore would be why these paintings were considered not “that good.” What judgments of taste determine this or that artwork “good” and others not? Martin’s bitter rendition of how these paintings that “weren’t that good” to begin with suddenly achieve their desirable “aesthetic” valuation because of provenance is smugly satisfying to anyone who believes that the art world has become nothing less than a game of manipulation. Yet Martin’s perceptive tidbits about super-rich art collector dinner conversations or backroom dealer negotiations are not as scathing an indictment of the art world as the 2009 film, Boogie Woogie, in which a lesbian artist is catapulted to instant fame through a series of improbable, feverish conspiracies by both art dealers and collectors to acquire a Mondrian painting.

That it takes place in the art world is not surprising given Martin’s comfortably moneyed access to that world. However, his obvious mistrust of the motivations behind art collecting may be disguised within his misogynist depiction of Lacey. Because what we are left with in the end is a vapid and sketchy tale of this young woman who is not above trading carnal knowledge for position in her power-hungry quest for art world status. We might even further speculate on Martin's thinly veiled comparison of Lacey’s prostitution of herself with the misguided attempts by collectors to falsely attribute value through ownership. All of which does little or nothing to reveal anything more substantial about what art is, why it’s “eternally” valued in ways completely extraneous to its commodification and how artworks of significance came to be canonized within art historicity. That book remains to be written by another writer with greater depth of vision.

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1. Martin, Steve. An Object of Beauty, New York, 2010, 264.

2. However, Martin’s “fans” have not been appreciative of his recent appearances when he talked about art and his book.

3. Art dealer Larry Gagosian and arts writer Frederic Tuten are friends and Mr. Martin dated Cindy Sherman in the late 1990s.

4. Op. cit., 113.

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