Steve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty” examines the morality of the art world

You probably saw it, walking through the book aisle in Target or Costco. Its white cover contrasts sharply with the colorful romance novels and thrillers around it. But you might have done a double take when you saw the author’s name. “Huh,” you might have thought, “He has the same name as Steve Martin.”

And you would’ve been wrong. That guy doesn’t have the same name as Steve Martin, he is Steve Martin, of “The Jerk,” banjo and now authorial fame.

Having released his acclaimed novella “Shopgirl” in 2000 and subsequently turned it into a film, Martin once again ventured into the realm of literature with “An Object of Beauty” in 2010. The subject is not something you’d automatically associate with the comedy-centered, slapstick Martin. The high profile, high stakes world of art dealership seems an odd choice of topic. Our main character, Lacey, begins the novel as a gofer at Sotheby’s, spending most of her time in basements with dusty paintings, none of which are worth very much. But we follow Lacey as her sometimes ruthless, sometimes heartbreaking determination drives her through the ranks of the art world.

The story is told through a first person narrative, recounted by one of Lacey’s male friends and a former love interest whose life and career has inextricably intertwined with hers. His depiction of her is interesting in that he, like seemingly everybody else in the story, is caught in this image of Lacey as the utterly desirable, utterly unattainable and utterly perfect manic pixie dream girl. But, just like everybody else, he’s also totally aware of this perception, in a way where he just can’t seem to shake it even though he knows it’s really wrong. Martin suggests that, in fact, Lacey’s image is totally constructed, and that each of her flighty, seemingly spontaneous moves is perfectly calculated.

It’s here that the double meaning of the title comes into play. The whole novel is full of objects of beauty, priceless works of art reduced to nothing but commodities. But Lacey herself could easily be considered the title object, especially considering the way the narrator looks at her and describes the way others look at her. In this way, Lacey herself allows Martin to explore the agency that a seeming object can attain, as well as ways in which people considered objects could use that perception to their own advantage.

“An Object of Beauty” also deals with the concept of commodification in general. Just as Lacey interacts with dealers and collectors every day who purchase beautiful things for absurd prices, Lacey herself becomes a product, something to be desired and bought. The narrator chronicles her various lavish affairs, tracing her across New York, New England and eventually throughout Europe, allowing her rich lovers to spend luxuriously.

One has to wonder, then, if Martin’s decision to write about the art world wasn’t as out of the blue as it seems. In fact, upon closer inspection, the art world seems to be a pretty logical choice for somebody involved in Hollywood, and the success of “An Object of Beauty” proves that he knows what he’s talking about.