An Object of Value

Tissot “La Mondaine”

I flew across country and back last week for a conference, which afforded me the time to read a novel, something I don’t often get to do in the middle of a semester. I chose Steve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty.”  Early on, the narrator describes the transformation undergone by Lacey, the anti-heroine protagonist of the story.  Newly employed by Sotheby’s, she starts to develop a “calculus of worth:”

When Lacey began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.

Later in the book, the narrator describes the impact of one fictional collector’s purchase:

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.

At the center of the novel, at least for this reader, is the moral ambiguity around commodifying things of beauty, of putting a price tag on art.  In Lacey’s world, there is a positive correlation between auction value and aesthetic value.  Not so for the narrator, Daniel Franks, who earns high praise for writing a piece for ArtNews that doesn’t mention money.

There is a lot of good material available about this issue, from scholarly publications like The Journal of Cultural Economics to novels by an erudite movie star/playwright/collector and I’m admittedly not as well-versed on this topic as I would like to be.  But, like the narrator of “An Object of Beauty,” I remain decidedly skeptical about assuming that high-priced art is good or that really good, innovative art will find a place in the market.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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