His frenetic stand-up act is the stuff of legend. He’s penned screenplays, stage plays, novels, even children’s books—and that’s just his fiction. He’s strummed his banjo all the way to a Grammy. Is there anything Steve Martin can’t do? We’re not likely to find out anytime soon. With the release of An Object of Beauty, Martin cements his place as one of the country’s wiliest wordsmiths. Deftly navigating the art boom, bust and rebirth of the past two decades through the prism of another irresistible female protagonist, Martin sprinkles his pages with sparse and sprightly prose that will leave readers purring with pleasure. Recently, he spoke with Kirkus about the difficulty in writing about art, his own collection and the difficulties of screenwriting.
Early in the book, your narrator remarks on how people find it difficult to write about art. Do you?
I don’t write about art on a daily basis, but I think it is hard to write about art. I address it a bit in the book. Most people, when they write about art, use “ArtSpeak,” an indecipherable lingo used in some academic circles. I don’t think of that as a way in to viewing art. It has to be written about clearly, emotionally and well. You can be descriptive and might point out things that a casual look might not discern. But I think that emotion in art, and here I’m speaking of visual arts like painting, does not come as easily as it does with music. Very few people stand in front of a painting and cry. We’ve never been able to define why we love it so much, why we build monuments and buildings to house this stuff. The answer is too broad to have some wonderful definition or explanation of why we love it. It’s just inherent, people go crazy for it. I hope that runs through the book—that there are people who just love this stuff and other people who wonder why they’re getting so crazy over it.
You’re well regarded for your own art collection. How did you start collecting?
I’ve always been interested in art, but I really started in college. A friend of mine, Phil Carey, got me excited about not only contemporary art but art in general. It was 1964 at the time, and there was a lot happening. Pop art was exploding. Abstract expressionism was fairly new. There was a lot to be excited about. There’s a lot of myth and romance associated with it, an aura of greatness. And I also like antiques. So, I would go around trying to find painting at antique stores. My first purchase was a small 19th-century painting of a ship at sea by an obscure artist, James Gale Tyler. But the first important piece I bought was an Ed Ruscha. It was a print of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. I bought it for $125 in 1969.
As a writer, you’ve tackled everything from stage plays to children’s books. Which form do you find most difficult?
Screenwriting. A screenplay doesn’t really exist as a work—it’s an interface between the writer and the film, or the director and the film. It’s there as a guide. You’re really writing on the page for another medium, something that’s going to be changed and adapted. You never know what the result will be. At least with a book, you kind of know what the result will be. You can test it on yourself and your friends. With a screenplay, that cannot be tested or done. In a screenplay, there’s an ultimate disappointment waiting for you. There are so many ways to be disappointed—in the way a scene is acted or stage, in the box office performance, in the way a director interprets the work. With a book, you can only be disappointed two ways, either critically or sales.
An Object of Beauty
Grand Central / Nov. 23, 2010 / 9780446573641 / $26.99