Book Simple: An Empire State of Art [BOOK WEEK 2!]
In economics, we believe that consumers are rational agents who consume subject to the constraints they are given. People would buy and buy and buy – buy until the store shelves were empty – if they didn’t have the nagging knowledge of their bank accounts dwindling with every purchase.
Preferences differ between agents; someone buys those Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light ™ monstrosities, even if nobody you or I know would admit to it. But universally the things we purchase must satisfy some need, allow us to live the way we think is best. Most importantly, the constraints we face force us to choose.
The story of Lacey Yeager, the main character in Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty, is very much the story of a choice. At twenty-three, “Lacey joined the spice rack of girls at Sotheby’s [where] majors in art history were welcomed over majors in art making, and pretty was preferred in either sex.” Lacey Yeager has pretty to spare. Daniel Franks, her friend and one-time lover, narrates her story. He notes, “It was apparent to everyone that Lacey was headed somewhere, though her path often left blood in the water.”
Lacey crosses her subtle Rubicon after a chance invitation to an auction, four flights upstairs from the dusty basement where Sotheby’s puts her to work. There a Tissot painting, valued at five hundred thousand dollars, is sold for two million. “Lacey noticed that as the pace of the bids picked up, she felt a concomitant quickening of her pulse, as though she had been incised by an aphrodisiacal ray.” Someone has made some serious money – and why shouldn’t she?
Her dusty basement and menial tasks become a source of knowledge. “The endless stream of pictures that passed through the auction house helped her develop a calculus of worth.” Lacey discovers that she desires less to view and evaluate art than to sell it. It’s a choice that will shape her life. “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.”
Lacey’s ambitions rise in a New York rocked by the events of September 11 and desperately unstable. “An unprecedented and feverish upswing in the art market was about to occur, one that reached beyond the insiders and the knowledgeable, which would draw the attention of stock investors and financial operators, making them turn their heads toward Chelsea.” Pieces of art are worth what someone will pay for them. A surfeit of cash bids art auction prices up, and the people buying the pieces no longer care about their history.
We who dwell in the Great Recession know too well what happens to market bubbles. “Art as an aesthetic principle was supported by thousands of years of discernment and psychic rewards, but art as a commodity was held up by air.” As people lost their confidence in their financial futures, their willingness to pay for artwork shrunk commensurately.
It’s a fantastically interesting economic landscape, and Martin provides the kind of details that make you feel you too are weaving through Manhattan with Lacey, “the one bright light, the spot lit girl scattering fairy dust, as she walked the few blocks to her walk-up.” There’s no other city where this particular adventure could take place. An Object of Beauty is a New York story, and a wonderful one.
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