I feel sorry for Steve Martin. I really do. Mr. Martin has just written a new book, An Object of Beauty, which was to be the object of discussion at a recent event at the 92nd Street Y in New York, with New York Times editor Deborah Solomon. Now, I’ve never been to one of these shindigs, but I understand the crowd is fairly highbrow, or is expected to be. These aren’t the same people who would watch Martin on Jay Leno.
Now, his novel is about the art world, the world of galleries and curators and exhibits. Martin himself is a long-time art collector. I’ve seen some of his stuff on exhibit in Los Angeles.
So perhaps not surprisingly, on this night the talk at the Y centered around the art world and Martin’s experiences in it, which he utilized to write his book. Sounds reasonable, right? Not to the attendees, nor to those watching the event on closed circuit television. About halfway through the talk, someone handed Solomon a note saying they were getting emails from viewers requesting—demanding—she steer the conversation instead to the comedian’s wild and crazy career as a comic and movie star. They wanted less Titian and more Tut.
Well, excuuuse me.
Is the public—the erudite New York public with its $50 bottles of table wine and its Lincoln Center galas—really that lowbrow? Martin himself has long been trying to break out of the crazy comic image that allowed him to buy all his Rembrandt etchings and Monet oils in the first place. While he’s inexplicably done some sorry comedies with Queen Latifah and while he’s tried to walk in Peter Sellers’ paw prints, he’s also written some accomplished novels, had one of them made into a movie, and has been a frequent contributor to some of the country’s finest magazines.
But apparently this audience wanted to hear from the movie star, the man with two brains, because it was collectively thirteen years old and couldn’t sit through a discussion about the very subject he wrote his novel about.
Solomon actually read the note to the crowd—more dish, please!—and received the loudest applause of the evening. Now, there’s a place for lowbrow—I love TMZ—but this ain’t it.
To add insult to injury, the Y is agreeing with the mob, offering $50 refunds to anyone who attended. They are essentially admitting that listening to Mr. Martin talk about art and the art world—the subject of his novel!—was boring. In my humble opinion the Y’s executive director Sol Adler, who the next day emailed attendees that Martin’s conversation with Solomon was not the “discussion that was hoped for,” is the jerk.
Ms. Solomon says she was given no guidelines or restrictions for the interview, and since Martin’s comic career is largely in the past, and his latest book is about art, she would talk mostly about art. Silly girl. She adds that she thought things were going well before she was handed the note, and was “appalled” the Y publicly criticized their conversation and felt it deserved a refund. Martin said it was like “an actor responding in Act III to an audience’s text to ‘shorten the soliloquies.’” To dumb down or not to dumb down? These days that’s hardly even a question.
Were I Martin, I would never do a talk with these folks again. They’re letting dummies with smartphones dictate content. Next we’ll have presidential debates wherein the moderator says, “I’m getting tweets that the audience would prefer you talk about sex scandals instead of the economy, foreign policy and education. And could you stop using big words, please?”
There are some ways that the democratization the Internet has brought us is a bad thing. This is definitely one of them.
What’s really sad is most of the people probably weren’t interested in him because of his book. They just wanted to see Steve Martin, The Star. “I saw a celebrity!” A package, more accurately. Charles Chaplin was similarly never able to shed the image of the bowler hat and the cane, much to his dismay. In the single best piece of writing I’ve ever read from Roger Ebert, Chaplin once stood in the doorway to his own banquet in an evening meant to honor him, unrecognized by all.
I guess a lot of people still see Steve Martin as that guy with the arrow through his head.
King Tut must be spinning in his grave.