Major Themes and Symbols

by Vivian Wagner

This chapter is a free excerpt from Quicklet on Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty.

Art vs. Money

Many people outside of the art collecting world imagine it to be governed purely by aesthetics and a love of beauty. This novel, however, reveals that the art market is just that -- a market -- and every work of art has a price. The fact that these prices rise and fall reveals just how arbitrary they are, but it also demonstrates how much the art market resembles and mimics the stock market.


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Art vs. Money

Many people outside of the art collecting world imagine it to be governed purely by aesthetics and a love of beauty. This novel, however, reveals that the art market is just that -- a market -- and every work of art has a price. The fact that these prices rise and fall reveals just how arbitrary they are, but it also demonstrates how much the art market resembles and mimics the stock market.

Corruption

The theme of corrupted innocence runs through An Object of Beauty, and this corruption happens most frequently at the nexus of art and money. Each work of art carries significance in this sense, but the most important one in the novel is the Maxfield Parrish painting called Daybreak. In the world of the novel, the naked, nymph-like woman in the painting was modeled on Lacey’s grandmother, and for many years she owned this painting thinking it was just a print.

Lacey realizes that it’s the original of the painting, however, and switches it for a print, effectively stealing it from her grandmother. This painting thus comes to represent, both for Lacey and for the novel’s readers, the lengths to which she’ll go to succeed in the art business. As Lacey says of her situation, “I could not be driven out of New York by a simple lack of money. And my taste was improving. I needed better things.” She is, in short, a social climber, and the fact that she steals this painting demonstrates the extreme lengths to which she’ll go to make money, as well as the depth of the corruption of her character.

Loving vs. Using People

A subtle theme in the novel, exemplified by the relationship between Daniel and Lacey, is the conflict between truly loving and caring for someone as opposed to using them for money, sex, or other self-serving ends. Most of the relationships in the novel, except for the one between Daniel and Lacey, are not based on love, and even their relationship is ultimately corrupted when Lacey asks Daniel to conspire with her on a shady art deal.

By the end of the novel, Daniel still hopes that something will work out with Lacey. He still seems to love her, but given everything that has happened up until that point, it doesn’t seem likely. Their relationship, like all others in the novel, has been corrupted by self-interest and greed.

Social Climbing

A major theme in this novel – and the one that makes it most like the work of Edith Wharton – is social climbing. Lacey doesn’t have enough money to find the kind of lifestyle she wants to have, and as her reserve of money from her parents dwindles, she becomes increasingly desperate to make money however she can. She seizes upon opportunities she finds in the art market, clawing her way to the top. She finds, however, that it’s just as easy to fall financially – and socially – as it is to climb.

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