Thursday, October 22, 2015

With a nod to Henry James, THE PRIZE looks at the mannered art world with irony and earnestness

Prologue to THE PRIZE, Jill Bialosky's incredibly moving novel of the art world

Edward Darby knew that an artist's work had the power to change the way in which art was perceived, for every successful artist must recreate the medium, but he did not know, each time he went to a new artist's studio, if he'd ever find it. When you see a work of art, it will be as if everything else in relationship to it has faded. Art should transport the seer from the ordinary to the sublime. His father, a scholar of romantic poetry, told him this when he was a boy. But it was more than that. It was the myths artists created about their art that gave the work authority, and as an art dealer, he was part of that creation. He thought about all this as he looked for Agnes Murray's name on the directory in the vestibile of a crumbling old warehouse in Bushwick. It was a cold and gray morning in April. He hoped he wasn't wasting his time.

THE PRIZE (COUNTERPOINT, Berkeley) is a novel of a prescribed milieu, the modern art world, with expected behavior, class designations, and subtleties of speech and intention rarely perceptible to the uninitiated. One of the pleasures of this book is that the reader gets to experience this high society and its subsets through the players; star artists, insecure and brash, jockeying not just for position but immortality, galleristas, voraciously seeking fortune's limit (wherever they can sell hot art to the most prestigious buyers internationally).

There are also the true artists and aesthetes with a sense of purpose deeper than the glittery show. They are the core of this Jamesian novel, that reveals how people actually perceive their lives and the incongruous mismatch between them of perceptions. Even between spouses, who believe they know each other, there are gulfs between shared realities. Like the prow of a ship visible at the water line, the feelings underneath have unfathomable depths.

This art world is no satire of poseurs and Machiavellian dealers pushing inflated prices. Instead of capitalizing on affectation and snobbery, though she has fun with cliches, Bialosky, a poet, excavates beneath caricatures for the throbbing soul of perception. Compassion's laced with humor as she describes how subjective perceptions of artists clash and collude with the calculation of the art world professionals. This is well described by the narrator and hero of THE PRIZE, who combines the intuitive perception of the true aesthete with business acumen.

Edward follows his hunches, whatever the cost. His ambition is less about making money than seeking transcendence.. The son of a scholar of romantic poetry, Edward knows in his bones that truth is beauty. This sensibility is his lodestar, unlike Holly, his earthy wife, who finds sustenance in volunteer work at animal shelters and maintaining their comfy country home. Edward is mystified by her capacity for simple happiness. She cannot see his attraction to the international art scene, the constant travel and superficiality.

This novel cleverly sends up the cliched set-up of "opposites attract,"by showing the primal tragedy both experienced that originally drew them together. In another knowing nod to James, romance in this novel is based on perceived "similarities"  by lovers, who actually have little understanding of their core desires. Edward is too familiar with the psychiatric total the life of an aesthete took on his brilliant father. His world, as a dealer is far less insular. He avoids the toxic introspection, he thinks, but actually he buries grief in the glamour of his world.

And he has justly earned the reputation of a solid figure in the art world. An aesthete with a poet's sensibility, he consistently delivers the gold. When he perceives intangible truth shining through--a sense of the eternal--he knows he's in the presence of true art. His life is built on such discoveries, like the beautiful high strung artist, who mixes 9-11 imagery with history tinged portraits. Now the major artist of the gallery he partners, he is patient, promoting her well despite her often impossible demands.

Though Edward's life is exactly what he wanted it to be, he finds himself adrift in his 40's. In lesser hands his not atypical crisis--finding his ideals are less than real, wanting to know what is of substance before he loses--would be too familiar. Here, passion makes you fear for his fate. Though Edward recognizes he likes to make a deal, and find a transcendent moment and make it salable, he's painfully vulnerable.

Among the changing people in his art scene, he meets his "soulmate", a haunted sculptor with a sensibility he thinks not unlike his own. Keats' Odes begin a seduction less about his object than the need to throw aside the pedestrian and seize the perfection eluding him,  Edward the truth seeker becomes a liar. His betrayal is mirrored throughout the facets of his carefully ordered life.

Then, as artists jockey for the validation of a major prize, Edward is driven to a precipice, where he must discover what life is worth living. This novel is understated yet the way it's written is beautiful, clever and often surprising. James might read it without disdain.