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I saw Steve Martin talk about art and it didn't stink

December 3, 2010 | 10:33 am

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On Thursday, the N.Y. Times reported that an onstage conversation between the actor and writer Steve Martin and interviewer Deborah Solomon went so awry that the presenter, the 92nd Street Y, offered $50 gift-certificate refunds to all 900 people who had attended.

The problem, as the paper reported it: "According to Mr. Martin, viewers watching the interview by closed-circuit television from across the country sent e-mails to the Y complaining 'that the evening was not going the way they wished, meaning we were discussing art.'"

Kind readers, I was not at that event at the 92nd Street Y. But I did see Steve Martin discuss art on stage not eight weeks ago, and I can tell you what it was like.

It was terrific.

I admit, the events were different. In New York, Solomon talked alone with Steve Martin on stage. What I saw was an event at the Getty -- an art museum -- and featured two authors, Frederick Tuten and Martin. Tuten read from his already released "Self Portraits: Fictions"; Martin read from his not-yet-released novel, "An Object of Beauty," and then the two of them sat down with Getty Research Institute's Andrew Perchuk, who threw out questions to keep a free-form discussion going. Both books dealt with art; the conversation touched on art, artists and the business of collecting art -- there were slides projected above -- as well as their books and writing.

Here's the thing: There were times when the conversation faltered, or doubled back; once or twice what seemed like an interesting avenue for questioning came and went, unnoticed. But that's OK, it was still terrific -- because it's a conversation. How often, in our public discourse, do we get to hear an intellectual discuss ideas on the fly? How often to we get to see the wheels turning and sparks flying? We don't. We don't get that much at all.

Public conversations are not scripted, and that's what makes them exciting.

You want to see Steve Martin in something scripted? Rent "Parenthood." Or better yet, "The Jerk."

Sure, those movies -- and his wild and crazily successful stand-up career -- are what make Martin the kind of person 900 people will pay $50 to sit and listen to. He's a celebrity, and lucky for us, a smart one. He's a star, and also a public intellectual.

I, for one, am glad that in addition to being an art collector, Martin is on Team Book, in the camp of people who think reading and writing are meaningful. "The greatest joy for me, in writing, is finding the exact word for the exact sentence," he told me that night at the Getty. "I can almost feel the impact on the reader. I can feel them being stopped, when it's just right." His pace slowed. "So they actually take note of what. they. just. read."

Of course, this is also the lesson of the performer, of someone who knows what it feels like to be on stage and read an audience. And that is one of the strangest things about the event in New York: Could someone with Martin's stage experience really not have read the room?

Apparently midway through the interview, someone brought a note to Solomon. She read the note aloud: It indicated that they wanted to hear less about art, the subject of Martin's book, and more about Martin. Were people actually upset that instead of talking about himself, he talked about art?

As someone who has attended hundreds of these events and been the onstage interlocutor at a few, the note-giving sounds awful. The job of the interviewer in circumstances like this one is to showcase the author's personality, open up avenues into their work -- which is often a new book few in the room have had a chance to read -- and to let the audience be part of an event that could never be exactly replicated. (Easy, right?) The note indicated, publicly, that the interviewer was failing. It was gutsy for Solomon to read it out loud, I think. She could have instead shifted gears and given the audience -- or the organizers -- what they wanted.

The 92nd Street Y has a long history of successfully putting on smart and engaging public programs. The space is fantastic, the rosters impressive. The few times I've been able to attend, I never once found myself dissatisfied. But the organization has been in the event business for so long that this isn't their first refund. On Thursday, they confirmed that there have been similar refund offers in the past, although they failed to respond to my request for specifics.

The refund offer makes sense in that people in the audience may not have gotten what they wanted. That means there was a disconnect between the event's marketing and the interviewer's approach, both of which were the Y's responsibility.

But I can't help but be disappointed. A conversation should be a conversation, organic and unpredictable. How could people not expect that?

If, at the Getty, Steve Martin had chosen to talk about staplers or bioluminescence or baking instead of contemporary art, I would have been surprised, but not unhappy. I would have thought, hey, this is slightly insane, and only me and these few hundred people get to be a part of it.

Steve Martin didn't talk about any of those other things. He talked about art. And it didn't disappoint. It didn't disappoint at all.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: From left, Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the Getty Research Institute, Frederic Tuten and Steve Martin. The image behind them is Roy Lichtenstein's painting that appears on the cover of Tuten's book. Credit: Jobe Benjamin / The Getty Research Institute

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