April 1, 2020

A Cautionary Tale, Brought to You by the 92nd Street Y

A Safe Harbor Is Not so Safe

I can’t think  of a more comfortable place to discuss a novel about the art world than the 92nd Street Y. Those of us who have attended a “Q & A” softball session at that venue with one of our favorite performers or writers (for me, it was a hilarious Belzer conversation many years ago), the environment is everything you don’t want watching TV to be. There’s a level of intelligence and sophistication to the presentation, there’s a famous person, the audience is attentive, and generally, everyone is feeling good about themselves. Well, what happens when those metrics unexpectedly get turned upside down?
The Event

So Steve Martin, celebrity icon of icons, whose career spans “Wild and Crazy Guy” to “It’s Complicated”, and avid art collector to boot, has written a novel about the art world entitled “An Object of Beauty”.  It’s book promotion time, so he enlists a writer-friend of his from the Times to “interview” him about the book at, where else, the 92nd Street Y. Seems like a hand in glove match, something that has occurred at that location thousands of times over the years.  900 tickets get sold at $50 a pop, with some folks watching on closed circuit TV from across the country.

Fear and Loathing on Lexington Avenue

As recounted by Felicia Lee, in her piece “Comedian Falls Flat at 92nd Street Y”, the artist got much more than he bargained for when he actually tried to discuss…the art world. As the interview was progressing, disappointed audience members started emailing requests for questions about Mr. Martin’s movies and indicated that the evening “wasn’t going the way they wished”. In other words, 86 the boring art world stuff and lay a little TMZ on us. Eventually, after jeers from the audience, Martin gave in and answered a few questions about movies and television, but it was too late. According to the Y’s marketing folks, the evening “fell flat” and didn’t meet the Y’s “standard of excellence”. What else could the program director do but offer everyone a refund in a post-event email.  As Martin commented later, how high could the standard be, since it was his second appearance there…

Changes at the Speed of Light

We’re in this weird feedback loop, where someone performs or writes something or a movie gets released, and the anonymous public, maybe a well-informed public, then again, maybe a completely ignorant public, through email, twitter and texting, “comments” on what they think of whatever it is that’s just taken place, and somehow, that cyber critique, has just as much importance as the event itself.  As they say, it’s all good.

Is Everything Subject to a Vote?

To my mind, what happened at the 92nd Street Y has seismic potential for the Y and for all of us—a little something called the chilling effect. When Yupper East Siders can’t listen to Steve Martin wax serious about his serious side for an hour, however pompous it might have been, things are changing more rapidly that we can even begin to digest. It’s becoming a never-ending Gong Show where no one and no place is safe from the digital pitch forks.

So remember, your opinions matter, make sure to text your vote now, the winner will be announced right after we come back. Power to the people…

For more: Steve Martin gives his take on the event via the Op-Ed Page of the Times.