Steve Martin was brave enough to visit the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC yesterday, and Lehrer easily proved that it is, IS, possible to conduct an interesting interview about art (or perhaps Martin felt comfortable that the NPR audience is composed of less angry, elderly Jewish Philistines and more of cultured, respectful, art appreciators).
See? That was informative and entertaining. No one had to lower their level of discourse, and listeners were not lulled to sleep. It can be done!
We guess this means that it’s time for our long-delayed thoughts on Martin’s recent appearance at the 92nd St. Y.
Much has already been written about the evening at the Kaufman Concert Hall, which was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster; a boring, aimless first half, followed by a tense, awkward second. We were lucky (unlucky?) enough to be in the audience, and, despite Martin’s later protestations, moderator Deborah Solomon was condescending, boorish and dismissive, and we assume Martin’s assertion that the interview was on the right track, painting both himself and Solomon as the victims, is an attempt to save face and protect his friend. Because anyone who was present will tell you that Solomon seemed woefully ill-suited for the evening, conducting the Q&A about Martin’s new novel An Object of Beauty more like a book report than an engaging discussion. There are certainly entertaining ways to converse about art, and there are ways to educate an audience that has yet to read the topic of discussion. But Solomon failed in both these respects, keeping the art references above that of the typical 92Y patron (almost defiantly so), and reading whole passages of the novel with little or no context, an endeavor which even Martin acknowledged was ill-advised. So for her to level the “philistine” charge against the crowd that night is unfair, and points the blame in the wrong direction. Certainly the contingent that night would have enjoyed an intelligent, enlightening conversation about art. But that’s not what they got. What they got was a recitation from Solomon with occasional feedback from Martin, comments that were largely ignored by the moderator.
The second half of the evening, after a timid, young female 92Y staffer tip-toed on stage and delivered a note requesting an adjustment in focus towards Steve’s career in general (much to the audible delight of the crowd), was just as squirm-inducing, but for different reasons. It was clear that Solomon was offended by the directive (we are still rather shocked that this happened; someone must have really been panicking off stage, screaming ABORT, ABORT!), and basically checked out from that point on, clearly exhibiting her disdain for any form of media other than fine art. It seemed that, to her, any question about It’s Complicated is the lowest possible discourse, a transgression that should be reserved for Neanderthals and rock eaters. But Solomon so clearly expressing her abhorrence for the “lower” forms of art is essentially the same as audience members rejecting the classical forms (not that they did, but, for the sake of argument, let’s say they did). It’s two sides of the same coin. However, we reckon, in Solomon’s mind she probably believes her behavior is justified because she’s a purveyor of “true” art.
Which isn’t to say the conversation should have shifted to Father of the Bride and Saturday Night Live. We understand that Steve Martin was there to discuss (and promote) his novel about art, and that the event was advertised as such. But there was no doubt that the ship was sinking, and, in our eyes, Martin knew it. And, to his credit, he tried his best to bring it ashore, both during the art discussion and during the questions from the audience. So for him to state later that he had “no doubt that, in time, and with some cooperation from the audience, we would have achieved ignition” feels rather ingenuous. It was a flop. No two ways about it. Would have it been better to just crash and burn talking about art, rather than risk embarrassment shifting gears? Maybe? Maybe not. But the event was probably going to be a failure either way.
So, in the end, at least we heard a little about Planes, Trains & Automobiles. And cried tears of nervous, uncomfortable, uncontrollable laughter. So whether or not Martin’s goal was to get us to chuckle he succeeded.