What makes art great?  Two comic novels venture a guess.

What makes art great? Two comic novels venture a guess.

By Marc Haber

By Emily Hall

Contemporary fiction does not judge art-world types as harshly as it judges, say, hitmen, but at least assassins can be relied upon to perform a useful service. The characters in art novels, by comparison, tend to be tricksters: crazed dealers, greedy collectors, hacker painters, and superficial critics who pretend art is about truth but know it’s it’s really about money and hype. When they are not complete imposters, it is often because they recognize the larger fallacy of art or art appreciation. In the opening scene of Ben Lerner’s Exit from Atocha Station, the narrator walks through the Prado Museum and thinks: “I have long feared that I would be unable to have a deep experience of art and I found it hard to believe anyone had, unless someone I knew. I was extremely suspicious of people who claimed that a poem, painting or piece of music “changed their life.

“Saint Sebastian’s Abyss,” by Mark Haber, and “The Longcut,” by Emily Hall, are bubbly comic novels about art, told from the perspective of sobbing. It never occurs to the anonymous, neurotic narrators – an art historian and a conceptual artist – that art might be about anything other than deep truth. Although they are well past college age, both have a kind of humorlessness in sophomore year, which makes them very funny and also a bit terrifying: their brains are nice places to visit. , but you wouldn’t want to live there. The intensity of their devotion to the art has almost cut them off from the rest of humanity, but they speak to each other in accents so similar they could almost talk to each other.

The narrator of Haber’s novel calls himself an art historian so I’ll call him one too, but in practice he looks more like a priest. His god is the (fictional) 16th-century masterpiece “The Abyss of San Sebastian”, painted by the (also fictional) aristocrat Hugo Beckenbauer and hanging in the (non-fictional) Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona. He’s published 10 books on painting – “all popular”, he insists, which you think means one of them was ranked 46th on Belgian Amazon for half an hour. Fanatic of the first order, the art historian is at best a proselyte of the third order. His descriptions of “the abyss of San Sebastian” are extremely precise, as if he had knelt before it for so many decades that he had forgotten that others had not memorized it. But the first time he saw him at Barcelona, ​​he explains, “without warning I cried like I had never cried before”.

Credit…Nina Subin

The art historian speaks in such heavy, semi-clinical sentences (although every few pages Haber, the author of another novel and collection of stories, throws in a gem like ” flexes his bushy moustache” to remind us that heaviness is just an act). Most of the novel’s comic sparks come from the friction between the painting’s supposed sublimity and the blandness with which the narrator talks about it, though after all these books it’s impressive that he still has something to say.

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