9 Novels of Art and Seduction
Lauren Acampora on Books Filled with Infatuation and Obsession
For me, art came first. Coming from a line of artists, I learned to draw and paint early on and found exaltation in the wordless, thoughtless, instinctive act of making pictures. The fact that I ultimately chose to write instead might have had something to do with my lazy aversion to workaday art jobs, like stapling canvases onto stretchers and dealing with paint tubes and turpentine. To write, I just needed pen and paper. I brought my notebook with me everywhere, including museums. Being around art lit me up.
From the get-go, I wrote about art and artists, and I return to them again and again. Artists are often obsessive, and obsessives are my favorite characters. In my work, absorption in their aesthetic visions can blind artists to the impact they’re having on others and lead them to make questionable decisions. When writing about art, I can also vicariously, temporarily be an artist, making artwork on any scale without the restrictions of space, time, or materials. With a few descriptive sentences, I can beam wild pieces out of my head and directly into readers’ minds without getting out of my chair.
I also like delving into the joys and challenges shared by writers and artists, including the common anxiety about finding an audience for our work. The counterpoint to making art is disseminating it, and there’s no small pressure on an artist or writer to create a kind of persona for themselves, to seduce the public through a carefully designed mask. Throughout history, creators have self-mythologized to drum up interest in their work, cement their careers, and shape their legacies.
Much fiction has been written about the art world and the mystery and magnetism of artists, historical and invented. These nine novels feature spellbinding artists and their rapt admirers—and spellbound artists enrapt by their own subjects. Some of the books embed with artists seeking attention for themselves in the pursuit of fame, whether through self-mythologizing, exploitation, posturing, or fakery. Some of the books are populated by those infatuated with the artists’ mythologies, and others by artists at the mercy of their own infatuations. Ultimately, in each of these novels, art is the great seducer, sometimes spiraling the lives of its victims out of control.
Barbara Bourland, Fake Like Me
(Grand Central Publishing)
In this sparkling art thriller, a young artist narrates her obsession with the Pine City collective, a group of beautiful and rambunctious young artists who live, work, and love together at a colony upstate. Carey Logan is the luminous art star at its center. Early in the novel, the narrator is elated to meet Carey, who tells her: “These people will make not only your work, but you yourself into a commodity. They’ll buy you and sell you. Let them. But make sure you always do it on your own terms.” Soon after comes the devasting news of Carey’s suicide. Later, after the narrator’s own art career has launched, her Manhattan studio burns down, along with all her work for an upcoming show—and she throws herself at the mercy of Pine City, who offer her the use of Carey’s former studio space while she desperately tries to recreate her paintings for the exhibition. As her involvement with the collective deepens, she becomes involved in the mystery at the heart of Carey’s death—and the true nature of her artwork. The truth is more complex and duplicitous than she ever imagined.
Percival Everett, So Much Blue
This restless, thought-provoking novel flips the narrative of the attention-seeking artist and explores what happens when an artist actively pushes attention away. Kevin Pace is a painter who refuses to share his newest work—a colossal wall-sized piece housed in a separate barn on his property—with anyone, not even his best friend or wife. The art world is intrigued by this secret work, collectors are already bidding on it, but Kevin knows he will never sell. Strangely, he’s not even sure why he’s painting it, why he’s unwilling to show it to anyone, or why indeed he’s made plans for its destruction upon his death.
For him, the piece is bizarrely and intimately tied to his past, and it plays an ineffable role in his coming to terms with harrowing events from his youth and a more recent romantic entanglement with a young admirer. The novel zigzags through time, from Kevin’s present domestic situation to his trip to Paris ten years prior, and his visit to El Salvador at the dawn of its civil war in 1979. As the emotional puzzle of his life comes together, we begin to appreciate the nurturing internal treasury that secrets can provide for us, and the long-term corrosion they can cause within a life. The novel ultimately wrestles with the purpose of art as both private reckoning and public demonstration, and is, at the core, a book about the secretive nature of art and love.
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World
(Simon & Schuster)
This fierce, unapologetically intellectual novel is the story of the fictional artist Harriet Burden, told in the form of her fictive biography: a collection of posthumous documents, including the artist’s diary and testimonies from her family members, collaborators, and lovers. Frustrated by decades of having her work passed over in favor male artists, “Harry” devises a plan to show her work under the guise of three different male artists who serve as her masks. She designs it as an experiment to test how art is perceived by an audience depending on the context—what is known and expected of the artist behind the work—and as a clever last-ditch effort to wrest recognition for herself as she ages. She ruminates on the artist’s aura: “People love a large, meaty ME. They say they don’t, but in the art world a cowardly, shrinking personality is repellent (unless it has been highly cultivated as a type), and narcissism is a magnet. The artist’s persona is part of the sell… If you don’t seduce people, you don’t have a chance.” It’s with a kind of awful vindication that she watches her plan work—too well, causing the narrative to spiral out of her control. The novel is a brutal investigation of the business of art, the necessity for the artist to sell a self and seduce an audience into valuing the work.
Han Kang, The Vegetarian
Darkly unusual, this novel centers on the mysterious character of Yeong-hye, whose terrifying dreams compel her to renounce eating meat, to the consternation of her husband and family. The subsequent tale investigates the reactions of those who fail to understand this titular character’s strange behavior, including a suicide attempt. Among these is Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an artist who becomes obsessed with her as a subject for a piece of video art. He becomes progressively more fixated on her body—both artistically and sexually—as he uses it as a canvas for a detailed floral painting and as the erotic center of his film. As he becomes more personally entrenched in this artwork, he pushes it to the extreme, feeling himself seduced and manipulated by an energy he can’t identify, much the same way Yeong-hye has felt herself enslaved by the haunting message of her dream. The novel gives a powerful look at the way art can function as an extension of unconscious impulses, and how anyone, artist or not, might suddenly find themselves at the mercy of hidden fears and desires.
David Lipsky, The Art Fair
In this smart and cringingly funny bildungsroman, Richard Freely comes of age in the vicious waters of the New York art world of the seventies and eighties. His single mother, once a successful painter and darling of the city’s top gallerist, has fallen from grace and is struggling to recapture her standing and make a living. Lipsky paints a touching and funny portrait of a co-dependent mother-son relationship within a scathing depiction of a convoluted and merciless art scene. The book’s panoply of artists, dealers, and collectors is at turns insecure, bombastic, and scheming; in their midst, the wrong gesture or facial expression can crush a career. Both Richard and his mother are painfully aware of the fleeting nature of success and the importance of devising a seductive image. As a fiction writer, there’s some delight in wading into the carnivorous milieu of the art world, where the hierarchies and gatekeepers are arguably more stringent and unforgiving than in literature—and rooted more firmly in money. It’s painfully pleasurable to read about artists trying to make authentically interesting work while battling for attention inside the tightening vises of age and obsolescence.
Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
Raw and riveting, this novel is the story of Nora Eldridge, a frustrated artist now teaching third grade in the suburbs. She meets and becomes obsessed with the family of one of her students: the cosmopolitan Shahids, including the charismatic and glamorous artist Sirena, who represents everything Nora has ever wanted to be. As a friendship develops between them, Nora is delirious to be in such warm proximity to her idol—but their intimacy is ultimately exploded by treachery that Nora doesn’t see coming. In retrospect, it’s glaringly obvious. Nora realizes that she should have seen Sirena’s exploitation coming, intrinsic as it is to self-serving artistic ambition—the opposite of her own pitiful persona, the selflessly sacrificing “woman upstairs” who puts the needs of others first. Nora tells the story from a perch of humiliation, disillusionment, and burning rage at her victimization and failure to seize power. “The hubris of it, thinking I could be a decent human being and a valuable member of society, and still create! Absurd… You need to see everything else—everyone else—as expendable, as less than yourself.”
Marisha Pessl, Night Film
(Random House Trade)
This propulsive, genre-defying novel straddles literary fiction, thriller, and hard-boiled detective novel, peppered throughout with postmodern elements of media pastiche. Investigative reporter Scott McGrath is drawn to the mystery surrounding reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova, around whom a rabid cult has formed, complete with secret codes and underground screenings of his violently disturbing films, banned in public. Banding together with two other young New Yorkers who are similarly absorbed, McGrath takes it upon himself to investigate the mental breakdown and suicide of the director’s grown daughter. He finds himself embroiled in an elaborate, mystical web of derangement—becoming increasingly entranced by the darkly glittering aura that surrounds the director and his daughter both—and eventually questioning his own sanity.
Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love
This completely original novel follows the followers of Marina Abramovic’s real-life performance art piece “The Artist Is Present,” during its ten-week run at the Museum of Modern Art. The book’s main character, a music composer, is drawn to attend the performance day after day, along with the novel’s secondary characters and thousands of others. They watch on the sidelines as the artist sits completely still for hours, confronting one museum visitor at a time, silently staring into each person’s eyes as they sit in the chair across from hers. Already a living legend, in this novel Abramovic attains nearly saintlike status. Pilgrims arrive in droves to witness her test of physical and emotional endurance and find themselves moved by her laser-focused, wordless connection with each individual. The novel is a thoughtful and sensitive exploration of the meaning of art, the magnetic pull of the artist, and the powerful, permanent changes art can bring about in the lives of others.
Dawn Tripp, Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe
(Random House Trade)
A beautifully imagined fictional portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, this novel focuses on the development of the artist’s iconic vision and her storied relationship with photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. Georgia comes to New York from Texas as a very young woman and encounters Stieglitz, who take her under his wing as artist, lover, and model. His early photographs of O’Keeffe, including scandalous nudes, go a long way in seducing the public, piquing their interest even before her debut art exhibition at his gallery. As he tells her: “One must be talked about and written about, for people to buy… now they want to know more about this mysterious young artist whose work they have not been introduced to. They are dying to see it.” The novel explores her struggle with this early mythology, which both buoys and dogs her throughout her career. While she’s keenly aware that her name may not have launched so meteorically without Stieglitz’s framing, she spends decades trying to reclaim herself within the confines of their passionate relationship and to detach her art from his influence, wresting control of how her work is seen in its maturity, and remodeling her legend and legacy on her own terms.
The Hundred Waters by Lauren Acampora is available via Grove Press.