Martin Schneider writes:
Two days ago I posted an account of the inadequate 92Y event of November 29 featuring Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon. Since then, the event has astonishingly spun off into a counter-narrative in which Martin and Solomon are the good guys and 92Y and the 92Y audience the villains.
The premise of this counter-narrative is that Solomon and Martin were off having a high-minded discussion about art, but the 92Y audience, and the 92Y itself, would not be appeased until Solomon prodded Martin into spinning some anecdotes about the filming of The Jerk or It's Complicated.
This counter-narrative is absurd, incorrect, and pernicious. I was there, and in the words to follow, I intend to set the record straight.
Three things happened to bring about this counter-narrative. First, the New York Times ran an article covering the fiasco, an article that quoted Solomon liberally and tended to put 92Y in a bad light.
Second, Martin posted a tweet that was critical of 92Y. The content of that tweet is as follows: "So the 92nd St. Y has determined that the course of its interviews should be dictated in real time by its audience's emails. Artists beware."
Third, a blogger who works for NPR named Linda Holmes decided to dedicate 1,100 words to an extremely ill-considered rant taking 92Y and its audience to task for their philistinism. In the post Holmes states that she did not see the interview.
Folks, this is unjust. A more accurate picture of events, as I reported earlier, would be that Deborah Solomon made a fool of herself in front of several hundred people, Steve Martin and 92Y handled themselves with aplomb, and 92Y generously offered to refund any dissatisfied ticketholders ($50).
There is a passage in the Times article that goes like this:
"Frankly, you would think that an audience in New York, at the 92nd Street Y, would be interested in hearing about art and artists," Ms. Solomon added in an e-mail. "I had no idea that the Y programmers wanted me to talk to Steve instead on what it's like to host the Oscars or appear in 'It's Complicated' with Alec Baldwin. I think the Y, which is supposedly a champion of the arts, has behaved very crassly and is reinforcing the most philistine aspects of a culture that values celebrity and award shows over art."
What's happening there is that Solomon, seeking to put herself in the best light, interpreted something that actually happened—a request from 92Y to change the terms of a transparently unfruitful line of questioning—not as a reaction to her own ineptitude but rather as a demand to adhere to 92Y's rigid conception of how the event should go.
Let me provide here a detailed account of the pivotal first section of the interview, and then offer some additional observations. (I usually take notes at events like this, but on this particular day I happened not to have a notepad with me. Still, I remember the events pretty well. I am not aware of any video of the event, but I am confident that any video would largely confirm my account.)
A woman took to the podium and introduced Martin and Solomon; at some point, referring to Martin's impressive variety of accomplishments, she called him a "Renaissance man." Solomon and Martin came out, and Solomon immediately expressed her opinion that, as he lacks any accomplishments in the sciences, designating Martin a "Renaissance man" was perhaps a bit much. Martin agreed and said something to the effect that Leonardo da Vinci set the standard of a Renaissance man to a degree that has hardly been met since. Fair enough, all this is sensible and interesting.
Solomon began discussing Martin's novel An Object of Beauty, which is about the NYC art world of the 1990s or so. Solomon made an observation that they didn't really have art dealers when Rembrandt and Michelangelo were active; she said something quite specific about Rembrandt acting as his own art dealer, which fact I am prepared to believe. Martin spoke at some length about the lack of the "art dealer" role in Rembrandt's time (I'm not so sure about this claim) but then immediately undercut that claim by stating "I know nothing about this" or some such. This was a laugh line, delivered in the assured tones of an expert who does know what he's talking about; Letterman uses this sort of tone during every telecast. So, you know, funny, but not really informative in any real sense.
For the next twenty or so minutes, Solomon doggedly quizzed Martin about details in the novel, a novel that was first made available to consumers about a week earlier. At one point Martin murmured that the number of people watching who had read the book was likely to be "zero," his gentle way of suggesting that perhaps a close reading of the book would not result in highly riveting conversation. But that didn't stop Solomon.
Solomon and Martin briefly discussed the protagonist, a woman named Lacey Yeager. The two spoke at some length about two pairs of married characters in the book, art dealers all. One couple is called the Nathansons, and the other couple are named Boggs. Solomon mentioned that in his satire he had poked a lot of fun at the Nathansons. Martin disagreed, saying that while they were at the center of a funny scene or two, he was rather kind to them; the portrayal was more true-to-life. Solomon seemed to accept this and switched gears, saying that he was much more savagely satirical towards the Boggses.
At this point Solomon said a rather shocking thing, something like "It's a good thing you were nice to the Nathansons and were harder on the Boggs couple." The implication was clear: Martin had not made fun of the Jews but rather had made fun of gentiles. I'm still trying to suss out the logic of this offensive "warning." Would the pro-Israel lobby come down harder on Martin if he dared to make Jews the object of his satire? I'm not sure why exactly Martin should feel that he had dodged a bullet here, but that was not Solomon's opinion.
After that there was some discussion of tax law in the District of Columbia and New York City as pertains to the delivery of artworks, facts that are relevant to a particular scene in which the Nathansons are made fun of.
At two points Solomon decided to read aloud a passage from the book, over Martin's mild objections. She didn't even really get anywhere in the second passage, trailing off after a line or two. Solomon's next idea was to relate the substance of a funny scene in the book (all of which takes place well after page 200 of a novel that does not reach page 300) involving the 1970 artwork Felt Suit by Joseph Beuys.
It is essential to note at this point that the audience had not yet made a peep about anything. There were no groans, no boos, no hisses, no expressions of displeasure whatsoever. And yet the interview was palpably not going well.
A woman strode onto the stage and handed Solomon a card. Solomon read it aloud. The message was, "Ask him about his interesting career," or words to that effect. The audience erupted into lusty applause. This was the first true expression of audience displeasure that I noticed.
After that there was a modicum of chitchat about Martin's various movie projects and Oscar hosting duties. Then the same woman presented Solomon with some audience questions on cards. (The "audience" here included those present in the auditorium as well as those watching live via simulcast in a large number of "synagogues.") Solomon sort of bluffed her way through those questions, and then the event was at an end.
Okay. Narrative over. Herewith, some thoughts.
1. Solomon's claim is that she wanted to discuss art. I do not think that "discussing art" is a fair representation of the conversation she and Martin had. What she really did was discuss Martin's novel. Pretty big difference there.
2. Steve Martin was visibly uncomfortable during many parts of Solomon's interview. There's no disputing that he found Solomon's line of questioning highly curious, and the best word for his reaction to most of Solomon's queries would be "bumfuzzled."
3. Nevertheless, Martin handled it well. He's a professional entertainer, and he knows instinctively when the audience isn't enjoying a performance. He made several comments/jokes making light of the fact that the audience had become hostile to Solomon. Some of these jokes were quite funny and appropriate.
4. 92Y's decision to interrupt Solomon, unusual but not inappropriate, was clearly a reaction to Solomon's clueless interviewing style and clearly not a reaction to Solomon's insistence on discussing art.
5. The claim makes little sense on its face. 92Y hosts all sorts of events about all sorts of things, religion, politics, literature, science. The idea that either 92Y or its audience was made impatient by discussion about art is patently absurd. Nothing of the sort happened.
6. The New York Times allotted space in its newspaper to allow Solomon to express her self-serving opinion that Solomon had somehow been hoodwinked and that 92Y is somehow hostile to discussions about art or the life of the mind. It is wise to remember that Solomon is an employee of the New York Times.
7. Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon are friendly, as evidenced by a couple of comments made during the session. Martin's tweet was most likely made in the name of friendship to Solomon, which is somewhat understandable. In the long term, his loyalties are to his friend Solomon and not the faceless organization known as 92Y. However, notwithstanding that, Martin's a bit of a jerk (yes, pun intended) for posting such a harsh tweet about 92Y, which didn't really do anything wrong.
8. It's unwise for a blogger to spend more than 1,000 words berating an organization like 92Y for events he or she did not witness and has only scant misinformation about. Holmes owes 92Y an apology and a retraction of some sort.
9. 92Y did, after all, refund the money. That decision may reflect an impatience on the part of the audience members (it would never have occurred to me to complain, but then my ticket was free). Faced with somewhat justified annoyance on the part of ticketholders, they offered to supply vouchers with alacrity. For this move they are being criticized for being intolerant and rigid.
And that's the end of my report. Solomon was incompetent on the stage of 92Y and mendacious in the press afterward. I'm not fond of Martin, and while I thought he handled the event itself quite well, the nasty tweet about 92Y confirms my distaste for him. And meanwhile any 92Y catalog you could care to peruse confirms 92Y's commitment to a certain kind of expansive and (yes) upper-middlebrow discourse about politics, the arts, the sciences, and the life of the mind.
A counter-narrative has arisen that is in complete conflict with this picture of events, a narrative that serves Solomon and Martin's agenda. It would be a disgrace to let that counter-narrative become the final word on this fiasco. Do not believe it.
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