What Makes Art Great? Two Comic Novels Hazard a Guess.

SAINT SEBASTIAN’S ABYSS
By Mark Haber

THE LONGCUT
By Emily Hall

Contemporary fiction doesn’t judge art-world types as harshly as it judges, say, hired assassins, but at least assassins can be relied on to perform a useful service. Characters in novels about art, by comparison, tend to be frauds: weaselly dealers, greedy collectors, hack painters and shallow critics who pretend art is about truth but know it’s really about money and hype. When they aren’t complete phonies, it’s often because they acknowledge the broader phoniness of art or art appreciation. In the opening scene of Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station,” the narrator walks through the Prado Museum and thinks: “I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life.’” He spots an old man sobbing before a painting but doesn’t bother asking if this is what depth feels like, maybe because he’s afraid of what the answer will be.

“Saint Sebastian’s Abyss,” by Mark Haber, and “The Longcut,” by Emily Hall, are sparkling comic novels about art, told from the sobbers’ point of view. It never occurs to the nameless, neurotic narrators — an art historian and a conceptual artist — that art could be about anything besides profound truth. Though well past college age, both have a kind of sophomore-year humorlessness, which makes them very funny and also a little terrifying: Their brains are nice places to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. The intensity of their devotion to art has almost cut them off from the rest of humanity, but they talk to themselves in such similar accents they could almost be talking 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’s more like a priest. His god de él is the (fictional) 16th-century masterpiece “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss,” painted by the (also fictional) aristocrat Hugo Beckenbauer and hanging in the (nonfictional) Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona. He has published 10 books on the painting — “all popular,” he insists, which you suspect means that one of them was ranked 46th on Belgian Amazon for half an hour. A first-rate zealot, the art historian is at best a third-rate proselytizer. His descriptions of “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” are numbly specific, as though he’s knelt before it for so many decades that he’s forgotten other people don’t have it memorized. But the first time he saw it in Barcelona, ​​he explains, “without warning I wept as I had never wept before.”

Credit…Nina Subin

The art historian talks in these kinds of stodgy, semi-clichéd phrases (though every few pages Haber, the author of one other novel and a story collection, throws in a gem like “flexed his bushy mustache” to remind us that the stodginess is just an act). Most of the novel’s comic sparks come from the friction between the supposed sublimity of the painting and the blandness with which the narrator discusses it, although after all those books it’s impressive he has anything left to say.

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