Again, there is a kernel of truth here. The wise biographer proceeds on the understanding that it is impossible to know the inner life of another human being and that, as Malcolm points out, new evidence in time will emerge that “can destabilize any biographical configuration, overturn any biographical consensus, transform any good character into a bad one, and vice versa.” Not all biographers are as wise as we would wish them to be (or as they think they are), and the inevitable result is a lot of fanciful and evanescent stuff. From Parson Weems on George Washington to Carl Sandburg on Abraham Lincoln, the bookshelves are cluttered with biographies that tell us more about the biographer than the biographee. Even serious biography written with the loftiest of intentions — Leon Edel on Henry James, for example, or the masterful Lytton Strachey on Queen Victoria — reveals the limitations of factual research and psychological interpretation. But sweeping generalizations about biographers’ intentions hold no more water than sweeping generalizations about journalists’ intentions.
Apart from all those generalizations, “Forty-One False Starts” is a peculiar omnium gatherum, published long after many of those under discussion have been forgotten. The postmodern excrescences of David Salle inexplicably continue to find purchasers, but the compulsively faddish New York art world long ago moved on to other hot tickets. Artforum, the magazine to which Malcolm devotes her long essay “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” continues to publish, but Ingrid Sischy, its editor when the piece was published in 1986 and the inspiration for its title, has not been its editor for nearly a quarter-century. The chief way these pieces and others about art of the late 20th century can be read with any profit is as reflections of the incredibly insular New York world inhabited by these artists, dealers and hangers-on, a world Malcolm regards with a mixture of fascination and disdain.
Thus on the one hand she quotes with apparent sympathy if not full approval a “brilliant, splenetic” attack by the late Robert Hughes: “lashing out at artists, dealers, critics, curators, and collectors alike, he offered a vision of the contemporary art world as a Bosch-like inferno of greed, fraud, hype, and vacuity,” which strikes me as putting it quite nicely. Yet on the other hand she is Noo Yawk to the core: “In the fall of 1991, I attended a book party for the writer Harold Brodkey given by the painter David Salle in his loft, in Tribeca. The first thing I saw on walking into the room was Brodkey and Norman Mailer in conversation.” And: “After the opening of a show of David Salle’s drawings at the uptown Gagosian Gallery in March 1992, a celebratory dinner was held at a suavely elegant restaurant in the East Seventies, and as the evening proceeded I was struck by the charm and gaiety of the occasion.” And:
“In the abrupt transformation of Artforum’s format from a predictable high-art austerity to an unpredictable sort of underground press grunginess/flashiness may be read the changes that were to transform the quiet and stable New York art world of the seventies — with its minimalist and postminimalist stars surrounded by familiar constellations of conceptual, performance, video, and film artists — into today’s unsettling, incoherent postmodern art universe.”
Perhaps so, but: Who cares? Apart from the artists themselves and the obscenely wealthy and tasteless Wall Street charlatans who pay exorbitant prices for their ephemera, nobody knows who they are or cares what they do. The New York art world is even more divorced from contemporary American reality than the creative-writing-school world from which emerge navel-gazing “fictions.” Malcolm’s prose, however limpid it may be, too often in this book achieves nothing so much as proof positive of her subject’s irrelevance.