‘Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers’ by Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm takes the title of this decidedly motley collection of occasional journalism from a profile she published in 1994 of David Salle, “the leading American postmodernist painter.” Rather than construct a conventional narrative, she approached her subject in fits and starts, producing 41 mini-profiles that add up, or attempt to add up, to a portrait of postmodernism itself:

“He is the most authoritative exemplar of the movement, which has made a kind of mockery of art history, treating the canon of world art as if it were a gigantic dog-eared catalog crammed with tempting buys and equipped with a helpful twenty-four-hour-a-day 800 number. Salle’s selections from the catalog have a brilliant perversity. Nothing has an obvious connection to anything else, and everything glints with irony and a sort of icy melancholy. His jarring juxtapositions of incongruous images and styles point up with special sharpness the paradox on which their art of appropriated matter is poised: its mysterious, almost preternatural appearance of originality. . . . Paintings like Salle’s — the unabashed products of, if not vandalism, a sort of cold-eyed consumerism — are entirely free of any ‘anxiety of influence.’ For all their borrowings, they seem unprecedented, like a new drug or a new crime. They are rootless, fatherless and motherless.”

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That’s smart stuff, but then Malcolm has always been a smart, knowledgeable, occasionally even witty writer. Now in her late 70s, she emigrated to the United States in 1939 from Czechoslovakia and in time made her way to the New Yorker, where she has been a fixture ever since, though her work has also appeared in the New York Review of Books and other high-brow or upper-middle-brow publications. Such renown as she has managed to earn outside the hermetic circles in which she moves is largely attributable to “The Journalist and the Murderer” (1990), a mostly well-aimed attack on Joe McGinniss for his account of the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, an Army doctor who had been convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and their two young daughters. McGinniss had insinuated himself into MacDonald’s confidence, then assaulted him in print. Malcolm’s counterattack, first published in the New Yorker, began: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

That sentence, and the many others that followed it, caused a sensation among the chattering classes, especially some members of it employed as journalists, to whom it gave a splendid opportunity to slip into their hair shirts and flagellate themselves. There is a kernel of truth in it — journalism does raise, or can raise, moral questions to which journalists are mostly oblivious — but like so many of the oracular pronunciamentos to which Malcolm is susceptible, it is also a sweeping generalization that cannot withstand close scrutiny. Whatever one may think of McGinniss’s work — in 1993, I called “The Last Brother,” his book about Ted Kennedy, “a textbook example of shoddy journalistic and publishing ethics . . . a genuinely, unrelievedly rotten book, one without a single redeeming virtue, an embarrassment that should bring nothing except shame to everyone associated with it” — it is a bizarre leap of logic to escalate an attack on him into an attack on journalism itself. The truth, of course, is that McGinniss is no more the emblematic journalist than is, well, Janet Malcolm.

Were one to attempt to make her into such a figure, perhaps one would end up saying something along these lines: “Every journalist, no matter how smart and erudite, cannot resist the temptations of sweeping generalizations.” Thus here, in an article about the noted photographer Thomas Struth, Malcolm writes: “To enter the state of absorption in which art is made requires reserves of boorishness that not every exquisitely courteous person can summon but that the true artist unhesitatingly draws on.” That’s a pretty sentence — Malcolm’s sentences almost always are well-made — but to accept its premise one must agree that everyone called an artist, from Leonardo da Vinci to Jane Austen to Duke Ellington to Johannes Brahms, is powered by “reserves of boorishness,” an argument that falls apart of its own silliness, though it might have made more sense had she phrased it more carefully and subtly.

Ditto for the poor biographers, whose trade leads Malcolm to summon up almost as much scorn as she earlier heaped on journalists. In a long essay from 1995 about Bloomsbury, she calls biography “a kind of processing plant where experience is converted into information the way fresh produce is converted into canned vegetables,” insists that “taken from its living context, and with its blood drained out of it, the ‘information’ of biographies is a shriveled, spurious thing,” then twists the knife: “We have to face the problem that every biographer faces and none can solve: namely that he is standing in quicksand as he writes. There is no floor under his enterprise, no basis for moral certainty. Every character in a biography contains within himself or herself the potential for a reverse image.”

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.

yardleyj@washpost.com

FORTY-ONE FALSE STARTS

Essays on Artists and Writers

By Janet Malcolm

Farrar Straus Giroux. 298 pp. $27

 
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