Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts

Janet Malcolm passed away a few short months ago, and aside from the handful of New Yorker articles of hers I haphazardly read over the years, she was little more than a name to me. This book was an attempt to rectify that, and to honour her passing. Forty-One False Starts collects 15 of her articles on “artists and writers,” composed over more than 20 years. Most of these cover contemporary artists and photographers, but longer pieces on the Bloomsbury group, J.D. Salinger and Edith Wharton stretch us back in time. The pieces themselves come from three sources: The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review, and demonstrate her incredible range of interests. She can write with real erudition about art history, photography, literature, music and dance. And despite her reputation for sly, sardonic or forthright editorializing – much in evidence throughout this collection, she manages to ingratiate herself with each of the artists she interviews in person, coaxing them into candid confessions or moments of vulnerable self-reflection.

The volume’s standout piece is the titular “Forty-One False Starts,” about the painter David Salle, whose sui generis paintings incorporate pop culture references alongside recognizable figures from the art world, playing with color and perspective in ways that look cartoonish and vulgar to some, bold and innovative to others. Malcolm quotes from a 1991 interview Salle gave, where he described his generation of artists as “pathetically educated,” cut off from their artistic heritage: “We had to educate ourselves in a hundred different ways. Because if you had been hanging around the Conceptual artists, all you learned was the Frankfurt School. It was as if nothing existed before or after. So part of it was the pledge of self-education – you know, going to Venice, looking at great paintings, looking at great architecture, looking at great furniture – and having very early the opportunity to kind of buy stuff. That’s a form of self-education.” It’s a stupid answer, frankly, and Janet Malcolm does not pass up the opportunity to point this out to her readers:

To kind of buy stuff. What is the difference between buying stuff and kind of buying it? Is “kind of buying” buying with a bad conscience, buying with the ghost of the Frankfurt School grimly looking over your shoulder and smiting its forehead as it sees the money actually leave your hand? This ghost, or some relative of it, has hung over all the artists who, like Salle, made an enormous amount of money in the eighties, when they were still in their twenties or barely in their thirties. In the common perception, there is something unseemly about young people getting rich. Getting rich is supposed to be the reward for hard work, preferably arriving when you are too old to enjoy it. And the spectacle of young millionaires who made their bundle not from business or crime but from avant-garde art is particularly offensive. The avant-garde is supposed to be the conscience of the culture, not its id.

If the preceding sentences did not spell out Malcom’s very-clearly-non-neutral editorial stance, the concluding sentence leaves no room for doubt. She will later go on to be equally indiscreet about Salle’s actual art: “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.” The phrase “anxiety of influence” comes from Harold Bloom, perhaps 20th century America’s most distinguished literary critic, who made his name describing the process by which great artists come into being by heroically struggling against the aesthetic sublimities of their forebears. Salle, it seems, has dodged the struggle entirely, probably – by his own admission – through sheer ignorance, but he is one of a small army of postmodern painters similarly failing upward, if not into artistic immortality then into fame and riches. “He is the most authoritative exemplar of the movement,” Malcolm tells us, “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.” Her criticism, at least in spirit, is a common one, but pause for her prosaic brilliance: the canon became a catalogue, dog-eared like Sears catalogs of old, and attached with that most stereotypical of commercial signifiers, an 800 number.

The excess, amateurism and hype of the 1980s art scene – all in service of bilking bankers of ever-larger sums – is a running theme of these pieces, and while Malcolm is never mean, neither does she pull her punches, especially when she’s writing for her readers. After listening to two more tiresome, pretentious and puffed-up artistes amusing themselves with rehearsed conversations, she gives us this marvelous moment of enough-is-enough: “You got that from Chekhov, I say to myself. I am no longer charmed by this pair. I find their performance tiresome, calculated. I look over at Sischy, who is enjoying herself, who thinks they are “great,” and I ponder anew the question of authenticity that has been reverberating through the art world of the eighties.” This thought leads her to a poem, the satirical “The Sohoiad: or, The Masque of Art,” written by Time art critic Robert Hughes and modelled on Pope’s Dunciad, whose opening stanza surveys the pretensions of this same ’80s art world before concluding, “Who are the men for whom this culture burgeons? / Tanned regiments of well-shrunk Dental Surgeons.”

The pleasure of this book isn’t so much in the subjects covered – many of whom are even less interesting than they appear – but in Malcom’s subtle shaping of their narratives, which become springboards for larger conversations about the trajectory of art in the latter half of the 20th century, or of a society sating itself on mediocrity. In piece after piece she says the unsayable thing, risks giving offence, and still comes away as eminently likeable. No wonder her critics hated her.