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Attacks From Within: On Janet Malcolm | The Nation

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Attacks From Within: On Janet Malcolm

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If Malcolm the journalist is always inserting herself into wars fought by others, Malcolm the critic is at war with herself. The two warring impulses are democracy and aristocracy. She is a snob, but wishes she weren’t. That’s a fair description of most Western liberals, I think. In principle, we believe in equality, but not really, not entirely. And the question of art is particularly difficult for the democrat, because talent is not distributed equally or fairly. (That’s why it’s talent.) What’s more, taste is by definition arbitrary, so to like one work more than another is as random as assigning somebody to a high or low caste, and can seem as unjust. Finally, the commercial art world depends on the artificial value created by trends and fashions, which are more arbitrary and less just still.

Forty-One False Starts
Essays on Artists and Writers.
By Janet Malcolm.
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About the Author

Mark Oppenheimer
Mark Oppenheimer (markoppenheimer.com) writes the “Beliefs” column for the New York Times and is working on...

Also by the Author

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At her best, Malcolm is a fearless crusader for democracy. In 1976, she wrote in the essay “Diana and Nikon” that the curator John Szarkowski’s 1966 volume, which juxtaposed old amateur snapshots with iconic professional photographs, had effectively dethroned art photographers. “The ‘functional’ photographs in his book not only are the aesthetic peers of the ‘fine-art’ photographs but are in every other way indistinguishable from them,” Malcolm wrote. “Where other mediums offer clear stylistic distinctions between their academic, folk, and vernacular productions—a Rousseau and a Hicks have their special quality as primitives that set them apart from a Rembrandt and a Cézanne; thatched huts are different in kind from skyscrapers; the folk song is distinct from the art song—photography has neither a primitive style nor a reportorial style nor a child’s style.” In other words, “If every family album and historical society and old copy of Life is a source of art photography (and every camera a potential source), then what is all the trade in, study of, fuss over, writing on, pains taken with photography about?”

This essay is not included in Forty-One False Starts, which is unfortunate. But Malcolm’s pugnacious, contrarian impulse is easy to locate, right at the outset, in the essay about David Salle. First, she quotes the art critic Robert Hughes, who had asked in his column in Time if there was “a duller or more formula-ridden artist in America” than Salle; then she quotes the art critic and New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer, who had written, in a review of a Salle exhibition, that “we hardly know whether to laugh or cry.” In her rejoinder, Malcolm takes the side not so much of the artist as the aspiring consumer: “This kind of insult of the consumer has no equivalent in book or theater or movie reviewing. That is probably because the book/play/film reviewer has some fellow feeling with the buyers of books and theater and film tickets, whereas the art reviewer usually has no idea what it is like to buy a costly painting or sculpture.”

But there’s a paradox: if Malcolm’s implication is that art critics should have more skin in the game, then what’s needed are even richer art critics, the kind who might possibly bid on the works they cover. This is taking the populism of critics like Pauline Kael—who defined democracy downward, to encourage identification with the trashy and lowbrow—and turning it upside down: in the art world, what’s represented in the marketplace is the populism of plutocrats. The art critic Dave Hickey has argued that too much visual art is supported by government grants and instead might be better tested in the marketplace—but he meant the less cloistered realm of the small regional gallery, not the speculative SoHo bubble. 

That paradox, what might be called Malcolm’s populism of the snobs, is apparent too in her writing on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle. “Were their lives really so fascinating,” Malcolm asks, “or is it simply because they wrote so well and so incessantly about themselves and one another that we find them so? Well, the latter, of course. No life is more interesting than any other life; everybody’s life takes place in the same twenty-four hours of consciousness and sleep; we are all locked into our subjectivity, and who is to say that the thoughts of a person gazing into the vertiginous depths of a volcano in Sumatra are more objectively interesting than those of a person trying on a dress at Bloomingdale’s?” But if we are all equal, why spend forty pages inspecting the aliens from Planet Bloomsbury? “What makes Bloomsbury,” she says, “of such continuing interest to us—why we emit the obligatory groan when the word is uttered but then go out and buy the latest book about Virginia and Vanessa and Leonard and Clive and Lytton and Roger and the rest—is that these people are so alive.”

Malcolm values the Woolf circle for their apparent resemblance to the rest of us, which as a reason to love celebrities is far better than, say, their Kardashianite differences. But there is still that “we,” as in “We find them so [fascinating]” or “What makes Bloomsbury of such continuing interest to us”? Bloomsbury is not important to me, nor, come to think of it, to anyone I know, save perhaps my friend Aaron, who teaches modernist literature. I know people who love the novels of Virginia Woolf, but even they don’t care much about the assorted other Woolfs and Stephens, except perhaps as real-life contemporaries to the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. So who is this “us”?

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