Friday, 27 May 2016
Biographies - no thanks
Marriage, children, affairs, divorce, drugs, alcohol, money problems, mental illness. We've heard it a thousand times before, and it sheds little light on their brilliant paintings or films or plays or music.
I love Mark Rothko's paintings, for instance, but does it help to know that he killed himself by slashing his elbows, that he drank and smoked heavily, that he had a tense relationship with his wife, or that he had a heart problem? No, it adds nothing unless you're into fancy theories about great art stemming from neurosis or whatever.
Most biographies aren't meant to illuminate the person's achievements anyway. They're usually just a way to trade on someone's fame with a money-spinning best-seller. And some are of dubious reliability, cobbled together from all sorts of questionable sources and sometimes actively opposed by the person's family who dispute much of the content.
Quite often biographies are simply an excuse to name-drop copiously - how X had a long-running spat with famous artist Y or was royally swindled by famous art dealer Z. The banality of the average biography increases of course when it's turned into a film with a string of dramatic set-pieces that distort the reality even further.
So no, I rarely read biographies. Why waste the time when I could be enjoying the things the person is actually celebrated for? I'm sure Lionel Shriver would much rather I savoured her books than read about her adolescent weight gain.
PS: But I do enjoy fictitious faux biographies like William Boyd's Sweet Caress.