There is the art world; and then there is art. How much has one to do with the other? This is a question most readers of this magazine have probably asked at some point during their journey through late twentieth- and early twenty-first century cultural life, with its commodification of the new, the outré, the painstakingly “transgressive.” For decades now we have watched Chelsea and Soho tastemakers struggle to “find a balance,” as the novelist Michael Cunningham puts it, “between sentiment and irony, between beauty and rigor, and in so doing open a crack in the substance of the world through which mortal truth might shine.”

Cunningham is one of those valuable novelists who is just as interested in ideas as he is in literary aesthetics, and in his new book, By Nightfall, he grapples with both: aging, the meaning and importance of art, the search for untouched beauty in a tainted...


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