Edmund White, that perceptive chronicler of what he termed “the paradoxes of Paris,” recounts that he was once invited to “one of those mondain dinners the French know how to give with such grace and that are made up of such startling combinations of guests that they are invariably exciting and (to use a favorite French word that always makes Americans bridle) terribly ‘amusing.’ ” Now imagine having been there with White and having at first eavesdropped and then participated in a conversation about art between two elegant and obviously very well-informed gentlemen: one, a famous museum director, the other, a journalist and critic. They are spiritedly conversing about the artistic significance of a dizzying variety of places, periods, styles, mediums—only some of which have the ring of familiarity. And yet, despite its decidedly esoteric aura,...


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