The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turns out, your favorite artist is a creep or a criminal. Now what?

In ‘Monsters,’ Claire Dederer considers how — and whether — to balance revulsion at creators’ misdeeds with love for their work

(Alla Dreyvitser/The Washington Post)
5 min

An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Soon-Yi was Woody Allen's stepdaughter. She was the adopted daughter of Allen's former partner Mia Farrow. The text has been corrected.

When I teach Roman Polanski to undergraduates in film classes now, the female students often demand to be excused from the assignment. Polanski, they inform me, is a rapist. I can’t force them to watch films directed by such a horrible man.

Next time this happens, I can point them to Claire Dederer’s vital, exhilarating book “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma.” Dederer considers how we can best view the work of “geniuses” such as Pablo Picasso or Ernest Hemingway, artists whose biographies show them to be “muscular, unfettered, womanizing, virile, cruel, sexual … those meaty men who brawled their way through the last century.” She also considers less-exalted contemporary celebrities such as Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby, as well as artists like Richard Wagner and Ezra Pound whose crimes were not rape but virulent anti-Semitism. There is wife-beater Miles Davis as well as the artist Carl Andre, who was acquitted of murder in the death of his wife, fellow artist Ana Mendieta, who fell out of a 34th-floor window. How badly must an artist behave before he is canceled? Should any artist be canceled, ever? Is there a proper way to balance our admiration for the work with our loathing of their deeds?

Dederer has been pondering these questions for years. There’s a chapter on Polanski in her 2017 memoir, “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning,” in which she discusses her reactions to his crime the year that she, like his victim, was 13, herself being sexually molested. An article called “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” appeared in the Paris Review that same year and became the basis for “Monsters.” That article focuses largely on Woody Allen and his relationship with Soon-Yi, the adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow, and with how that complicates our reactions to him bedding a high-schooler in his movie “Manhattan.”

Although academics will huffily school you about the biographical fallacy, which insists that “the work ought to be fastidiously divorced from its maker” so we can judge the work “strictly on aesthetics,” Dederer takes an adamantly contrary approach. She claims that as an audience, as fans, we cannot divorce our reactions to the work from what we know about the artists’ lives — and that our biographies, too, our own failures and fantasies, our own histories (the nostalgia, say, for when we first heard a Michael Jackson song), cannot help but color our reactions. The result is a complicated dance of sympathy and antipathy. Sometimes, in fact, we even admire the bad boys, envy their selfishness and commitment to The Work over all else, secretly delight in watching them flout normal societal restraints.

Bad boys, she notes, are still almost universally male. “Monsters” makes a feminist argument about the diametrically opposed ways that women and men are given permission to devote themselves to their art, to aspire to genius. Virginia Woolf famously asked for a room of her own, but Woolf was childless. “The truth is, art-making and parenthood act very efficiently as disincentives to one another, and people who say otherwise are deluded, or childless, or men.” A chapter called “Abandoning Mothers” considers the delightfully odd pairing of novelist Doris Lessing, who left two of her three young children in Rhodesia to move to London and write; and Joni Mitchell, who put her daughter up for adoption, knowing she could not focus on her music with a baby. Because she was childless, Dederer wryly notes, Mitchell “was able to be difficult and problematic — code words for being creative while female.” Dederer did not abandon her children by killing herself like the poet Sylvia Plath, but she felt guilty enough when she spent five weeks away from her family at an artists’ colony. While Picasso was a monster to put out a cigarette on his lover Dora Maar’s face, female monstrousness, Dederer argues, almost always involves women putting their commitment to their art above their maternal duties.

Although Dederer has done her homework, her style is breezy and confessional — her discussion of the writer Raymond Carver places him not only as a fellow Seattle resident but also as a fellow alcoholic. A more academic writer might dismiss this as superficial ladies’ book club talk, but Dederer defends her approach. She started her career as a film critic and declares, “I didn’t know it when I was a young critic, but I now know this: my subjectivity is the crucial component of my experience as a critic, and the very best thing I can do is simply acknowledge that fact.”

Dederer admits that she had hoped to offer some definitive answer to these conundrums. “I wished someone would invent an online calculator — the user would enter the name of an artist, whereupon the calculator would assess the heinousness of the crime versus the greatness of the art and spit out a verdict: you could or could not consume the work of this artist.” Since that’s clearly absurd, she instead shows the queasy, perhaps unresolvable back-and-forth we engage in when we love the work but hate the artist’s deeds.

In the end, she argues that cancel culture is too easy an out for such perplexing questions. “The fact is that our consumption, or lack thereof, of the work is essentially meaningless as an ethical gesture. We are left with feelings. We are left with love.”

“Monsters” leaves us with Dederer’s passionate commitment to the artists whose work most matters to her, and a framework to address these questions about the artists who matter most to us.

Lisa Zeidner’s latest publications are the novel “Love Bomb” and the craft book “Who Says?: Mastering Point of View in Fiction.”


A Fan’s Dilemma

By Claire Dederer

Knopf. 273 pp. $28

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