Can You Love the Art and Hate the Monster?

Can You Love the Art and Hate the Monster?

In 1979, the feminist writer and activist Pearl Cleage was thirty, newly divorced, and dating for the first time in more than a decade. After a late introduction to Miles Davis’s famous album “Kind of Blue,” she started playing the record on dates. She was “in need of a current vision of who and what and why I am,” and Davis’s music, she wrote in the title essay of her 1990 collection, “Mad at Miles,” promised that its listener was “a woman with the possibility of an interesting past, and the probability of an interesting future.” “Kind of Blue” helped Cleage redefine herself. During this “frantic phase,” she “spent many memorable evenings sending messages of great personal passion through the intricate improvisations of Kind of Blue.” Davis’s music “became a permanent part of the seduction ritual,” and Cleage built a new self on the foundation of his songs.

Ten years later, in 1989, Davis published an autobiography in which he openly admitted to violently abusing more than one woman. The revelation of Davis’s abuse made Cleage want to “break his albums, burn his tapes and scratch up his CDs.” But embedded in the tracks of that album was Cleage’s past self, a self forged over intimate nights during which “Kind of Blue” had reminded her what kind of woman she wanted to be. “I tried to just forget about it,” she said, of the disturbing facts in Davis’s book. “But that didn’t work.” The inner conflict led her to make her own art in an attempt to express her rage and grief through writing. “Can we make love to the rhythms of ‘a little early Miles’ when he may have spent the morning of the day he recorded the music slapping one of our sisters in the mouth?” she asks in “Mad at Miles.” “Can we continue to celebrate the genius in the face of the monster?”

Claire Dederer takes up Cleage’s question in her excellent third book, “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma.” Dederer is a memoirist, the author of “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses” (2010) and, in 2017, “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning,” a riveting account of her erotic reawakening in her forties. “Monsters” was incited by a confrontation with the monster lurking in her own artistic canon, the disgraced auteur Roman Polanski, whose films she worshipped. When Dederer was a young film critic in the nineties, it was impossible to avoid his influence, and she considered him a genius. Years later, in 2014, Dederer learned about the events on March 10, 1977, which led to Polanski’s indictment on six criminal charges, including sodomy and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. Polanski pleaded guilty to only one charge, statutory rape, but fled the country before sentencing. Dederer had been peripherally aware of these details, but she had not allowed the enormity of his crime to permeate her consciousness. When she read about the rape in detail, she found herself “awed by his monstrousness. It was monumental, like the Grand Canyon, huge and void-like and slightly incomprehensible.”

After reading about the rape, Dederer began to rewatch Polanski’s œuvre. To her unease, she still found his movies beautiful. She knew that she “wasn’t supposed to love this work, or this man” but her love of the films did not grow from any forgiveness of the crime. She loved them because they had shaped her as a critic and a viewer. That love would not be so easily expunged.

“Monsters” grew out of a viral essay, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?,” that Dederer published in The Paris Review in late 2017, at the height of #MeToo. She is less interested, however, in describing that national reckoning than in pursuing a personal reckoning with artists whose work she has loved. Early in the book, she confesses that she has fantasized about solving the question of whether to consume the work of a monstrous artist with an online calculator that could “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.” This fantasy, she acknowledges, is “laughable, unthinkable.” She suspects “that balance is different for everyone,” thus rendering each individual attempt to achieve it as “a lonely puzzle of pleasure and responsibility.” The real question, she eventually decides, is not what “we” do with the monstrous men. “The real question is this: can I love the art but hate the artist?”

In thirteen chapters, “Monsters” moves through a catalogue of familiar names associated with both genius and monstrosity. The usual suspects—Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby—all make an appearance, as well as many others, sorted into categories such as “The Genius,” “Drunks,” and “The Silencers and the Silenced.” There are monsters who spewed bigotry (Richard Wagner) and monsters who embodied the modernist ideal of the heroic artist who made women into their fetish objects (Picasso, Hemingway). In a chapter called “The Anti-Monster,” Dederer asks whether Nabokov deserves to be included in this list for writing “Lolita,” but she exonerates him, simultaneously praising the work and differentiating its maker from its pedophile protagonist.

“How do we separate the maker from the made?” Dederer asks. She acknowledges the arguments of the New Critics, but distrusts their attempts to cleanly separate the artist from the art. Moreover, she thinks, the Internet has made achieving this kind of critical distance from an artist’s life impossible. “Biography used to be something you sought out, yearned for, actively pursued,” she writes. “Now it falls on your head all day long.” She goes on to assert that artists’ life stories are not the only biographies that affect how their work is received. Dederer sees every encounter with a work of art as a potential clash between two biographies: “the biography of the artist that might disrupt the viewing of the art” and “the biography of the audience member that might shape the viewing of the art.” The viewer whose tastes were shaped by a particular artist or form of art might be more inclined to overlook that artist’s personal misdeeds, for instance, just as survivors of sexual abuse might have less tolerance for “Lolita.”

Dederer is frank about how her own experience shaped her encounters with art. She began her writing career reviewing films in mid-nineties Seattle, “a town where boys did things and girls watched.” Her recollections toggle between affection and acid condemnation, a tension that mirrors the book’s ambivalence toward the work of artists she both admires and deplores. “Surrounded by male critics,” she writes, “watching mostly films made by men, my brain stuffed with auteur theory (not actually a theory), I felt my job was in service to the great man.” As one of few female critics, she felt like an outsider, but also part of “a secret cabal.” From other critics, she absorbed the idea that practicing criticism was not just “dispensing opinions.” “You were also a kind of priest, channeling and translating the word and the work of the he-man auteur.”

Unlike the male critics she knew, Dederer was not raised to identify with the perspective of the auteurs. She had a less inflated sense of her response to art—that it was, simply, her response. “I knew I was different from the other critics,” she writes. “My subjectivity seemed incontestable, yet shameful.” Almost thirty years later, Dederer is no longer ashamed of her incontestable subjectivity. She has placed it at the center of her book. “Monsters” both describes and enacts the kind of criticism that Dederer practices: that in which a critic does not dismiss her own subjectivity but examines it, and acknowledges both her potential biases and her propensity for love. Criticism, that is, in which two biographies—the artist’s and the critic’s—are brought to bear on every encounter with a work of art.

Men make up the majority of the figures in Dederer’s pantheon of monstrous artists. “The violence of male artists,” Dederer writes, “has a story. The story is this: He is subject to forces greater than himself, forces that are beyond his control. Sometimes these forces get out of hand, and he slips up and commits a crime. That’s unfortunate, but we understand that these forces are the same forces that make his art great.”Dederer brings up Virginia Woolf’s casual antisemitism and Willa Cather’s racism, but the only category of monstrous female artists with enough candidates to justify a full chapter in “Monsters” is “Abandoning Mothers,” and its subjects include Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Joni Mitchell, and Anne Sexton. Dederer finds it relatively easy to forgive the sin of child abandonment in women artists. Her tolerance, she suspects, is partly by virtue of her own experience of parenthood. Unlike the he-man auteur, she can identify with the fleeing mother artists, the bind that prompts them to flee. “The truth is,” she writes, “art-making and parenthood act very efficiently as disincentives to one another, and people who say otherwise are deluded, or childless, or men.”

In a chapter called “Am I a Monster?,” Dederer examines her own struggle to balance her duty to her art with the obligations of motherhood. Aren’t all artists, she asks, a little bit monstrous? “Maybe, as a female writer, you don’t kill yourself, or abandon your children,” she writes. “But you abandon something, some giving part of yourself. . . . The artist must be monster enough not just to start the work, but to complete it. And to commit all the little savageries that lie in between.” Acknowledging her own little savageries, such as “leaving behind the family, posting up in a borrowed cabin or a cheaply bought motel room,” and her own potential for monstrousness, leads her back to the men whose art she loves and whose acts she hates. It becomes a way for her to better understand, if not forgive, why they did what they did.

As a female writer I am intimately acquainted with the little savageries Dederer describes, the tension between commitment to one’s work and commitment to other people. Memoir, the art that Dederer and I practice, has its own particular savageries. “As a memoir writer,” Dederer writes, “it’s my job to answer the question: What is it that I am feeling, exactly?” Answering this question honestly can feel like doing violence to others and often requires identifying the monster in myself. In the course of my life, I have followed my appetites to extreme lengths and into some painful, dangerous, and stigmatized places. I was a troubled adolescent who had many fraught early sexual experiences, a teen-age heroin addict, a professional dominatrix in my early twenties. In my thirties, more than ten years clean and sober, I was consumed by an addictive relationship that laid waste to my life. I have written about all these things. It has been tempting at times to sanitize my behavior in my books, to protect the people who loved me from the ugliest details and to avoid the risk of being censured by my audience. But eliding my own or others’ faults does not erase or redeem them, only the real stakes of my stories. There is no sense of freedom in such narrative manipulation—no discovery and no forgiveness.

I have not struggled with my love for the art of male monsters, because I wasn’t shaped by their art, not like I was by the art of women. The women are more complicated for me. The antisemitism of Patricia Highsmith and Virginia Woolf has indelibly stained my experience of their work. When I revisit favorite passages, my wonder at their genius is sometimes tinted with disappointment and even disgust. Audre Lorde, by some accounts, could be awful in her intimate relationships. Susan Sontag, too. I still love all these women’s work, read (and in some cases teach) it regularly. The knowledge of Sontag’s bad qualities, if I’m completely honest, adds a slight frisson of further enjoyment to my readings. It is the same frisson of pleasure that almost every queer female artist I know felt watching Cate Blanchett in “Tár.” I have no doubts about the monstrous behavior of Lydia Tár, a female character modelled in the image of a monstrous man, replete with monumental entitlement. I took no pleasure in the depictions of her abuses against other women. I did take pleasure in seeing a queer woman exert so much professional power, enjoying the space to be grandiose and precious about her work.

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