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When you can’t separate art from artist

Talking Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma with Claire Dederer.

Roman Polanski at the Netia Off Camera film festival on May 2, 2018 in Krakow, Poland. 
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

We’ve known for a long, long time that a lot of our culture’s most beloved artists have done some pretty messed-up things. Picasso was terrible to women. Hemingway beat his wife. Roman Polanski raped a child.

For just as long, most people have let it slide. They watch Chinatown. They like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The backstory doesn’t bother them too much.

But almost six years ago, in October of 2017, two weird things happened. The first weird thing is that a whole bunch more of our most beloved artists got accused of doing even more messed-up things. And the second weird thing is that all of a sudden, almost out of nowhere, people started to care about it.

Louis C.K. was accused of sexual harassment. Netflix and HBO canceled their deals with him. Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual assault. He got cut out of a movie he was in just a month before it was released.

Then, people started to go back and look at the artists whose sins we already knew about. Michael Jackson. Woody Allen. Bill Cosby. These were artists whose work audiences had loved for decades ... and audiences were starting to feel kind of weird about it.

They were confused by a big question, one we’re still grappling with: What do we do with the art we love when the artist who made it did something terrible?

The best answer I’ve heard to that question comes from Claire Dederer. So I called her up to talk it through.

Claire’s an essayist and author who’s written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Paris Review. She began her new book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma after spending years grappling with her love of the films of Roman Polanski.

Between you and me, there has been a lot written over the past six years about how to handle monstrous art. Like, a lot. But Claire’s book is the most interesting and nuanced approach I’ve come across so far. She’s the kind of critic who reckons with both facts and feelings, and doesn’t try to force people to take their emotions out of the equation when it comes to dealing with art. I wanted to talk with her about how to find nuance in a conversation that can get very charged very fast.

Excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity, follow. You can listen to the whole thing on the Gray Area podcast.

If we’re talking about the art of monstrous men, what do we mean by “monster”?

The word “monster” came up early on in the writing of the book during the fall of 2017. As the accusations started to come fast and furious in the Me Too reckoning, it was a word that I kept seeing, which I thought was interesting.

But I was also thinking about a quote from Jenny Ofill, who wrote this novel, Dept. of Speculation. In that book, she writes about the idea of the “art monster,” which is a person who doesn’t have to think about anything else besides making art, and they can only focus on this one thing and they always have someone else there, a wife, to take care of other things.

So that was why “monsters” came forward as a term. But as I thought about it, I asked exactly what you just did: What do I mean by this word? What’s my definition? And it really became someone whose biography — what we know of their biography — disrupts our experience of the work or disrupts my experience of the work. The word “monster” is othering, it’s very finger-pointing. “You’re over there. I’m over here. You’re the bad guy. I’m just fine.” I was interested in a more complicated inquiry.

In the book, you question the word “we” in the sentence “What do we do with the art created by monstrous men?” You write, “We is corrupt. We is make-believe.” What do you mean by that?

As I began to think about the problem, I realized that one of the things I was most interested in was dismantling or dethroning false or too-easy authority.

When you talk about this problem, what often happens is there’s a balance between the badness of the crime and the greatness of the work. And of course I was thinking about the crime or the bad behavior, but also what do we mean by greatness of the work? And who gets to decide that the work is so great, we’re gonna forget the crime?

So there’s all different kinds of ways I go after the idea of critical authority in the book. But the term “we,” where we create this shared experience that somehow puts a stamp of approval on an idea without asking the speaker, the critic, to just own that idea as their idea, their experience. The primacy of individual experience is at the core of this book. This is a book about the subjective experience of each audience member.

And the way that experience is talked about has changed a lot in a relatively short period of time. As someone who’s been engaged with this question for a while, do you see a difference in the way that people began approaching it after Me Too became public?

Yeah, I think it’s been an interesting journey, to use a memoir word. I think that in 2017 it was almost like the world was divided into two halves. The halves of the people who said, “You shouldn’t worry about the biography,” and then the people who believe that all the work should be thrown out. And that latter voice I’m talking about, the voice that says we’re just gonna let go of this work, was very strong for some time.

I think that it’s interesting to have published this book now as opposed to publishing it in, say, 2018 or 2019, because the first thing that happened was people stood up and said something that happened to them, we call it cancellation or accusation. The response to it steamrolled into this moment of culturally casting these men out. But in the past couple years, there’s been more of an understanding that we lose something when we do that. That we as audience members, whether we are women consuming the work of Roman Polanski or trans people consuming the Harry Potter novels or whoever we are, we don’t want to deny ourselves of the work that we love.

And I think that conversation has become more complex and more nuanced over the past year or two in a way that’s been really surprising and exciting to me.

I want to take a second to focus on this idea of the genius. This is the idea of the artist who can do whatever he wants, and the art he makes has transcended him out of the bounds of normal human behavior. I’m saying “he” here because when we talk about geniuses like that, we’re mostly talking about men, and mostly white men. We sometimes see folks on the right get really frantic about the idea that Me Too and the kids today and the wokeness have all permanently dethroned the figure of the genius. Do you think that’s the case?

I think that’s so far from the truth. This idea that genius can be dethroned — but also what are we dethroning? There’s this idea of the genius that is an umbrella term or something that floats free of these individual artists, and certainly nobody’s saying we’re never gonna read Hemingway again or look at Gaugin or Picasso again. So maybe they won’t get called “genius” in exactly the same way, but they’re certainly going to be part of the culture. And that idea of genius, I think, has done so much work to smooth over some of these accusations and kind of make a virtue out of them.

An idea I deal with in the book is that the genius is the person who is responding to what I think you could call artistic impulse. You can call it the muse. You can call it an energy that’s greater than himself. That certainly corresponds with our idea of Picasso and his very gestural painting, very responsive to some larger force that he’s subject to, and there’s a way in which there’s a mental leap. If he’s subject to this artistic impulse that gives us all this work that we think is important and good, then maybe all his other impulses need to be protected, coddled, accepted, maybe even revered. So that there’s a sort of hall pass he gets for the work that then goes over to the behavior as well.

When I first started thinking about this, I was thinking about Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway in particular. They are these characters, their personas are brawling and male and abusive to women and children, and then that’s somehow tied to this very free art that they make or this very masculine art that they make.

And as I thought about it more, I realized that that image of the artist, that 20th-century idea of the genius isn’t just one that they embodied, but one that they helped to create because they were the writer and the artist of the early mass media era. And aside from being both truly, truly great artists, they were great at using that media. They were great at having a persona that was saleable and dominant in the media. And so they are examples of genius, but they also helped shape the idea of genius that passes through certain abstract expressionists, certain other writers, and I think finds its fullest expression in rock and roll. This idea of the man, the white male performer who’s totally free and his freedom is just as important offstage as it is onstage.

One of the big tensions in this book is that our reaction to the work of art is personal and can’t be dictated by anyone and can’t be taken away by anyone. But at the same time, there’s this sense that it’s not really fair that this sense of responsibility has ended up on our heads, the audience’s heads, as individual consumers.

Can you talk a little about how this sense of responsibility ends up on the heads of the audience, and what the issues there are?

That’s one of those ideas that really blossomed and grew as I worked on the book. In the opening of the book, there’s a much more traditional punitive liberal feminist point of view where it’s sort of like, “That guy’s wrong, let’s get him outta here.” I think many of us underwent a political education, and in the world was a growing understanding of systemic problems, and getting away from the idea that each of us can individually solve each problem.

I started thinking about my role in this larger cultural and capitalist system, and in the system of capital we are consumers. We might produce, we might have different roles, but at heart, our role is to consume. And I find it fascinating that when you have this problem that we sometimes call Me Too and we sometimes call cancel culture and we sometimes call accusation, there’s this leap over all potential responses to the consumer response, and we’re left with this sense that it’s our individual responsibility, even though that person has been supported by institutions, by business models, has often been aided and abetted in their crimes. That person is unleashed on the world and then we’re left as individuals to solve it.

And I think that ultimately the book comes away saying that, if your ethics are being expressed through what you consume, maybe that’s a dead end. Maybe you could think about a different way to be a good person and not try to express that through the means of your consumption.

You wind up on a provocative argument, saying, “The question, ‘What do we do with the art?’ is a kind of laboratory or a kind of practice for the real deal, the real question: What is it to love someone awful? The problem is that you still love her.” Which was striking to me, I think in part because we’re living in this moment where it’s kind of trendy to advise other people to just cut off contact with someone when they’re terrible. Which is good advice in some scenarios! But I’m wondering if any of the ideas that we’ve teased out here seem helpful for taking out of the laboratory of art and using when you’re faced with the terrible people that you love in the real world.

This idea of no contact has really made an appearance on the scene and I do think it parallels some of the questions that I talk about in the book. Because no contact, I think it’s really crucial for some people, as you just said. I think it can be a really valuable tool. But what are you missing when you let go of that art, what is Pearl Cleage missing when she stops listening to Miles? That’s what’s incredible about the Pearl Cleage essay. You know, 15 or 20 years later, she was giving an interview in Atlanta Magazine and she says, yeah, I listened to him again. I love that she gives herself the solace of his music and I think the same thing goes for human relations.

People are terrible. We all have terrible parts of ourselves. Pointing the finger at the other guy and saying, “You’re terrible,” is an easy thing to do, but the fact is we all have dark parts of ourselves.

So perhaps we’re in the same place with that conversation that we were with throwing out the art in 2017, and maybe in a couple of years we’ll be able to come to it with a little more room for gray areas.

Yeah. I think that it does come from a really similar place where somebody has raised their hand and said, “Hey, this is not okay,” and that instigating impulse is important. It’s important for people to say when stuff isn’t okay, “What happens next?”

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