We Still Don’t Know How to Judge Great Art by Bad Men

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You, me and everyone we know: whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re in a relationship with a monster.

There is surely some artist whose behavior, known to you or otherwise, is scurrilous, reprehensible, possibly worthy of life imprisonment—and yet you continue to love the work of that artist, defiantly, secretly, or in ignorant bliss. More often than not, this person—it could be a filmmaker, a writer, a painter, a musician—is a man, because more often than not, it’s brilliant men who get a pass when it comes to how they behave in everyday life. And so, when it comes to laying blame for these conflicts that roil inside us—can I still watch Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and not feel dirty? Is it wrong to feel a frisson of joy as I gaze at the aggressive angles of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon?—the bottom line is that it’s men’s fault. Why do they have to spoil everything?

And yet—with her exhilarating book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, to be published April 25, essayist and critic Claire Dederer holds a small lantern aloft in the darkness. Is it possible to ever separate the art from the artist? And if not, is it possible to find the sweet spot between our rage and our rapture? Those are just some of the questions Dederer both raises and responds to in Monsters, though this isn’t so much a book of solutions as it is an examination of how we approach the art we love. Because the more deeply we engage with art, the more troubled we’re likely to be over the sins of the people who made it.

The list of those who have disappointed us, or worse, is long. Allen and Picasso, Miles Davis and Ernest Hemingway, Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby: as far as the guys go, that list barely scratches the surface, yet Dederer is clear that in creating their art women too can be monsters of a sort, though their deeds—as in the cases of Sylvia Plath and Doris Lessing—generally involve their identity as mothers. In other words, she lets no one off the hook. (Wait til you get to the part about Laura Ingalls Wilder.) Yet somewhere between giving these troublesome geniuses a pass and throwing all their accomplishments into a proverbial drawer and tossing away the key, Dederer seeks a thinking, breathing middle ground. She asks a lot of tough questions, chiefly of herself. How, for example, can a person watch The Cosby Show after learning about the rape allegations against its star and creator? “I mean, obviously, it’s technically doable, but are we even watching the show?” she writes. “Or are we taking in the spectacle of our own lost innocence?” It’s the kind of question that, for a minute, makes you feel as if you’re off to the races, but really you’re just at the mouth of an intricate garden maze whose end can’t be reached without a lot of wrong turns.

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For Dederer, the wrong turns are the point—and perhaps the only path to whatever might pass for enlightenment. She burrows deeply into the idea of genius itself, both its glory and its limitations, and she begins with the hard stuff, opening the book with an anguished reflection on one of the most monstrous living artists most of us can easily name: Roman Polanski. In Hollywood in 1977, the French-Polish film director drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl named Samantha Gailey. He was arrested and charged, but he fled the country and has been living and working in Europe ever since, having become a fugitive from the U.S. criminal-justice system.

Polanski is also a filmmaker whose work Dederer loves, and in 2014, as she was researching his output for a book project, she found herself confronting the unsettling truth that although she was fully aware of Polanski’s crime, she was “still able to consume his work. Eager to.” As she sat down to watch his films in her home in the Pacific Northwest, in a room filled with books and paintings—“a room that suggested—all those books—that human problems could be solved by the application of careful thought and considered ethics”—she felt fortified to face her conflict head-on, only to find there was no easy way past it: “I found I couldn’t solve the problem of Roman Polanski by thinking.”

The question of how we live with the art of “monstrous men,” as Dederer calls them (when they are indeed men), is hardly going away, and it presents rocky territory for anyone who cares about art. Because now, at least according to a new set of unwritten rules, we not only have the job of assessing the art at hand; we also have to render a judgment about whether its creator is worthy of our respect on moral grounds—and then field the judgment of anyone else who deems our conclusions wanting.

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There are certain patterns here. Do we judge a woman genius who leaves her children more harshly than we do a man genius who, say, emotionally and physically abuses the women in his life? Is water wet? More to the point, though, Dederer is arguing against easy morality, which she asserts is more for ourselves than for the benefit of humans at large. “This belief that we know better—a moral feeling, if ever there was one—is very comfortable. This idea of the inexorable, benign teleology of justice, of liberalism, of fairness, is seductive. So deeply seductive that it clouds our thinking and our awareness about ourselves. We are the culmination of every good human thought.” In other words, even armed with our own exquisitely pure judgment, we don’t always know best.

Dederer takes this argument to its necessary end. She’s harder on herself than on anyone else: a late chapter, in which she writes about her own alcoholism, and her own possible monstrousness, is piercing to read—if you’re going to point the finger at others, she suggests, you have to be prepared to examine yourself too.

Would it be giving too much away to tell how Dederer ultimately solves the problem of monstrous creators? Or, at least, solves it to the extent any of us mere humans can? Monsters is a dazzling book. It’s also, occasionally, a maddening one. Dederer refuses to draw easy conclusions, always a plus. But in weighing the relative crimes and merits of, say, a J.K. Rowling—whose views on trans identity have sparked calls for boycotts even as her defenders say the fury is overshadowing the nuance—she can also come off as frustratingly noncommittal. At a certain point in the book, she balances two extremely complicated figures on a delicately calibrated seesaw: on one side, the troubled poet Sylvia Plath, who set out bread and milk for her two young children before killing herself in her London flat, and on the other, Valerie Solanas, the radical-feminist author of SCUM Manifesto and, perhaps more famously, the woman who shot and wounded Andy Warhol in 1968. Dederer acknowledges that it’s easier to sympathize with the fragile, enormously gifted Plath than with the firebrand Solanas, even as she tries to elicit some compassion for the latter. You may come away, as I did, largely unpersuaded.

The question of how we live with the art of “monstrous men,” as Dederer calls them (when they are indeed men), is hardly going awayIllustration by Taylor Callery for TIME

But again, anyone looking for easy answers has come to the wrong place. This isn’t a prescriptive book. In places, it’s a bit squirrelly: Dederer makes us privy to the process of wrestling with these problems, but she knows she can’t solve them. For now, though, even just that wrestling feels like a move forward. This book’s genesis was a probing 2017 Paris Review essay, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” which seemed, if social media was any indication, to make many people feel less alone, myself among them. Monsters is more of that: it’s a secret glance passed between friends, only in book form.

As a film critic, I’m with Dederer on Polanski’s genius as a filmmaker. (His most recent film, the 2019 J’accuse, an astonishingly skillful account of the Dreyfus affair, wasn’t released in the U.S.) I’ve also had to wrangle with the sins of Bernardo Bertolucci (who was accused, by Last Tango in Paris star Maria Schneider, of on-set abuse, and was probably guilty of the emotional kind, at least) and Bill Cosby (whose history of rape and assault charges have nearly obliterated his accomplishments as a groundbreaking Black performer, in a career that began long before The Cosby Show). My own formula for separating the art from the artist isn’t a formula at all: it’s more a sorrowful reckoning that acknowledges both the suffering these men have caused and the beauty of what they gave to the world. I would do the same for women, if there were more women monsters. The best art shows the human touch; the catch is that it also has to be made by humans, who are inherently a mess.

If you too love the work of Polanski—or Picasso, Hemingway, Allen, Davis, and so on—sticking with Dederer on her curlicued journey might be the best gift you can give yourself. The final chapter feels its way toward a conclusion that burns clean, though it hurts a little too. Our relationship to any work of art is open-ended, Dederer reminds us: “We change, and our relationship to it changes.” This is the nature of love. She quotes the British philosopher Gillian Rose—“There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy”—following up with her own observation: “Love is anarchy. Love is chaos.” We are at the mercy of the art we love, but its creators are at our mercy too. Forgiveness would be the easy thing; to love without it is a lot harder.

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