The Human Stain

In Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Claire Dederer gets personal about toxic artists and their work.

claire dederer, monsters a fans dilemma, nonfiction, book review
Stanton Stephens

My first art monster was Picasso. I was 19 when a professor showed our class slides of his most famous works. We were college students who, until that point, had been stuck writing essays about the Renaissance and Michelangelo, so Picasso blew our minds. Then she read us this quote from the artist: “Women are machines for suffering. For me, there are only two types of women: goddesses and doormats.” She started listing the women in his life, the things he’d done to them—the two who eventually died by suicide; the one whose cheek he’d burned with a cigarette; the portrait he’d painted of her afterward to commemorate the wound.

Could we separate his work from these biographical facts? the professor asked. I said, Maybe? What I meant was, Why are you doing this to us?

I’d forgotten about Picasso’s statement until I came across it again in Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. The book is essentially an inquiry into the male artists whom, ever since that class, I’ve spent a lot of energy hating; a set of questions I’ve spent most of my own art life asking; and some new (to me) and depressing facts about Virginia Woolf. I know this sounds as though it could be stressful to read, but in fact, it’s profoundly cathartic. The book feels simultaneously like having the deepest, artiest conversation with the smartest people you know and like having an intense shit-talking session with your closest friends.

As Dederer writes, “when a critic does that—articulates my own feelings or responses—it has always jostled me, excited me, moved me.… I and a faraway stranger have consumed the same art—in my case, usually gripped more by feeling than by thought—and then I get to have my feelings explained to me. There’s real pleasure and even consolation in this.”

I imagine this is exactly why Dederer’s Paris Review essay, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?”—which is the basis of Monsters—went viral in 2017. We were swimming in #MeToo revelations, afraid we’d see the names of our favorite artists. We wanted the bad men to be held accountable, but we had absolutely no idea what to do with the art they’d left behind, art we’d fallen in love with and built entire personalities around. Dederer’s essay articulated all of this for us.

The “we” was really what the essay was about, and it’s at the center of the book as well. Dederer writes about bad men: Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Ernest Hemingway, Miles Davis, Norman Mailer, Bill Cosby, William S. Burroughs. But she doesn’t put them on trial. What they did are facts, not opinions. She also doesn’t put their work on trial; the good things they made are also facts. The bad things are almost easier to swallow than the good ones. Monsters are supposed to be bad. They aren’t supposed to make things that we love, that reflect us back to ourselves. These good things feel tainted and contagious, as though they could spread to us if we watch the movie, read the book, go to the museum.

Dederer calls this “the stain.” We live in a culture where the work of artists is “stained” by their personal lives, for better or for worse. “That’s why the stain makes such a powerful metaphor,” she notes. “Its suddenness, its permanence, and above all its inexorable realness.… When someone says we ought to separate the art from the artist, they’re saying: Remove the stain. Let the work be unstained. But that’s not how stains work.”

We can’t unknow, in other words, the things we know about these artists. So then it falls to us to decide what we are all supposed to do about it. We.

This “we” is, to me, highly gendered. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Dederer used the term “monstrous men” in the title of her essay but not that of the book, and indeed, here she also examines the work of women considered monstrous: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, J.K. Rowling.

But mostly it feels as if Dederer is writing to an audience of women about the work of men. Maybe this is because, throughout most of Western history, men have made the art and women have consumed it. Maybe it’s because of the #MeToo movement, from which her essay sprang. But I think it’s also because she recalls countless conversations with writers, artists, family, and friends, both men and women, and the women’s responses feel the most resonant.

One of her daughter’s friends, for instance, says she still listens to a problematic band, “even after everything.” Maybe a lot of women are familiar with this type of acceptance, Dederer realizes; what about the relationships in which our partners treated us badly? What do we do with the good memories that may exist despite the bad blood, mistreatment, or actual abuse? “In certain ways,” she confesses, “this is a book about broken hearts, and teenagers are the world’s leading experts on heartbreak.”

Another woman texts Dederer about Woody Allen. “My friend,” the author recounts, “had said she had many thoughts about Woody Allen, but that’s not what she was having. This, I think, is what happens to so many of us when we consider the work of the monster geniuses—we tell ourselves we’re having ethical thoughts when what we’re having are moral feelings.”

Dederer never states specifically that Monsters is a book for women, and she raises many valuable questions that I’m sure a lot of men, especially male artists, have been considering for years. But her writing is extremely personal, as she signals in the instances where she switches between “I” and “we” and “you.” She shares her feelings about Polanski and his work from her subjective point of view as a woman, as a writer, as a mother, as a wife and daughter and friend.

I’ve been an artist since before I knew there was any other option. I know firsthand that you touch something and a part of you is left there. For me, it’s not a question of whether or not one can separate the artist from their work. It’s a question of what to do with the two things side by side. This is exactly what Dederer knows: That the problem doesn’t have a good answer and a bad answer. There are just two equally inadequate answers, and you—we—have to decide which one it’s possible to accept.•

Knopf Publishing Group

MONSTERS: A FAN'S DILEMMA, BY CLAIRE DEDERER

Knopf Publishing Group Bookshop.org
$26.04

Jackie DesForges is a writer and artist in Los Angeles.
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