Many charged terms start resembling obscenity once they have been batted around long enough by the cacophonous Babel euphemized as the Discourse. Words can be twisted like linguistic taffy, often in the service of didacticism, until clear definitions become an exercise in futility. Then one is left in the exasperated state Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was in 1964 when responding to a request for a definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
We see this tendency play out in the naming of “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby“, an exhibition that opened June 2023 at the Brooklyn Museum. Whatever the virtues and faults of the exhibition, its title plays with the in-vogue usage of “problematic”. Once understood as a difficult-to-parse thing or a style of obscure Foucauldian analysis, “problematic” is now a catchall for any person whose actions, work, or speech the speaker wants to critique negatively. Thus Gadsby’s rumination on Picasso’s treatment of women, which she compares to that of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. But since “problematic” can be used to describe anything from a Taylor Swift video to outright violence, its meaning is so capacious that it has become toothless.
One of the great attributes of Claire Dederer’s bracing, funny, honest, yet uneven new book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma is how rarely (if ever) she uses the word, even though her subject matter aims right at many problematic things. The thesis she wrestles with here is less about problematic behavior than what to do with the art created by seemingly horrible people. Her destination will not satisfy a large subset of readers who may want something definitively moral and correct.
Given the wandering routes she takes to her point, critic and author Dederer (Love and Trouble) reads as more culture obsessive than a warrior. This is a good thing. Unlike those more dedicated to the hot take, she brings a starry-eyed belief and interest in art and the effects it has on people. When talking about the audience, she generally means herself, pointedly using the “I” and centering her subjectivity rather than using the vaguer authorial persona, which she skewers as being used by many male critics as a pretense to an authoritative “universal, default point of view”. The “fan” having the dilemma in the book’s subtitle is Dederer, who is comfortable putting aside her cool critical composure to engage with the hot brew of the post-#MeToo Discourse about artists termed “problematic” and admitting that, in the end, it’s complicated.
Witty and insightful yet blunt when the moment calls for it, Dederer writes with transparent candor about her relationship with these artists. She starts with Roman Polanski, describing trying to research a book on the director but being unable to get past his admitted guilt of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. Starting with the crime, Dederer works through Polanski’s films, unable to pretend they do not thrill her in the way of all great cinema. This proves a schizophrenic experience, marooning her between wanting to be a “virtuous consumer” who does not support criminals while remaining “a citizen of the world of art”. She tongue-in-cheek asks whether it would be permissible to watch a Polanski film as long as she wasn’t paying for it.
At moments, Monster appears to make the case for separating art from the artist, the genius from the wreckage. But while acknowledging “we continue to love what we ought to hate”, she also finds herself unable to make that moral and artistic separation. She describes a dinner with a male writer who urged her to judge Woody Allen’s Manhattan “strictly on aesthetics”. His somewhat fanciful insistence on pure objectivity conflicts with her feeling “urpy” while watching it, a feeling that may or may not have something to do with the assaults she suffered in her life. Dederer is not arguing for Allen’s guilt in the charges brought by Mia Farrow or for not watching Manhattan. Instead, she rejects the idea that watching Manhattan without thinking of Allen’s marriage to Soon-Yi and the film’s portrayal of teenaged Mariel Hemingway is the truer method of approach. To her, this is unrealistic at best:
The film Manhattan is disrupted by our knowledge of Soon-Yi; but it’s also myopic and limited in its own right; and it’s also got a lot of things about it that are pretty great. All those things can be true at once. Simply being told that Allen’s history shouldn’t matter doesn’t achieve the objective of making it not matter.
Just as Dederer resents being lectured on the proper way to view Manhattan, she pushes back on the idea that she needs to tell anyone else how to view things. She defines the act of consuming as “two biographies meeting”. The artist’s biography may disrupt the consumer’s experience, while the consumer’s biography can shape their experience.
Dederer keeps a list of the men accused of awful things who also “made something great”. Starting with Allen, Bill Cosby, William S. Burroughs, and Ezra Pound, she pivots to a tentative list of women (largely artists who either ditched or left their kids behind, like Joan Crawford or Doris Lessing) before getting to the questions many readers want her to answer: What to do? Is consistent punishment and withdrawal of attention possible? Or should there be a “behavioral hall pass” for genius?
Among Monsters‘ most rewarding sections is when she illustrates the phenomenon of what she terms the “art monsters”. These are the Hemingways, the Picassos, the Pollocks, the 20th-century giants who smashed through the culture and wreaked havoc among the women who crossed their path but got that hall pass. Dederer wants less to excoriate the art monsters than acknowledge what they did, suggesting that there may be no way to square the circle of morality, culpability, and artistic merit.
Though filled with artists behaving monstrously, Monsters is not written to bury bad men. Dederer describes the question posed to her by students: “Can I still listen to David Bowie?” She mostly sidesteps the issue, noting the place Bowie holds for all those lonely kids while also “feeling sad and horrified” about the groupie stories that made him seem that different than all other ’70s rock stars (“not our guy“). She overhears a woman say – about a different band that had been denounced by fans because of accusations of unwanted sexual advances – “I still listen to them. I still love them. Even after everything.” Dederer thrills to this moment, feeling a slight epiphany in the idea that “dumb love” of art can exist with “heartbreak” and unresolved feelings about the artists.
Monsters is filled with that generosity of spirit. This pairs neatly with Dederer’s broad tastes, unembarrassed enthusiasms, and preference for not taking sides in already overheated culture war skirmishes. But that openness can register as an unsatisfying vagueness and lack of focus. A chapter on Harry Potter fandom and the J. K. Rowling controversy ends prematurely. Refusing to select one half of a binary argument is understandable. Not laying out another cogent viewpoint is less so.
“What do we do with great art made by bad men?” Dederer does not avoid the question, but she also does not pretend she is the one to answer it. Monsters is a book about the beauty of some art, the vileness of some people, and the baffling capacity of the latter to create the former. What it is not is a verdict. Monsters come in many forms, even including, Dederer suggests, herself.