In the spring of 2014, I discovered I had a problem. I was researching the filmmaker Roman Polanski for a project, and I had learned all about his crime – his 1978 drugging and rape of a young girl. I was horrified by the crime, and found in its stark monstrosity shadows of my own experiences growing up as a predated girl in the 1970s and ’80s. And yet, at the same time, I found I could still watch his films. Or at least still wanted to watch his films. Polanski was one of my favourite directors, and Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown counted among the movies I loved best.
We hadn’t yet come to the great #MeToo reckoning of 2017, nor even to Trump’s proud strutting of his own sexual assaults on national television. I thought this was my own problem, mine and mine alone, and in a lonely way I began to explore it. It was hard to find much writing or thinking on the subject, even though – once I looked around – it seemed to be everywhere.
I’d spent my life being disappointed by beloved male artists: John Lennon beat his wife; T. S. Eliot was an antisemite; Lou Reed has been accused of abuse, racism and antisemitism (these offences are so unimaginative, aside from everything else). I didn’t want to compile a catalogue of monsters – after all, wasn’t the history of art simply already that?
I had a dawning realisation – I was trying to find out not about the artists, but about the audience. Polanski had become not his own problem, but my problem. I had a glimmer of a thought: I wanted to write an autobiography of the audience. Such a book was a little mysterious to contemplate. It would take place where, exactly? Inside my head? Within my living room as I read or watched television? In my car as I listened to music? In a theatre or a museum or a rock club?
Suddenly all these humdrum locations seemed like sites of drama. If I were writing an honest autobiography of the audience – I mean the audience of the work of monstrous men – that autobiography would need to balance these two elements: the greatness of the work and the terribleness of the crime. I wished someone would invent an online calculator – the user would enter the name of an artist, whereupon the calculator would 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.
A calculator is laughable, unthinkable. Yet our moral sense must be made to come into balance with our art-love. I wanted for there to be a universal balance, a universal answer, though I suspected maybe that balance is different for everyone. A friend who was gang-raped in high school says that any and all work by artists who have exploited and abused women should be destroyed. A gay friend whose adolescence was redeemed by art says that art and artist must be separated entirely. It’s possible that both these people are right.
I tried to think my way through the problem, but it became clear to me that thinking couldn’t solve it. When I discovered something horrifying in an artist’s biography, my reaction was not a carefully worked out, schematic set of thoughts. It was a feeling. 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 really what we’re having are moral feelings. We arrange words around these feelings and call them opinions: “What Woody Allen did was very wrong.” But feelings come from someplace more elemental than thought.
I wished someone would invent an online calculator [to] assess the heinousness of the crime versus the greatness of the art.
We can try to pretend our feelings don’t exist, but as in every other arena of life, that doesn’t, won’t, can’t solve this particular problem. But that’s just my opinion – there were and are plenty of people who believe that my feelings, that your feelings, should be set aside. (How, exactly?) The you-must-separate-the-art-from-the artist crowd hasn’t got much time for feelings. When I started to ask this question, I discovered that, very often, it was male critics who wanted the work to remain untouched by the life. Male authority believes the work exists in an ideal state (ahistorical, alpine, snowy, pure). Authority ignores the natural feeling that arises from biographical knowledge of a subject. Authority gets snippy about stuff like that. Authority claims it is able to appreciate the work free of biography, of history. Authority sides with the male maker, against the audience.
But of course we don’t decide to have the biography disrupt the work. When I, a former teenage girl and a current mother of a girl, find it difficult to watch Woody Allen’s Manhattan, I’m not making a decision to be upset by the film’s depiction of a 40-something Allen dating a high school girl. My response simply happens. The work is changed.
I was less interested in a clear-cut solution than in anatomising the problem. What happens when we consume this work? We have an emotional response, whether we want it or not.
I called these artists “monsters,” but I wanted a word that was more helpful. I wanted a word that contained the complexity of the problem, and that suggested the interior experience of the audience. And of course no one is entirely a monster. People are complex. To call someone a monster is to reduce them to just one aspect of the self. In fact, the word “monster” had, for me, come to mean an artist who could not be separated from some dark aspect of his or her biography. But the word was too inflammatory, too definite, too intense. Even as I rejected the word “monster”, another, more complicated word came to me: the stain. The work is stained by the behaviour of the artist.
The word “monster” is like a suitcase packed full of rage – the rage that gives rise to its utterance, the rage with which it is heard, whether by friend or foe of the monster in question. The stain is something else again. The stain is just plain sad. Indelibly sad.
No one wants the stain to happen. It just does.
I was eating breakfast at a diner when I Want You Back by the Jackson 5 came on. I bopped a little on my stool; I couldn’t help it. I found it hard to resist the pull of the music, borne on the air. And yet the moment was ruined too, as the spectre of Michael Jackson’s accusers rose in my imagination. I was placidly forking hash browns and all the while feeling like something terrible was (sort of) happening.
That’s how the stain works. The biography colours the song which colours the sunny moment of the diner. We don’t decide that colouration is going to happen. We don’t get to make decisions about the stain. It’s already too late. It touches everything. Our understanding of the work has taken on a new colour, whether we like it or not.
The tainting of the work is less a question of philosophical decision-making than it is a question of pragmatics, or plain reality. That’s why the stain makes such a powerful metaphor: its suddenness, its permanence, and above all its inexorable realness. The stain is simply something that happens. The stain is not a choice. The stain is not a decision we make.
Indelibility is not voluntary.
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 watch the glass fall to the floor; we don’t get to decide whether the wine will spread across the carpet.
Our response to the crime is personal, but so is our love of the work. We each bring our own experiences to how we consume art; we bring our own biographies. Authority – often white, often male – wants us to forget history, forget our own stories, and come to the work as supposedly objective entities.
We’re all bound by our racial, cultural, economic circumstances. For the male critic, there’s no need to question that response because so often the work is being made by someone like himself. Or at least it often has been in the past. In other words, his subjectivity becomes invisible, or travels in disguise as objectivity. The work is transmitted from one type of artist (that is, male) to the same type of viewer (also male). The artist has an ideal audience; the audience has an ideal artist; the rest of us are outside of that perfect dyad.
“What feeling do you have that is not tied up with history?” The late writer Randall Kenan asked this question at a 2019 talk at the University of Mississippi, and it’s a line I think about all the time. Our feelings seem – they feel – sovereign, but they’re tethered to our moment and our circumstance; and the moments and past circumstances that came before. I might well add: what response to art, what opinion, what criticism do you have that is not tied up with history? We are subject to the forces of history and the biography we ourselves are living out in the conditions of that history. That goes for all of us, even if we perceive our responses to art as objective, ahistorical, dispassionate.
Which is another way of saying: What I love, what I think is great, is not necessarily the same as what you love. When we balance the goodness of the work against the horribleness of the crime, we’re bringing subjectivity to each side of the equation. And our responses – our feelings, our love – are not bound by decisions or logic. So we don’t get to decide for other people. I didn’t dance to R. Kelly at my wedding, but maybe you did. Your balancing of the art against the crime is going to be different from mine.
Consuming a piece of art is two biographies meeting: the biography of the artist that might disrupt the consuming of the art; the biography of the audience member that might shape the viewing of the art. This occurs in every case.
And so we come back around to what to do about these monstrous people. There’s a range of responses we have, or can have, to the complicated experience of consuming the work of the monster-artists. These responses include and involve: emotion, subjectivity, forgiveness, empathy, institutional change, making room for silenced voices, acknowledgment that the work is altered – all of these things matter. So does one more thing: beauty.
Beauty is a fragile principle. It looks silly when it’s brought up against utility – or morality. When we mull over what to do about the art of monstrous men, beauty seems like a dandelion puff – the merest nothing – next to the loud j’accuse of saying how awful these men were in their personal lives. And yet. Beauty matters too. Beauty – our experience of it, rather than our idea of it – is a powerful force, an emotional force. Without being melodramatic about it, I’d like to say that it can sometimes be a life-saving force.
If I were to give an exhaustive list of monsters and tell you my response to them, I would be acting out a kind of falsehood. I would be suggesting there is a correct answer in each particular case. I would be telling you what to think, and in telling you what to think, I would be telling you what to do. And I don’t want to enshrine my own subjectivity in that particular way; don’t want to cloak it in the garb of authority. We must each be our own authority, balancing our personal response to the crime with our love of the work. And in that equation, we must allow beauty its say, even if the larger conversation seems to want to drown it out.
Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, by Claire Dederer, Hodder, $32.99, is out now.