Pin It
Claire Dederer © Stanton J. Stephens
Claire Dederer© Stanton J. Stephens

This New Book Asks: Can You Separate the Art From the Artist?

Claire Dederer’s new book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma addresses the question of whether we should separate the art from the artist. Here, she talks about cancel culture, fandom, and why the world lets ‘geniuses’ do whatever they want

Lead ImageClaire Dederer© Stanton J. Stephens

In 2017 – a mere month after the first exposés of Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behaviour surfaced – critic and memoirist Claire Dederer published an essay in The Paris Review confronting the prescient question of what we should do with the art of heinous male creators. In her new book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Dederer sustains the sharp and unflinching grain of her initial work of criticism, delivering as many questions as she answers for us to indeterminably grapple with. What does it mean to love someone awful? Can we separate the art from the artist? Why are we compelled to do so? 

In Monsters, Dederer produces an entirely original and self-aware contemplation on the psychological reverberations of living in a biographical age, where we’re forced to reckon with the personal histories of the artists we love whether we like it or not. Responding as mother, artist and sexual assault survivor, the author begins by recollecting the crimes of Roman Polanski – the director whose work she adores and who pleaded guilty to the rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977 – wrestling in real time to evaluate whether the stain on his character should bleed out to his cinematic oeuvre.  

Forgoing claims of intellectual authority in favour of earnest and exacting curiosity, she highlights the ubiquity of this conundrum. Settling on the irreconcilable realities of these contradictions, Dederer turns her gaze to the question of how we are personally affected when we sacrifice artistic merit on the altar of moral purity. Writing in defence of the fervent humanity of this experience, she describes our need to reckon with the failings of others and what we lose when we fail to do so. 

Below, AnOther speaks to the author about the tensions between moral sense and a love of art, whether genius deserves special dispensation, and the changing role of the audience.

Millen Brown-Ewens: There’s never a one-size fits all approach to take when addressing a topic both as subjective and emotional as this, but what would you define as conditions for monstrousness and how can they be measured? 

Claire Dederer: My ideas about what constitutes ‘monstrousness’ shifted during the course of the writing the book. At first, I meant something monolithically rotten: an assault, or an overtly racist statement, or public cruelty. But my thinking developed as I worked on the book, and I came to see that what interested me was any artist whose biography disrupts or complicates our experience of their work. In the wake of that, I released the word ‘monsters’ back into the wild and took up the metaphor of the stain. The idea of the biography indelibly staining the work was much more useful and evocative to me. 

The audience doesn’t decide that the work is affected; it simply happens, the way the carpet is stained when a glass of wine is dropped. This seems to me to be incredibly important when we are exhorted to separate the art from the artist – so often, we’re not choosing to have the work affected, it’s simply happening. 

MBE: Suspended within Monsters is the question of whether we can separate the art from the artist and whether we should. How have you personally found the task of balancing moral sense and art love throughout your life? 

CD: It mostly hasn’t been a logical process – in fact the opposite. More often than not, it’s an emotional morass. And in fact, I think the crucial thing is to acknowledge the emotional nature of the problem. For me, the problem initially arose because of my deep love of Roman Polanski. My last book, Love & Trouble, was a memoir dealing with growing up in the sexually predatory culture of the 1970s and 80s. The book used a lot of formal experimentation and included an open letter to Polanski (whom I did not know personally). I researched his crime – the rape of a 13-year-old girl – extensively. And yet I still found I wanted to watch his films. I started out my career as a film critic and his work was incredibly important to me. I tried to solve the problem by thinking hard about it but found that thinking didn’t quite solve it. Instead, I had to learn to live with a more complicated kind of love.

“Picasso and Hemingway helped shaped our idea of the genius: male, brawling, abusive, and operating with absolute freedom” – Claire Dederer

MBE: I’m intrigued by your discourse around the construct of the genius, which you suggest we may have created to serve our own attraction to badness, making excuses for violence, neglect and narcissism because of a superhuman ‘gift’.  Why might genius deserve special dispensation? 

CD: Genius is not just a type of person, but a special status of person: a person who gets to do whatever he (yes, he) wants. The genius is channelling a force larger than himself. We call this force ‘artistic impulse’ and there’s a kind of strange moral calculus that arises: if some of his impulses are good, then all of his impulses must be good. And so, the genius ends up in a position where he can do whatever he wants. 

Picasso and Hemingway aren’t just examples of this freedom – as two of the great artists and writers of the early mass communication era, they helped shaped our idea of the genius: male, brawling, abusive, and operating with absolute freedom. This tyranny of this particular image of the genius becomes useful to the audience – rather than really thinking through what we feel or think about the problem, we give him a pass because he’s a genius. And perhaps we enjoy the spectacle of his badness. 

MBE: How has the role of the audience changed over the years? Are we responsible for solving this unreconciled contradiction between art we love and actions we hate?

CD: The role of the audience has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. When I was young (I am 56 years old) it was very hard to learn things about the artists I loved. All you could do was hope that a biography might be written, and if what you loved was not mainstream, you were probably out of luck. All that has changed. Now biography falls on our heads all day long. We are sick of biography. The internet is built out of biographies – our own, in the form of social media, and of course celebrity biography. And so the audience is now forced into a more emotional relationship with the artist’s personhood – whether we want that connection or not. 

“Sometimes we love a work of art, or it has huge meaning in our lives. That’s for each of us to think about and decide for ourselves”Claire Dederer

MBE: What are your thoughts on cancel culture? Does it reveal more about the canceller than the cancelled?

CD: I really, really don’t care for the phrase ‘cancel culture’. I find it entirely co-opted by the right and generally unhelpful as a framework. People need to be able to say when something awful has happened to them. How can we do better if people don’t speak up? If we don’t listen to them? 

The problem comes when this occurs: someone says something shitty that happened to them, and then the internet leapfrogs ahead to a dyadic discourse: on one side, outrage; on the other side a dismissive snideness that falls back to an emphasis on the role of the consumer: “Well, are you just going to give up the work of [fill in the blank]?” 

What I want is a pause where we make sure these questions are pointed at institutions. What will the museum do? What will the publishing houses do? And so on. That’s the important dynamic. What we do individually is another matter. Sometimes we love a work of art, or it has huge meaning in our lives. That’s for each of us to think about, feel our way through, and decide for ourselves. I think there’s some hope if we, as people, can remember that our love of the work is private, personal, and our own decision. 

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer is published by Sceptre and is out now.