How do we reconcile admired artworks with their unadmirable creators? Are the films of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski lessened by the crimes of the artists who made them? Such questions are the heart of Claire Dederer's "Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma," a book that grew out of an essay she wrote for the Paris Review, which asked the question, "What are we to do with the art of monstrous men?"
Dederer began her career as a film critic for a Seattle weekly; in addition to her work for national outlets, she is also the author of two prior memoirs.
For a long time, Dederer admits that any uneasiness she felt while watching "Manhattan" or "Chinatown" was a private issue. "The question seemed personal, and the answers contingent — upon my mood, upon the individual artist and the specific work." What made these questions public, she says, was the 2016 presidential campaign, when, despite the revelations about his abysmal behavior toward women, Donald Trump was elected.
Dederer seems surprised at the number of women who stepped forward with their own stories of being sexual assaulted, but also admits that the "[cruelty] had been there all along. Some of us were just ignoring it."
The field of criticism claims objective standards that remove the emotional response of the critic from its evaluation. Dederer begins to take apart these claims to objectivity by teasing out the connections between art and its creator and the connections between the critic and their own subjectivity. The book comprises individual chapters on artists that include Polanski, Allen, Pablo Picasso, Vladimir Nabokov and others — including women such as Sylvia Plath and Joni Mitchell. Dederer unpacks many of traditional criticism's component parts, and offers instead an embodied form of critique, one that acknowledges that a critic's emotions, physical responses and life experiences come to bear on the ways they judge the work of others.
What begins as a discussion of male artists' legal crimes of rape, pedophilia and domestic violence, however, becomes a philosophical discussion of whether female artists can ever be "good enough" mothers. While the juxtaposition is jarring, Dederer uses her autobiography to show how critical judgments are filtered by experience and how, for her, redemption narratives carry extra weight.
It's not clear whether Dederer comes to redeem traditional criticism or bury it. There are moments when she lays out a line of argument only to seek to invalidate it with questions left unanswered. The nature of a dilemma is that any answer will be unsatisfactory. Thus the question of how to respond to art created by problematic creators can only be answered by the vagaries of the individual human heart.
Lorraine Berry is a writer and critic in Oregon.
By: Claire Dederer.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 288 pages, $28.