What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?

Claire Dederer explores her feelings around art made by men who are being exposed as monsters. Her journey exposes her own monsters.

They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing. Flooded with knowledge of the maker’s monstrousness, we turn away, overcome by disgust. Or … we don’t.

Still from Woody Allen’s Manhattan

Certain pieces of art seem to have been rendered inconsumable by their maker’s transgressions—how can one watch The Cosby Show after the rape allegations against Bill Cosby? I mean, obviously it’s technically doable, but are we even watching the show? Or are we taking in the spectacle of our own lost innocence?

It’s the voice of the middle-​brow male critic, the one who truly believes he knows how everyone else should think. We is corrupt. We is make-​believe. The real question is this: can I love the art but hate the artist? Can you? When I say we, I mean I. I mean you.

As I wrote in my diary when I was a teen, “I don’t feel great about men right now.” I still didn’t feel great about men in the summer of 2017, and a lot of other women didn’t feel great about men either. A lot of men didn’t feel great about men. Even the patriarchs were sick of patriarchy.

After an argument about how one might treat the art of these men:

Which of us is seeing more clearly? The one who had the ability—some might say the privilege—to remain untroubled by the filmmaker’s attitudes toward females and history with girls? Who had the ability to watch the art without committing the biographical fallacy? Or the one who couldn’t help but notice the antipathies and urges that seemed to animate the project?

A great work of art brings us a feeling. And yet when I say Manhattan makes me feel urpy, a man says, No, not that feeling. You’re having the wrong feeling. He speaks with authority: Manhattan is a work of genius. But who gets to say?

the film Manhattan is disrupted by our knowledge of Soon-​Yi; but it’s also kinda gross in its own right; and it’s also got a lot of things about it that are pretty great. All these things can be true at once.

When you’re having a moral feeling, self-​congratulation is never far behind. You are setting your emotion in a bed of ethical language, and you are admiring yourself doing it.

I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.

Maybe, as a female writer, you don’t kill yourself, or abandon your children. But you abandon something, some nurturing part of yourself.

Because the finishing is the part that makes the artist. The artist must be monster enough not just to start the work, but to complete it. And to commit all the little savageries that lie in between.





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