Review by David Starkey
The cover of Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma is well-chosen. It shows the short, solid and tanned torso of Pablo Picasso beneath the three-dimensional mask of a bull. He stands on the beach, with the ocean, a single bather, and a couple of what look battleships, behind him. The photograph is slightly faded and possibly hand-tinted. Picasso’s arms are outstretched, as though he were estimating the size of a fish he has caught—or whatever is lurking beneath his shorts. He looks, in sum, ridiculous, someone whom it would be easy to dismiss, if not for his enormous, era-defining body of visual art. Sure, we can toss the photo aside, but do we really want to toss Guernica and Three Musicians and that wonderful portrait of Gertrude Stein along with it?
I’m coming to the book a few months after its publication, and I’ve been intrigued by the comments of previous readers. In the one camp are those who criticize Dederer for never definitively answering her own research question, which is, basically, at what point do we, in good conscience, have to stop listening to, reading, or looking at the work of artists we admire who have behaved badly? Dederer puts the situation bluntly when describing her response to her favorite filmmaker, Roman Polanski:
Polanski made Chinatown, often called one of the greatest films of all time.
Polanski drugged and anally raped thirteen-year-old Samantha Gailey.
There the facts sit, unreconcilable.
How would I maintain myself between these contradictions?
In the other camp of readers are those who are beguiled by her limpid prose and her willingness to dig deep into a question that necessarily involves a lot of waffling. I count myself among this second group, although I have some reservations about the book. I do like her idea of a sliding scale: a minor infraction by a great and much-loved artist shouldn’t cancel that person’s work, while a horrific act by someone you don’t think much of is certainly worth a cancellation.
However, like many a book of nonfiction that begins with a great idea that could be adequately explored in fifty pages, Monsters veers off from its central point. Dederer’s hook is What do we do about these evil artistic men? but the middle and late chapters feel more like autobiography, with detours into the lives of women artists—Joni Mitchell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton—who valued their art (and its pain) over their children. Dederer guiltily asks herself if she too is a monster in this vein, although as she ponders how much nurturing she has done when she might have been performing “the selfish sacraments of being an artist,” she wonders, “What if I’m not monster enough?” This material is certainly an interesting departure from the opening chapters, but, as Dederer acknowledges, any list of monstrous artistic women “immediately becomes much more tentative.”
If you’ve noticed the first-person coming forward in this review, that’s in deference to Dederer, who is adamant that we can never really separate the actual author from “the critic,” though the latter tacitly writes from a position of (unearned, Dederer would say) authority. Speaking of the reluctant takedown of Miles Davis by Pearl Cleage, “a Black woman and an abuse survivor” and a huge fan of Davis’s music, Dederer writes that Cleage’s “subjective response to the work would seem to make [her] essay weaker, in terms of mounting a convincing argument.” Instead, Dederer believes that speaking from “authority’s opposite”—that is, “personal feeling”—is not “an assailable position,” but rather offers an argument “as sound and strong and clear as a coin rapped on a counter.”
In fact, while Dederer hedges her bets—she loathes Woody Allen’s Manhattan, for instance—she ultimately comes down on the side of holding onto the art one loves. She quotes the philosopher Gillian Rose: “There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy.” And she asks, “What do we do about the terrible people in our lives?” Her answer: “Mostly keep loving them.”