We live in an era of artistic censorship that emanates from both the left and the right. Conservatives are concerned with the agenda of leftists who are pushing pornographic materials and books with explicit gay sex depictions in libraries and classrooms across the country allegedly as a way of making students less homophobic and transphobic. These sexualized, so-called educational materials supersede the educational value of any non-politicized material and are being weaponized to convert students into social justice activists. Conservatives are rightly concerned about the proliferation of such works and their availability to young Americans.
On the left, a decolonization movement targets books and works of art by (mostly) men alleged to have been racist, antisemitic, misogynistic and physically abusive towards their female partners. Think here of Pablo Picasso putting out a cigarette on the face of one of his female conquests. Today some colleges issue trigger warnings on books by writers deemed to be racist; galleries refuse to exhibit works by purportedly misogynistic painters; and the music of convicted pedophile pop singer R. Kelly is rarely, if ever, aired on radio stations.
But there is more to the censorious attitude of the left than this. It targets the canonical texts and artworks that constitute the liberal arts education of students and that have, in the past, been prized by both liberals and conservatives alike. These texts and artworks have been part of college curricula for centuries. Today, they stand largely defended by conservatives as a cabal of left-wing educators seeks to extricate them or “decolonize them” from the liberal canon. These works are largely by dead white European males who have been attributed with holding racist and misogynistic views. They range from figures such as Homer, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, John Stuart Mill, Kant, and Faulkner.
The haunting questions that pervade the cultural air are: what do we do with the works of art of monstrous men—both historically and in the contemporary era? Does genius excuse cruelty? Should the peccadilloes of great men be overlooked?
In her magisterial and brilliant new book, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, critic Claire Dederer takes on these questions and, in the process, helps us to navigate the culture wars with great lucidity and common sense.
The book examines the lives of great artists such as Pablo Picasso (a documented misogynist and violent abuser of women); Woody Allen (who committed psychological incest by marrying his step-daughter); Doris Lessing (who abandoned her two children in what was then Rhodesia to live the free life of a writer in London); Roman Polanski (who raped and sodomized a thirteen year old girl); Miles Davis (a self-admitted monster who beat his women and prevented his wife from pursuing a dance career of her own); Sylvia Plath (who committed suicide and abandoned her children), and others such as Virginia Wolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and Anne Sexton. In each case, the transgressions of the artists were so appalling that they have called into question whether continued consumption of their works is even moral.
Dederer is a master at analyzing the lives of these artists and their works. The chapter on Genius alone is worth the price of the book. One dilemma that stands in need of resolve is this: Do great works of art require flawed and cruel personalities; in general, monsters? Or do the monsters who are themselves already great artists have to create great works of art to atone for the horrific creatures they are, and the lives they have ruined in the pursuit of their art?
Dederer is a compelling storyteller, and the book is a page turner. She is adept at making the connection between genius, madness, and great art. She carefully addresses such questions as: Why is it that, generally speaking, happy people do not create great art? Why is great art birthed from mutilated and twisted egos?
An added bonus to the book is that it is part memoir. Dederer knows that she is not a genius; nevertheless, she is driven and ambitious and possessed of a desire to write a great book. She worries, as did Sexton, Plath, and Lessing, that the domestic demands of motherhood, the selflessness that comes with motherhood, and the quest for artistic greatness if one is a mother are all incompatible. On several occasions after examining ways in which she has comported herself in relation to her children, her own previous abuse of alcohol to both hide pain and spur on writing, and her monomaniacal drivenness, she asks herself: Am I a monster? Her answers are both nuanced and deeply insightful.
But back to the book’s relevance to the culture wars. Many of us fight these wars from the standpoint of moral self-righteousness, as if we ourselves now have the requisite moral vocabularies and enlightened consciousness to avoid the moral mistakes our erstwhile favorite artists committed. We move in the world with this idea along with the attendant moral judgment not to consume the contested artwork. Dederer writes:
We attempt to enact morality through using our judgement when we buy stuff, but our judgment doesn’t make us better consumers—it actually makes us trapped in the spectacle, because we believe we have control over it. What if instead we accepted the falsity of the spectacle altogether?
Condemnation of the canceled celebrity affirms the idea that there is some positive celebrity who does not have the stain of the canceled celebrity. The bad celebrity, once again, reinforces the idea of the good celebrity, a thing that doesn’t exist, because celebrities are not agents of morality, they’re reproducible images.
The fact is that our consumption, or lack thereof, of the work is essentially meaningless as an ethical gesture.
Cancel culture and quarrels with terrible and monstrous artists come to an end when we stop looking outward at the world and look to the very people whom we love. The whole act of righteous indignation of wicked artists is a sham, really. Derderer asks us to look at the monstrous people in our own families that we love: our children, our parents, and our siblings. What about close friends? What do we do about the terrible people we love? Do we excise them from our lives? Do we enact a justice swift and sure? Do we cancel them? Sometimes. But more often than not we don’t. As Derderer explains—families are hard because they are monsters (and angels and everything in between) that are foisted upon us. They are unchosen monsters. And yet we mostly end up loving our families anyway.
So, the broader ethical and existential question is: what do we do about the terrible people we love? And that question comes with another question nestled inside it: how awful can we be before people stop loving us?
If we can extrapolate from the family institution to works of art and books and artists that we love, then why can’t we apply grace? Why can’t we admit that they have the same frailties and weaknesses as we do? And why can we not see that by some strange and inexplicable alchemy via an admixture of their very ugly demons and tormented psyches coupled with an exalted vision—that beauty magically arises from their souls into something called “a work of art?”
Derderer is neither a sentimentalist nor an idealist. She understands the inescapable messiness of love; that it is mediated by both the beauty and the horrors of life. She does not ask us to forgive the cruelty of great artists any more than we are asked to forgive ourselves for our own cruelties and the manner in which we use them to harm others. We make those choices guided by our conscience. Rather, there is a better remedy, one that is more mature and humane. She writes:
Love is not reliant on judgment, but on a decision to set judgment aside. Love is anarchy. Love is chaos. We don’t love the deserving; we love the flawed and imperfect human beings, in an emotional logic that belongs to an entirely different weather system than the chilly climate of reason.