There was a time in my life when I considered Annie Hall to be my favourite film. For obvious reasons, that isn’t something that I readily admit now. In the wake of #MeToo, we find ourselves asking again and again what exactly are we meant to do with the art of bad people? If I sit down and watch, say, Rosemary’s Baby, does that mean I am forgiving Roman Polanski for his crimes against a young girl? How do we morally traverse a cultural landscape that has been so deeply stained by the reprehensible actions
of others? This is the question that Claire Dederer seeks to answer in her essay collection Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma.
Beginning with Polanski and working her way through a rogue’s gallery of problematic artists (Woody Allen, JK Rowling and Pablo Picasso are some of the obvious names; Doris Lessing, Joni Mitchell and Virginia Woolf, less obvious). Dederer considers the two diverging roads that many of us have had to face in recent years: do we separate the art from the artist or do we boycott the work entirely? Neither option is ideal – one essentially projects the artist’s crime onto the consumer, forcing them to remove all traces of artistry and vision from the final product; the other leads you down the path of essentially ignoring some of the greatest works of art, well, ever.
Those looking for genuine guidance on which route to take will be disappointed, instead Dederer is more interested in the concept of monstrousness itself. And it makes the book all the better. It is so easy for this specific argument to fall into either reactionary politics or liberal handwringing, Dederer pushes all that aside to create an incredibly nuanced and human work.
Barry Pierce is a journalist and cultural commentator
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