Claire Dederer author headshot and book cover

What do we do with the art of monstrous men? Whatever you need to do with it

Consuming a piece of art is the collision of two biographies: the artist who can shape the viewing and the consumer who views. This makes evaluating art created by people who have done heinous things in their personal lives especially subjective.

Hemingway and Picasso, both of whom were especially cruel and vicious to the women in their lives, are the 20th century icons of this tricky question. Hemingway’s third wife Martha Gellhorn wrote that the great artist needn’t be a monster but rather monsters can only hide behind art: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”

In the end, which art we set aside, and which we can still enjoy is up to the viewer, and the time period. (Chuck Klosterman writes about how art is reinterpreted by each new generation). Admittedly, if you have the choice of hiring or elevating a creative today who is cruel, you might choose differently. But in terms of consumption, well, that’s up to you.

“The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one. You’ll have to find some other way to accomplish that.” Or so argues culture critic and essayist Claire Dederer in her book from this spring called Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma.

I first came across Claire and her writing in her 2017 essay “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” It seems to me one of the defining questions of the last few years, so I appreciate the effort she put into shaping mine and other’s perspectives. I recommend it. Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

My Notes

  • Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?
  • Clarice Lispector, A Hora da Estrela
  • She wanted an online calculator to balance the greatness of the art and the heinousness of the crime but of course it varies by person
  • Ought we destroy the art of there men? Or separate out art and artist (once art is out it is no longer the artist’s, but the audience’s)
  • El Doctorow on Hemingway; he just wrote travelogue and taught Americans what to eat, drink and how to deal with European servant class
  • Flynn in Gone Girl introduced the idea of the Cool Girl
  • Arlie Russell Hochschild: the second shift in 1989
  • Biographical fallacy from the New Critics in early 20th century said divorce art and artist
  • “Art monster” from Dept Speculation novel (Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella)
  • But “monster” is too overblown because people are complex
  • By “monster” the author meant “ someone whose behavior disrupts our ability to apprehend the work on its own terms”
  • Maybe there are “golden monsters” but mostly we mean bad behavior
  • The stain of monster-hood is a time traveler bringing the stain back before specific allegations
  • The stain is “biography’s aftermath. The person does the crime and it’s the work that gets stained. It’s what we, the audience, are left to contend wit.”
  • Parasoxial relationships examined in a 2010 paper by John Durham Peters via broadcast news hosts speaking directly to us
  • 1819 Alessandro Manzoni: “Every work of art provides its reader with all the necessary elements with which to judge it. In my view, these elements are: the authors intent; whether, this intent was reasonable; whether the author has achieved his intent.”
  • Consuming a piece of art is the collision of two biographies; the artist who can shape the viewing and the consumer. It happens in all cases and so makes evaluating monsters subjective
  • Picasso and Hemingway defined 20cdnt genus
  • Genius distinguishes from craftsmanship because of its impulsivity, so why would you suppress any of those impulses?
  • Duchamp changed art more like a paradigm shift but Picasso represented 20th century genius of freedom in work AND personhood
  • Gauguin predated Picasso as virile and colonizing artist
  • Rock stars took the mantle from Picasso and Hemingway who used mass media to gain celebrity
  • “To pretend that there’s no allure to bad men is to sidestep reality.… Life is so dull. With a bad man around something is very likely to happen. It’s easy to think of the quality of genius as justifying bad behavior, but maybe it works the other way around too. Maybe we have created the idea of genius to serve our own attraction to badness. Maybe we ask these artists to live out our darkest fantasies – and if we give it the label, “genius,” then we don’t have to feel guilt for enjoying the spectacle.”
  • We want to believe it “was a different time” acting as if we are in an ahistorical present (a liberal idea, which believes in the steady improvement of man)
  • We only know better because people spoke up
  • In the present everyone always believes they’re too enlightened to be intolerant
  • The third conditional : if I was that person at that time I would have done differently
  • Fukiyama’s famous End of History of Hegelian thought (reality was ideas not things)
  • ((((My note: She dismisses the liberal idea of improvement but isn’t it very clear that the long arc has been better for most, especially Black and Jewish people and women? If nothing had progressed, why try? Unless you think you’re do much better and smarter than generations of old)))
  • “What do we do with the art of monsters from the past. Look for ourselves there – in the monstrous nice. Look for mirrors of what we are, rather than evidence for a wonderful we’ve become.”
  • It’s a Greek bargain (132): some may get criticism for wrong reasons but more victims will be heard
  • Nabokov’s Lolita follows his faux narrator memoirist Humbert first thinking he and Lolita are special and then we find he’s just another dirty old man; Lolita is silenced and we get little of her interiority (though she sobs every night)
  • Write this as an autobiography of the audience not about monsters and that includes those who never got heard because of the monsters (Dora Maar)
  • Medieta obscured by Carl Andre
  • Ignoring the “pram in the hall” comes from 1938 Cyril Connolly: enemies of promise on artists but it’s deeply focused only on the idea that only men can be artists (babies and wives are orthogonal to art)
  • A “quantifiable kind of monstrousness — that of the artist who completes her work”
  • Extensive writing about motherhood and artistry (Gertrude Stein ; Doris Lessing), compares that to the monstrous men
  • Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon: the difficulty in writing is “knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel”
  • Sei Shonagon in Pillow Book notes that Mortimer Adele’s 1990 list of 511 books had only 4 by women and none were mothers
  • Martha Gellhorn, the third wife of Hemingway, argued that the great artist needn’t be a monster but rather monsters can only hide behind art: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”
  • But are all ambitious artists monsters? Are all finishers monsters? (She notes finishing is what makes an artist and requires selfishness
  • If the male crime is rape, then female crime is failure to nurture
  • Doris Lessing in the Golden Notebook has Anna Wulf note her resentment against the unfairness that she has to worry about details as mother (the emotional labor); it is “the disease of women in our time”; “The unlucky ones, who do not know it is impersonal, turn it against their men”
  • Anne sexton and the protypical creative genius woman who may have been monster to her children (Doris Lessing?)
  • “Continuum of abandonment”
  • Doris Lessing the grass is singing : the lucky ones see it as impersonal , a system in change. The unlucky ones take it out in themselves and partners, think it’s personal.
  • Valerie Silonais SCUM manifesto men
  • The 2003 movie Monster is about a woman killing johns
  • Raymond Carver redemption story: started as a drunk deadbeat but overcome
  • Alcoholism: we are better than the worst thing we’ve done
  • But Carver’s second collection was heavily edited by Gordon Lish: whose work is it?
  • Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism: we put ethical and moral decisions on the individual consumer but we have little consumer impact. We should “accept the falsity of the spectacle” of whether streaming some artist matters — the bad celebrity implies there is a good celebrity but “celebrities are not agents of morality, they’re reproducible images”
  • “The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one. You’ll have to find some other way to accomplish that.”
  • Dave Hickey: 1995 interview: beautiful is socially constructed; beauty is what we feel involuntarily; beauty creates communities
  • Pearl Cleage’s Mad at Miles essay
  • Liebe zur kunst
  • What do we do with the art of monstrous men? What about what we do with the monstrous people we love
  • Mary Karr on memoir: the problem isn’t that your mother hit you with a brick, the problem is you still love her
  • We don’t love the deserving

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