paintbrushes in a jar

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, a recent nonfiction book by Claire Dederer, is a rumination on the problem of bad people making great art.

But I should not write “bad people.” What I mean is “people who have done bad things.” Moreover, Dederer, throughout her book, expands this idea to “people who might or might not have done questionable things, depending on your perspective.” The book is a fabulous rumination on what’s morally good, what’s morally bad, what’s in between, and how we feel about the painters, musicians, writers, filmmakers, actors, and other artists we love.

At first she writes about clear cases of abuse, such as men who mistreated women and girls. She also writes about racists and anti-semites. Then she surprised me by writing about Nabokov, who merely wrote about a man who abused a girl. Then she turns to women who have done bad or questionable things, which, in contrast to men’s crimes, she realizes, usually means abandoning children. She even writes about her own alcoholism, which she says negatively affected her ability to be a good mother, and she writes about being a writer as a woman and mother.

Throughout it all, she writes about the greatness of the art that was created despite, or because of, these real, chaotic, and sometimes despicable lives.

Dederer does not come to a definitive conclusion about what our stance should be toward reprehensible artists. She admits that she will always love Roman Polanski’s films. In the end, she seems to hold her revulsion and adoration in separate buckets in her brain. Both are present. Both are important. There is no solution.

“What if criticism involves trusting our feelings—not just about the crime, which we deplore, but about the work we love.”

Do you love a great artist who did bad things?