Dederer quotes the poet William Empson early on: “Life is to sustain oneself between contradictions that analysis cannot resolve.” If the artist involved here has no problems to resolve, the author does show the evolution of her own responses.
After all, our relationship to art has changed over time, and perhaps the finest chapter of original literary criticism is Deedler’s reading of Nabokov lolita – First as a 13-year-old girl, then again in middle age. She was shocked as a teenager; her mature reading is a powerful vindication of the purview of art, including the darkest corners of human experience. Dederer describes the author as an “anti-monster”—a novelist who risks being tainted by association, writing so convincingly in the voice of a monster to expose the ordinariness beneath the illusion of Humbert’s exceptionalism.
It can work in other ways too.Revisiting Woody Allen’s manhattan In the #MeToo era, Dederer couldn’t ignore the director’s masterful, self-blame comedy’s failure on one theme: older men having sex with teenage girls.
Excusing the artist by pointing to a different era and social mores would be overlooked in some cases. Richard Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism – as he puts it, “despite our bewilderment with liberalism, there is a distaste within us” – is absurd when written, although it not only Foreshadowed Hitler and Nazis, but (if you read “liberal dazzled” as “politically correct”) today’s Trump rhetoric.
So much progress. Dederer believes that isolating the “past” from the present, and indeed using the word “monster,” is a defense that separates us from the worst things about humanity. This should give us pause before jumping on the bandwagon of public condemnation.
What about the woman?
In Dederer’s view, terrible female artists are not sex offenders but traitors to gender expectations. Mothers who abandon their children to pursue careers (Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Joni Mitchell) or who are violent against themselves or their children (Anne Sexton, Sylvia Pu Russ).The scariest of Cyril Connolly’s so-called “enemies of promise” — “the pram in the hall” — looms large for women, and in Jenny Offill’s )’s work captures the illusion of dismantling it Speculation: “My plan was never to marry. I had planned to be an art monster. Women almost never become art monsters, because art monsters care only about art and never about worldly things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his Umbrella. Vera licked his stamp for him.”
In the end, whether a work of art is damaged by the artist’s actions—or not—is an emotional question, not an ethical one. Dederer claims that a personal calculation is required between someone’s love for a work of art, their own life experiences, and the artist’s biography.
As for boycotting artists? That’s not as important as you might think, argues Dederer.
Individuals do not have the power to change the immoral system of consumerism through consumer choice. Collective moral responsibility cannot be effectively outsourced to individual decisions about what to buy. Not watching Polanski movies won’t stop a child from being raped… pretending it’s a distraction from meaningful change.
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