I find my seat in the dark and sit down. The stage is illuminated. It’s simple: a slice of quintessential, unassuming, upper-middle-class living, enclosed by three brick walls. Onto the stage walks fictional art historian and writer Kristin Miller. She’s just released her memoir, and her two adult sons are coming to celebrate, but there’s an issue. She neglected to mention them in her book, and her sons’ reactions bespeak real childhood neglect. Her son Peter asks at the end of Act I of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play Apologia, “Why did this woman have children if she wasn't prepared to do the job properly?” Clearly she skirted her familial responsibilities in favor of her work. Kristin was an important and revolutionary writer and activist, but I question, would the hypothetical audiences of her art be estranged if they found out about her broken family?
Recently I read something in a film studies book that made me chuckle. Nothing exists for the viewer except what you show him. It seems peculiar to think it that simple anymore. Rather than culminating in the Weinstein allegations and the #MeToo campaign, the conversation around genius or successful “monstrous men,” as writer Claire Dederer calls it, continues on, and so does the battle over to what extent we should contextualize art. But one additional uncertainty lingers from Apologia: how is she “monstrous”? Within the character of Kristin, and those who participate in real-world art creation, is a psychology that Dederer’s ideas help unravel.
In her essay “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?,” Claire Dederer considers the detrimental effect of artists’ actions on how audiences receive their art. She confrontationally begins the essay with a list of men’s names, “Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, William Burroughs, Richard Wagner, Sid Vicious … Phil Spector” (Dederer). These men committed a range of wrongdoings, from illegal to immoral, but Dederer only substantively explores two, Polanski being the first, “[I] found myself awed by his monstrousness. … Despite this knowledge, I was able to consume his work. Eager to.” Although she perceives that “in the public’s mind, man and work seem to be the same thing” (Dederer), her analysis is detached from this societal standard and is markedly personal; it is her perception of the man’s art, not the public’s that shapes her concerns. A tone-breaking, early, sectioned-off paragraph speaks to this essentiality in the individual perspective, “Who is this ‘we’ that’s always turning up in critical writing anyway? … We is make-believe. The real question is this: can I love the art but hate the artist? Can you?” (Dederer). According to Dederer, the audience deciding the moral boundaries of an artist is “you” and “I,” the individual, not “we.” The collective has no power, or rather, it doesn’t exist. Since no single person has access to the mind of all others, the individual is only capable of understanding themselves and can only speak with that level of authority.
When Dederer introduces the case of Woody Allen, her understanding of the particularity in moral judging becomes clearer. “I took the fucking of Soon-Yi as a terrible betrayal of me personally” (Dederer), she writes; this matters more to her than Polanski’s transgressions. Her reaction to Allen stems from a deep connection she feels, or felt, with Allen. Ever since she was a little girl, Dederer “felt closer to him than seems reasonable … to feel about a grown-up male filmmaker.” She “felt he belonged” to her, and her awareness of this bias shapes her personal-judgement argument, “My response wasn’t logical; it was emotional” (Dederer). When it comes to her revisiting Allen’s Manhattan, a 1979 film with a curiously apropos plot involving Allen’s character having a sexual relationship with a minor, Dederer’s emotional history with Allen informs her current perception. She acknowledges Manhattan has elements that would be troubling even without the context of Allen's sexual misconduct, “Allen is fascinated with moral shading, except when it comes to this particular issue—the issue of middle-aged men fucking teenage girls,” but the film becomes too disturbing and unwatchable with the knowledge of Woody Allen’s past. That is, it’s unwatchable for Dederer, not for the men who still champion the film, “I would have a repeat of this conversation with many men, smart and dumb, young and old, over the next months: ‘You must judge Manhattan on its aesthetics!’ they said” (Dederer). These men described by Dederer are making a noble, but ultimately futile, attempt at maintaining the independent integrity of art.
If he were alive, Howards End and A Room with a View author E. M. Forster would be in the mix of men in defense. At a meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, Forster delivered an address often referred to as “Art for Art’s Sake.” In it, he argues that while it is not only art that matters, “a work of art … is unique … because it is the only material object in the universe which may possess internal harmony” (Forster 3). Art—which he sees above other “categories that have laid claim to the possession of order” (Forster 4) since they are susceptible to corruption and inconsistencies—is the only provable holder of “order.” Within Forster’s evidence for art’s “internal order” lies his dialogue with Dederer’s moral question. He observes, “Ancient Athens made a mess–but the Antigone stands up. Renaissance Rome made a mess–but the ceiling of the Sistine got painted” (Forster 3). Art stands independent of world events, history, and societal failures, particularly when compared to other claimants of order which “have been pressed into shape from the outside, and when their mold is removed they collapse” (Forster 3). Forster sees all pieces of art as free-standing monoliths, immutable after creation. Dederer agrees at least in some cases—she says of Polanski’s films, “their beauty was another kind of monument, impervious to my knowledge of his iniquities”—but conclusions can be drawn from “Art for Art’s Sake” that are more in line with the opinions expressed by the aforementioned men in Dederer’s life. Since art historically has stood independent of historical events and hence possesses “order,” which Forster defines as “something evolved from within, not something imposed from without” (2), it is logically consistent to believe in the de-contextualizing of art from the artists that create it and the world that surrounds it.
While not denying art’s internal order, American essayist Cynthia Ozick sees Forster’s definition of order as an ideal rather than a reality. Forster in her eyes is a “public intellectual”—someone who uses the world’s stage to voice his opinions—with certain societal obligations, and by upholding an ideal, he is breaking that social contract. According to Ozick, “intellectuals” must voice the realities of societal issues and pressing world events. She writes, “the responsibility of intellectuals includes … the recognition that we cannot live above or apart from our own time” (Ozick 4). Forster didn’t fully acknowledge the woes of the world in 1941, “torn-up Europe dangling from German jaws” (Ozick 2), so his address and he as a “public intellectual” are failures. Ozick even calls it “callous” (3). Although, “Art for Art’s Sake” could be characterized as at least partially socially conscious. Forster said in 1949, “Even when the cause of humanity is lost, the possibility of aesthetic order will remain and it seems well to assert it at this moment” (via Ozick 3). “At this moment” is the key; he was in fact acknowledging the world in which his address was created, but for Ozick, what he asserts is not reality but an ideal, “It is not sufficient to have beautiful thoughts when the barbarians rage on” (4). Forster’s idealistic trust in the free-standing nature of art disappoints Ozick’s expectations. Mankind is failing, and a simple, limited, uncontextualized appreciation of a piece of art will not suffice.
Dederer isn’t thinking about large, historical world events, though. She is thinking about the artists. Following the general global trend from collectivism toward individualism, it isn’t an artist’s lack of acknowledgment of the outside world’s problems that troubles her but their actions. In a recent The New York Times interview with Jerry Seinfeld, when asked if he had “any objection to [Louis C.K.’s] coming back,” Seinfeld said, “Part of entertainment, sometimes, is the life of the person. We want that to entertain us, too, as part of the act… Somebody said it’s the first time that someone has misbehaved where all people ask about is, ‘How’s the perpetrator? How’s he doing?’” (Itzkoff) Maybe the world’s increased interconnectivity demands increased transparency and honesty, maybe an awareness of wrongdoing in the industry has made people rethink their entertainment consumption—either way, there is now a want for social and moral reliability in our artists. While Ozick was disappointed in the artist Forster for not sufficiently discussing the tragedies of his day, Dederer is concerned with how the artist Woody Allen’s actions affect the way she perceives his art.
Toward the end of “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?,” Dederer shifts the critical focal point away from the famous “monsters” onto herself. Dederer’s image of “monstrousness” is purely male and foreign to her existence as an artist—until she investigates the primary reason why we condemn others, “When you’re having a moral feeling, self-congratulation is never far behind. You are setting your emotion in a bed of ethical language, and you are admiring yourself doing it.” This search for self-approval is in response to what “the Victorians” represented in “the stark bifurcations of Dorian Gray, of Jekyll and Hyde” (Dederer), the “monstrousness” in all people, not just the men who Dederer listed. And it’s in art creation where the “monstrousness” is displayed, “The critic Walter Benjamin said: ‘At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism’” (Dederer). A writer and mother herself, Dederer focuses on the female authors with children section of the artistic community. The women, she writes, “wish to abandon the tasks of nurturing in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist” (Dederer). She clarifies, “Maybe, as a female writer, you don’t kill yourself, or abandon your children. But … when you finish a book, what lies littered on the ground are small broken things: broken dates, broken promises, broken engagements” (Dederer). It’s unexpected to possibly see “monstrousness” in a seemingly blameless group of artists, but that is exactly Dederer’s point: “monstrousness” can very easily take hold since “monstrousness” is selfishness, and selfishness is inherent in all art creation—“The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. … The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. … The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.”
Dederer takes this idea of “monstrousness” and selfishness much farther out into the reaches of the artistic landscape than many others would, but it’s still tempered, always attempting to appease the indignant, “That’s not as bad as rape.” However, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia clearly demonstrates the deep roots of selfishness in art creation. Kristin’s life—her nice kitchen, her good intentions, her saucy remarks—sets a seemingly faultless picture. But there is brokenness within the activist-artist’s household. “I have to tell you now that the thing I remember most about you is your absence” says Simon in Act II. “The little savageries,” what Dederer sees behind every piece of artwork, is genuine and profound. Selfishness touches all parts of the creative process.
No longer can lesser evils go unseen, not because of any alleged moral duties propagated by movements like #MeToo, but because the landscape of the public’s relationship with artists is becoming more and more interconnected. Twitter tells me when Kevin Spacey makes an apology the wrong way, Instagram shows me when a Kardashian advertises the wrong product, and all new media broadcasts the creative process to as many people as possible, as loudly as possible. And as we’ve seen, there is an inherent selfishness in all of it, from rape down to not going to your kids’ soccer game in favor of finishing a novel. The issue becomes at what point on the sliding scale of selfishness does “monstrousness” start? For the sake of our cultural enhancement and quality of life, we’d want the line to be as accepting as possible, but that’s a morally deviant answer and an unrealistic one. Hyper-awareness of an artist’s life doesn’t just give a wider view of wrongdoings but also increases the impact of those wrongdoings on one’s perception, however insubstantial the actions may have been. This direction we are headed, toward extreme intimacy with the details of our artists’ lives—and dependence upon those details for addition entertainment—indicates a trajectory toward the inherent selfishness in all art creation being condemned as “monstrousness,” and then how can we expect to enjoy any art? Forster is right when he says, “Works of art … are the only objects in the material universe to possess internal order” (4), but that makes it all the more tragic. Our perception of those beautiful things that stand separate from everything else is being tainted. I look back at my film studies book and no longer laugh. Nothing exists for the viewer except what you show him. That certainly would be nice, wouldn’t it?
Dederer, Claire. “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?”: www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/20/art-monstrous-men/
Forster, E. M. “Art for Art’s Sake”: harpers.org/archive/1949/08/art-for-arts-sake/
Itzkoff, Dave. “Jerry Seinfeld on Louis C.K., Roseanne and Tense Times in Comedy”: www.nytimes.com/2018/10/26/arts/television/jerry-seinfeld-interview.html
Ozick, Cynthia. “Public Intellectuals.”