The Art of Monstrous People

The solution to the monstrous men of art, Claire Dederer argues, is not to smash our idols but to avoid making them idols in the first place. (Note: I have added some remarks on this which can be read at the bottom of this post)


“Can I still listen to David Bowie?” That’s the question the essayist Claire Dederer hears over and over when speaking at colleges. Bowie had been a hero of Dederer’s own youth and of her adulthood, a musician whose strangeness reassured Dederer and her fellow misfits that “when we ourselves felt alien, we might take comfort in the idea that we lived among a secret race, our true family.” But after Bowie’s death in 2016, an as-told-to article in Thrillist resurfaced in which a groupie revealed that she had lost her virginity to the rock star at the age of 15. “All of a sudden, the bedroom door opens and there is Bowie in this fucking beautiful red and orange and yellow kimono,” the woman, Lori Mattix, recalled with wistful pleasure, but many contemporary readers didn’t see it that way.

Maybe a rock star deflowering an extremely willing groupie in the 1970s doesn’t seem particularly horrifying to you. (“Who wouldn’t want to lose their virginity to David Bowie?” Mattix said.) But when you believe an act to be wrong and regard the person committing it to be an avatar of yourself, it’s hard not to feel betrayed and even implicated in the misdeed—and wonder what that means for the art you once loved. The story left Dederer—and, apparently, a lot of college students—feeling “horrified and sad.” Were it some other, more conventional rocker of the period, that would be tolerable, but not “our guy.” Could they still listen to Bowie? How could they not?

Monsters: A Fans Dilemma is Dederer’s book-length exploration of those two questions, expanded from an essay she published in the Paris Review in 2017, “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” It wrestles with how she—as a reader, filmgoer, art lover, and audience member—negotiates the difference between her moral values and what she calls her “art love.” The book is tangled and fascinating, chasing down arguments and questions that can’t always be easily resolved. Dederer’s shrewd, vivid descriptions of movies and books suggest just how much they mean to her and how deeply any sacrifices on the altar of contemporary sexual ethics might cut….


NB: As a teacher I often come across students concerned about such issues. I also write detailed messages for them after a particular course is over, addressing problems arising out of their essays. Here is an extract from my notes dated April 2022:

Learning from others

Equally important is the question of how we evaluate thinkers, writers, artists, etc. Our moral judgment of historical personalities should not rule out our appreciation of their genius. Picasso’s Guernica doesn’t cease to be a great painting about war because of his reprehensible treatment of women. Suppose it was an anonymous painter, how would we look at it then? Hegel, Marx and Engels, all fathered children upon their housekeepers. The dismaying list includes Plato’s justification of slavery; Thomas Jefferson’s beliefs about inherent racial qualities; Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock; Nietzsche’s glorification of aristocratic cruelty; T.S. Eliot’s antisemitism; Gandhi’s experiments with celibacy in 1946; Chairman Mao’s imperial lifestyle; Subhas Bose’s alliance with the Axis Powers; etc. Hannah Arendt had questionable views on American race relations, and considered Heidegger’s Nazism to be an intellectual error.

The point is not to ignore the disagreeable ideas, nor the character flaws – sometimes terrible – of these persons, but to retain our capacity to assess their work notwithstanding all this. We can retain our adverse judgments, but such judgments ought not to be based on blind dismissal or prejudice. If we cannot do this, we shall be clothing all our intellectual work in a cloak of permanent outrage; because it is hard to find anyone untainted by human weakness and/or untouched by evil. We become incarnations of Robespierre, forever looking for the absence of virtue in others. Facts and values are always fused, but we differ as to what those values are and how they affect our judgment.

All this requires non-polemical conversation; and upholding the stance that rational debate about values is possible and necessary. We must take seriously the ideas of persons whom we do not like; or some of whose actions we disapprove. Humans are flawed beings. We know this, and wonder about perfection.

Our survival is explained in Margaret Mead’s definition of civilisation