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“One doesn’t need psychoanalysis to know that a human being is a an ambiguous animal, that one cannot root the evil out of him or her, or simplify them to the point that they would be no more than a positive and rational being. Yet, it’s upon this improbability that the ideologies rest. It’s necessary to have adversity, incompatibilities, antagonisms, things that are irreconcilable, at the risk that the most sordid passions might be revealed.”
—Jean Baudrillard (from The Violence of Indifference)
Art is a monstrous act. If by monstrous we mean ugly, frightening, and even repellent. It’s a vicious business making art because it requires looking at the entire spectrum of humanity. Creating art of any substance, any value at all to society means that the artist has to wade through the cesspool of humanity and attempt to reflect something back at us that gives us our humanity. Sometimes the separation between the ugliness of the art-making and the ugliness of the artist is slim if non-existent. Some artists need only look inside themselves to uncover all that is tragic, mean, violent, and repugnant in humans. We like to conceal both of these ideas, that humanity has a terrible nature and that an artist who deepens our understanding of this so that we perhaps find an ounce of empathy, might also be inherently awful in their own nature. Life is difficult for most of us, and we tend to want creativity to provide a reprieve from the daily depravities and degradations of this world, even if that is not what we need.
We are at a crossroads, facing the monster and we are void of guidance from our art. Our civilization has achieved real apocalyptic capacity, and we seem genuinely surprised by it. Our decades of avoiding the hard confrontation with our dark nature, which was growing ever more dismal by the moment have led us right up to the edge of annihilation. With few exceptions, the artists who hold stature today are empty of ideas and have little time for revealing any truths about ourselves. Instead, postmodern art indulges in mimesis ad nauseam which evades the duty of art. Andy Warhol’s art began as either a naive joke or a profoundly cynical gesture, or perhaps even both, and it has led us down a rabbit hole of solipsistic masturbation ever since. Onanism might be satisfying, but it’s disconnected and ineffectual. Culturally we have traded cheap tricks for spiritual and intellectual discourse.
Claire Dederer’s recent essay in The Paris Review ponders questions of shame and responsibility on the part of the art consumer in light of the current (and ongoing) tragicomedy of male creatives. She begins by laying out a long list of famous men, some living, some dead as exemplars of what she calls “monsters.” Although I would argue that she is lumping together men who range from actual monsters (rapists, fascists, anti-semites) to those who are what I might refer to as distasteful and even repugnant (bullies, sexists, womanizers); the real meat of her essay lies in her own admissions, confusions, and questions regarding the way great art is created, and by whom, and if we need be complicit with the monstrous behavior of the male artist by accepting their art. Societal norms change with time and engaging with the art of a different period of time requires at least some context to be useful. Great art, on the other hand, is transcendent and carries with it ideas that touch upon the core of our humanness. The cave paintings of Lascaux move us today as much as I’m sure they were revelatory to the artists who created them over hundreds and even thousands of years. We have no idea, however, how those Neanderthals lived, what their societal structure was like or if they were ‘good hominids.’ We are only left with their art. Dederer worries she may not be monster enough to make great art or even good art, that her writing may suffer because she can’t emulate either due to biology or her lack of monstrousness, the quality that the men on her list were capable of. I think she is asking the wrong question.
A little over a week ago Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (1505) sold at auction for $450 million dollars. That sale reminds me of a scene from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men where the character Nigel is living in Battersea Power Station filled with masterpieces like Guernica while London and the world go to shit. The capitalization of art and the persistence of retaining market values for works of art outside of their cultural and historical timeline is now the norm. The only meaning left for art at the end of empire is in currency. Leonardo’s work continues to be coveted by aristocracy 500 years on, even if that aristocracy is a Russian oligarch. What this says though is not that the requirement for great art is a monster of a man, but rather market manipulation.
As horrific as the revelations about Bill Cosby have been we understand deep down inside those men like Cosby have existed for eons. They have been allowed to grow into monsters precisely because of where we now place our values. In 1972 when Cosby was emerging in the cultural zeitgeist with his revelatory Fat Albert there was little at stake for a comedian regarding wealth and power. But with success came money and money gave Cosby permission to let the monster out of the box. Money and position in America shield you from the rules, and we are complicit in that dynamic, so much so we have elected to the presidency the ultimate symbol of that empty gesture. By the time The Cosby Show was on television, we were already getting the condescension of a man who was overly praised and had too much money and leverage. If you watched The Cosby Show and didn’t feel you were paternally scolded all the time, I’m not sure what show you were watching. It was the beginning of a subtle and decades-long shift that moved creativity away from its inherent value as a cultural mirror into a value that is only represented monetarily. By 1984, when The Cosby Show was first aired, Reagan and his cronies had already dismantled union labor and killed the Fairness Doctrine. Publicly controlled and regulated airwaves were no longer there in the service of the public, but merely in the service of money. Cosby has been accused of sexual assault dating back to the 1960’s, but his assent to media power meant that he was a commodity himself and that investment needed to be shielded. Like the artificially inflated art market where postmodern trash is persisted as something extraordinary—I’m thinking about Jeff Koons here—other forms of artistic practice need to be protected as an investment, no matter how vile.
The question I was hoping Dederer would ask is ‘what is the power structure we are supporting in our society that allows men to remain monsters’? I could name a litany of artists who are kind, thoughtful, and humane, while also being well known. It’s the infrastructure we have built around our art that has diminished critical thinking and elevated decadence that is at the core of our current dilemma. The fact that women are coming forward, again, to reveal what monsters are hiding behind the curtain is less the revelation, than all of us being complicit in a system of neoliberal, late-Capitalism. How can we expect our artists to behave ethically when we have lost our empathy as a society? If we value things over experiences, then we are left with the vacuous culture we now have. The emperor not only walks naked but is thrusting his penis at the crowd like a sword, flaunting his power at the top of corrupt, decadent system. Is this power held by men? Absolutely. Are most of these men monstrous in their behavior, especially towards women? Yes. This blinds us to the real issue we should be considering, which is how did we end up with a society that allows the monstrous behavior to persist over decades?
The distraction that is being created by the media attention on the daily revelations of men who have misbehaved on a sliding scale of shitty to the criminal is causing us to avoid taking personal responsibility for the system that supports this behavior. There isn’t need to evaluate a monster’s art against their life because the truth of the matter is that most of the art isn’t that good. Woody Allen’s passive aggressive frame of women has been present since Casino Royale and Bananas. The reason that Annie Hall is such a great film is mainly due to Diane Keaton’s performance, not Allen’s writing. By the time you get to Blue Jasmine in the Allen canon, it becomes pretty clear that he sees women as terrible human beings that need paternal guidance to temper their craziness. Louis C.K.’s latest film looks like the bastard child of Lolita and Real Housewives, and his last standup special Live at the Comedy Store was at best weak. Another man, insulated from reality which was allowed to do things that no one in working class society could get away with. There have been historical examples of terrible men also producing great works of art, the most painful of which might be Ezra Pound.
I can understand how Dederer would internalize this question of “art monsters” because all artists of worth are filled with self-doubt. As the critic Robert Hughes once said, “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” Look for hubris in a man, and you’ll see weakness, and shame behind it. I also understand how women can feel trapped by their own biology. How can you make great art while you’re also nurturing a child? Is it monstrous to avoid having children as a woman? Is it necessary to produce great works? Dederer ponders this;
“My friend and I had done nothing more monstrous than expecting someone to mind our children while we finished our work. That’s not as bad as rape or even, say, forcing someone to watch while you jerk off into a potted plant. It might sound as though I’m conflating two things—male predators and female finishers—in a troubling way. And I am. Because when women do what needs to be done in order to write or make art, we sometimes feel monstrous. And others are quick to describe us that way.”
And therein lies the rub. Not only do we have a society that equates money with value but we have one that feels it necessary to repress women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community along the way.
When John Coltrane wrote A Love Supreme, he holed up in a room above his garage for two weeks and left his accomplished pianist wife, Alice Coltrane with their three small children. Does that make Coltrane a monster? If Alice was happily complicit in this arrangement, does it diminish his actions? We cannot know the interpersonal lives of others and their willing sacrifices. Were they both monsters when they left their small children behind to tour Japan as a quintet? These are difficult questions, but they are questions that fall into blurry spaces of ethics and art-making. As Dederer points out, it’s not the same as “forcing someone to watch while you jerk off.” I doubt that avoiding your children for two weeks remotely makes you a bad person, especially if the end result is a masterpiece. Where the lines get blurry is when you create art that imitates your own less-evolved behavior as it does with Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Louis C.K.’s standup routines. Personally, I have always found Manhattan creepy and the sentimentality a cloke for one man’s apparent need for teenage women to prop up his frail ego. It’s also no masterpiece, despite what Dederer’s male friends might say. We should be careful though to create an atmosphere of averting our gaze everytime we see something we find disgusting, abhorrent, or wrong. As Baudrillard said, it’s necessary for art to address and confront these things to remain meaningful. Our culture has already been stripped bare enough that we don’t want to push one step closer to more restricted speech. If a monstrous man (or woman) can create great art that speaks truth to power in our time, then we might have to deal with their monstrousness. Currently, that is not a problem we have.
I would argue we should reserve the term monster for those that it genuinely applies to, the Weinstein’s and Trumps of this world. Cosby is a monster. People who prey on others to their own ends and do violence to others are monsters. Everyone else falls on the scale somewhere between good citizens and repugnant assholes. Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey; repugnant assholes. Applying an appropriate critical frame is the first step in looking at our society. The second step is perhaps worrying less about the monsters themselves and more about changing a system that supports them. Yes, we should shine a light on monsters and frighten them from the security of their hiding places, but more importantly, we should take a close look at ourselves and wonder how it was they managed to stay, lurking in the darkness for so long. What I hope will come from the Weinstein horror show is more women in charge of Hollywood shaping our film culture. More great work produced by and starting women like Big Little Lies. I hope that Dederer worries less about being a monster or even being perceived one (she’s writing for The Paris Review right?). Her artistic perspective is to start with herself, share her experiences with the contradictions and conundrums that come with art-making and the men behind it, as an access point for the rest of us. We should all take a page from Dederer’s introspective voice because it is through self-awareness that we’ll be able to parse the monsters from their work, the mundane from the great.