“Because the finishing is the part that makes the artist. The artist must be monster enough not just to start the work, but to complete it. And to commit all the little savageries that lie in between.” – Claire Dederer from, “What Do We Do With The Art Of Monstrous Men?”, in The Paris Review
Dederer’s piece, “What Do We Do With The Art Of Monstrous Men?” has been making the rounds online:
Here’s the TL;DR version:
- Artists like Woody Allen and his ilk are monsters for what they’ve done to young women.
- How does one appreciate their work knowing what they’ve done?
- Audiences on social media publicly shame these guys because it makes them feel better about the monsters within themselves. They are able to say, “At least I’m not that guy over there.”
- But creating art takes a kind of selfishness, so does that make artists monsters?
- Does it make Dederer a monster, when she sets aside the work of motherhood to do the work of an artist?
Dederer uses Woody Allen as a primary example to this question, and I’ve never liked his work. I get bored watching his movies. I’ve always felt that his characters just like to hear themselves talk. So what if uses cinematic elements in brilliant ways? Why would that impress me, when his characters are so needy and self-involved?
And maybe I’ve never liked his work, because of who he is as a person. It takes a kind of insecurity, dysfunction, craving for power, and overall grossness to have an affair with your underage stepdaughter. Maybe those qualities make their way into his films, which is why they’re so distasteful to me. Works of art are laced with the personal lives of the artist and offers a glimpse into their world.
I know that I can’t appreciate Louis C.K.’S comedy as I once did. Now, it feels gross to be a spectator of his humor after the allegations made against him. I won’t be following his work – assuming he’s allowed to produce any shows – for some time, and that feels like the right thing to do.
It is so easy not to sexually harass someone. It is so easy not to rape, assault, or abuse women. Plenty of men do it every day, and they’ll do it again tomorrow. If you are an artist who can’t conduct yourself that way, perhaps someone needs to show you the exit. You’ve demonstrated that you cannot behave well around others, and you need to sort yourself out before you can be part of society again. That feels like the appropriate response to monstrous men.
And then there’s the other question that Dederer poses that is harder. Does being an artist make you a monster?
It takes a kind of selfishness to be an artist. Those of you at home who have an artist in your life, I bet you can name a few sacrifices that you’ve made for their sake: an hour here and an hour there watching the kids, being alone, missing them in social gatherings, bringing in a stable income, or just watching them space out and go to a different world that you have no access to. That is what Dederer means by “little savageries”. Even more horrifying sacrifice is the “pram in the hall” a specter for any writer who is also a mother.
Do those savageries make writers monsters?
Creating art is important, but it’s not a matter of life or death. Objectively speaking, societies will not crumble and nobody will perish if artists stop doing their work. Nobody needs artists the way they need doctors, farmers, and engineers.
That’s not to say that nothing good or worthwhile comes from art. I count myself among the multitudes of children who were raised in an unstable home and found safety in books. Without those books, I would have been lost.
Being a reader made me studious and curious. It made me an honor student and sent me to college. It gave me something to work for. Reading taught me how to imagine a life I could create on my own. Reading showed me the way to an escape hatch.
How could it be monstrous to create something that relieves people of such loneliness and suffering? Or brings them joy? Or sparks their curiosity? Or gives them new perspective? How could that possibly be a monstrous thing?
To Dederer I say, the fact that you are asking the question is your conscience telling you how to tame that monster and find that balance between art and life. Art is vital but so is life. You can leave the pram in the hall, but at some point it needs your attention.
As I navigate the balance of art and life, I believe it is a greater sin to have this gift of storytelling and not use it. At times my gifts have fallen victim to the monster of depression, a gangrenous rot that is it’s own kind of death. Depression is the monster I fear the most. Making art is not a monster. Making art is a fight for life.
I have other monsters, too. It takes enormous effort to not let them run amok. My days are filled with activities and mental tricks to tame them, and I know I am a better artist for it. I don’t allow the monsters any freedom. They demand too much energy. I’d much rather put that energy into my art, so I can show someone else the escape hatch.