It’s Okay to Like Good Art by Bad People
Art transcends the artist.
Listen to this article
Listen to more stories on curio
In 1895, the popular satirist and dandy Oscar Wilde was tried and sentenced to a prison term, with hard labor, for “gross indecency,” meaning sexual acts with men. The ordeal effectively ended his career, shortened his life, and made his name synonymous with depravity for at least a generation. The young Katherine Mansfield, struggling with her alarming attraction to women, wrote to a friend in 1909 that thinking about Wilde had led to “fits of madness” like those that drove him to “his ruin and his mental decay.”
More than a century later, Wilde is a canonical figure, the preeminent wit of Victorian literature and the beau ideal of the queer aesthetic—campy, ironic, a gender-boundary provocateur. To most of his contemporaries, Wilde wound up being a monster. To us, he’s an icon. But if he were held to today’s standards of appropriate sexual behavior, homosexual or heterosexual, he’d be a monster again. Wilde didn’t just sleep with men. He slept with “rent boys” (male prostitutes) and teenage boys picked up for brief trysts.
As far as I know, no one has demanded that high-school students stop putting on The Importance of Being Earnest. This unconcern is a little odd. Other artists—Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Plácido Domingo—have come under moral scrutiny and been declared beyond the pale or at least seriously suspect. Why is Wilde exempt? Because he’s dead? That can’t entirely explain it. After all, the painter Paul Gauguin, who had sex with the teenage girls he used as models during his time in Tahiti, has recently been the object of a major critical reassessment. Is Wilde exempt because his droll quips are still quite devastating, and still hit their targets? Anyone taking on Wilde would have to be willing to come off as one of the sanctimonious buffoons he made fun of. But above all, I think, he’s spared because he represents—indeed, was a martyr to—one of the great causes of our time, which is LGBTQ rights.
I bring up Wilde not to damage his reputation all over again—I love him too—but to suggest that punishment for wayward artists is being meted out erratically. No principles appear to guide who should be deemed unconscionable and penalized as such. “What ought we to do about great art made by bad men?” asks Claire Dederer, a critic and memoirist, in Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. The book, which grew out of an essay she published in The Paris Review in 2017, at the peak of the #MeToo movement, is the account of an art consumer (her) who would be virtuous without being philistine. It’s also the latest entry in a new meta-genre: the moral reckoning with the moral reckoning that is cancel culture. Other notable examples are the philosopher Erich Hatala Matthes’s encyclopedic Drawing the Line: What to Do With the Work of Immoral Artists From Museums to the Movies (2021) and the critic Laura Kipnis’s provocative, mournful 2020 essay, “Transgression, an Elegy,” in the journal Liberties.
Some readers may object to the phrase cancel culture. The progressive impulse is to deny that the phenomenon exists or to declare that, if it does, it’s not as dangerous as the right-wing, anti-“woke” version—and anyway, the canceled rarely stay canceled. Allen’s 50th film is currently in production. An exhibit of Gauguin’s portraits, critiquing his use of his Tahitian models, opened in 2019. J. K. Rowling, reviled for comments critical of transgender-rights policies, still sells books, and a new Harry Potter–related video game is doing very well. But to say that an artist hasn’t been canceled because she hasn’t been destroyed is to miss the point. To cancel is to do enduring reputational harm. Tarnished names and impugned works have a way of staying tarnished and impugned.
In Monsters, Dederer ventures into this minefield with a divided soul. On the one hand, she has no sympathy for the men being accused. “I have been a teenager predated by older men; I have been molested; I’ve been assaulted on the street,” she writes. “I don’t say this because it makes me special. I say it because it makes me non-special.” On the other hand, she believes in art. In a clever conceit that lets her avoid appearing to criticize anyone—quite a feat in a book on this topic—Dederer keeps the conversation inside her head: She pits Claire the critic, who doesn’t want to miss out on “the freedom and beauty and grandeur and strangeness of great art,” against Claire the woman, who would like to be a “demonstrably good feminist.” She asks the important questions. How do we weigh an artist’s accomplishment against his personal wickedness? “Do we believe genius gets special dispensation, a behavioral hall pass?” Should we draw clear distinctions between a transgressive work of art and behavioral transgressions, or would that be letting miscreants off too easy? To her credit, she skirts categorical answers.
No artist troubles Dederer as much as Roman Polanski, clearly her favorite auteur, who balances “the absoluteness of the monstrosity” in life and “the absoluteness of the genius” in his filmmaking:
Polanski made Chinatown, often called one of the greatest films of all time.
Polanski drugged and anally raped thirteen-year-old Samantha Gailey.
There the facts sit, unreconcilable.
How would I maintain myself between these contradictions?
Eventually, Dederer makes her way to the view that, in the case of Polanski, she’ll just have to learn to live in a state of cognitive dissonance: “Polanski’s work still called to me.” Like the good critic she is—her interpretation of Lolita as an attack on the seduction of young girls rather than a defense of it is subtle and adroit—she is drawn to paradox.
That Polanski’s movies don’t try to justify pedophilia surely helps Dederer accept his contradictions. Allen is another story. Dederer, a longtime fan, used to agree with the “dominant opinion” that Manhattan (1979) is Allen’s best film. Then she watched it again a few years ago. The movie features a romantic relationship between a middle-aged protagonist, Isaac (played by Allen), and a 17-year-old girl, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). On this recent viewing, she can’t put Allen’s affair with 21-year-old Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his then-partner, Mia Farrow, out of her mind, and she finds the movie creepy. How could she not have registered Isaac’s sinister nonchalance when he introduces Tracy to his friends at dinner, and their strange nonresponse?
She thinks that perhaps, as an up-and-coming film critic, she’d been too eager to be seen as sophisticated, as the cool girl, so she had suppressed her ambivalence: “I mistrusted and didn’t believe in the central relationship—it seemed to me that the whole film was built on a lie or a fantasy—but I didn’t have the words to say that.” She finds them now. Isaac is “fucking that high schooler with what my mother would call a hey-nonny-nonny,” she writes. Me, I’ve always wondered whether the apparent indifference to the age gap in that scene was meant as a joke (for one thing, Tracy seems more mature than Isaac), but Dederer construes it as an attempted “artistic grooming of the audience”—Allen trying to get us to agree that sleeping with much younger women is no big deal.
Dederer’s reinterpretation can’t be reduced to #MeToo-ism, even if it was prompted by the movement. It’s more interesting than that. She is giving a vivid description of a universal experience. We don’t come to the movies as blank slates; we bring ourselves and our history. And with the advent of social media, we can’t escape knowing about artists’ alleged misdeeds, however long ago they are said to have happened. Biography “falls on your head all day long,” Dederer observes. “We don’t know the real story” behind the allegations, which Allen denies, that he molested his 7-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, she writes, “and we might never know.” She dwells, though, on “the fucking of Soon-Yi,” in her bitter phrase, because she herself grew up with her mother’s boyfriend and loves him like a parent. That such a man would come on to a young woman like the one she had been strikes Dederer as an unthinkable breach of trust. Giving herself permission to mix in this subjective and emotional reaction, as opposed to striving for a purely objective and rational one, is a liberation; after all, her response to Manhattan and Isaac and Tracy was always going to be personal. “I’m just acknowledging the realities of the situation,” Dederer writes.
The film Manhattan is disrupted by our knowledge of Soon-Yi; but it’s also myopic and limited in its own right; and it’s also got a lot of things about it that are pretty great … Simply being told that Allen’s history shouldn’t matter doesn’t achieve the objective of making it not matter.
Making it not matter is precisely what Dederer and I were both taught in college to do (I’m a few years older than she is). Don’t commit the biographical fallacy, her professors told her: “The work exists in an ideal state (ahistorical, alpine, snowy, pure).” I read the Russian formalists, whose subject was the workings of literary language, as well as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. The author was dead; long live the text that stands on its own! The genius whose name was on the work might be louche, but who cared? He (and it was usually a he) had nothing to do with the free play of meaning.
Only after I graduated did deconstruction morph into new historicism and feminist postcolonialism, which sneaked the author back into the classroom by focusing on the particular circumstances in which the work was written. Morality returned too: Now you studied literature to decode the problematic social and sexual relations encrypted in the text. Dederer doesn’t mention these theorists by name, but she asks their question about a critical approach that failed to address itself to the operations of power: Cui bono? Who benefits from keeping biography and history away from art? And she echoes one of their answers: “The winners of history (men) (so far).”
I’m not quite as enthused as Dederer is about the politicization of interpretation. We’re at the point when we could use a little more of the art-for-art’s-sake spirit; could let ourselves luxuriate in sensuality, beauty, and form; should offer more resistance to the pressure to find and deliver socially useful messages. I look back with a certain chagrin at how, as a young critic, I delighted in bucking my high-minded education by hunting down traces of a writer’s mixed motives, bad faith, petty and not so petty obfuscations in his writing. I took hubristic pride in my gotcha criticism and my eagle eye. But what used to feel subversive now feels like an imperative: Either scan the text for signs of immorality or be suspected of reactionary tendencies. You were hoping for aesthetic transport? Back to the consciousness-raising session with you!
Dederer doesn’t want to be a killjoy, but she also doesn’t want to ignore the plights of vulnerable and abused people. There are many ways to signal your disapproval of a blameworthy artist. At a minimum, you can avoid his art; that way you don’t give him financial support, if he’s alive, and in any case don’t appear to your friends to sanction his wrongdoing. The maximalist course is to rally others to a general boycott. Dederer considers cancellation performative at best and dictatorial at worst. “Can I still listen to David Bowie?” is a plaintive query that she says she hears a lot when she speaks on college campuses. She feels the students’ pain: “I was a weird teenager; David Bowie was the patron saint of weird kids.” But when he died, the news spread that he had allegedly slept with a 15-year-old groupie, taking her virginity. And so the fans are bereft. They’ve been betrayed. “This is a book about broken hearts,” Dederer says. Had it been Led Zeppelin, Mötley Crüe, Aerosmith, they would have expected no better from them, Dederer says. “But not our guy.”
The thing is, no one wants to give up their guy. Dederer thinks the students were upset because they felt betrayed by Bowie’s misconduct. She doesn’t say this, exactly, but I think something in them was also balking at the presumption—automatic on their part—that they had to delete him from their playlists. When you have to punish the one you love, you just don’t want to. You could call that hypocrisy; I call it sanity, because maybe punishment isn’t the way to go.
When our guy is the target, what also becomes apparent is that the retributive process is ugly. If we must incorporate a prescriptive morality into our reception of art, at least let it rest on epistemological rigor—on doing our due diligence. Twitter hordes all too often demand that we repudiate our idols in an instant, without second thoughts, before the murk of rumor and uncertainty has been cleared up and contexts understood. Have we paused to examine the evidence? And even if guilt has been established, behavioral norms are changing fast. Maybe we should be less dogmatic about our operative definitions of right and wrong.
Given her visceral aversion to overreach, I find it surprising that Dederer often fails to question assumptions of culpability. She tells the story of a queer punk duo, PWR BTTM, whose passionate fans (many of them in the LGBTQ community) turned on the pair after one of the musicians was accused of sexual misconduct. Their anger “was rapid, bitter, and heartfelt,” Dederer writes. “How could they listen to this beloved music when they felt betrayed by its maker? The songs were soured, or stained.”
Dederer’s account of the incident is pretty cryptic, though, so I looked into it. On May 11, 2017, just as PWR BTTM’s second album was coming out, a person wrote a Facebook post accusing one band member of predatory behavior against others in the fan community; an anonymous first-person account in Jezebel followed, alleging that sexual encounters that had occurred the year before qualified, in retrospect, as sexual assault. By May 15, PWR BTTM’s record label had stopped distributing the new album; the duo’s management agency had dropped them; their upcoming tour had fallen apart; and their music had been removed from Amazon Music, Apple Music, and Spotify.
But did the band member do it? Dederer never says. She’s talking about the fans’ feelings, not about whether the feelings are based on fact. The accused musician apologized for any interactions with fans after shows that may have caused discomfort, and strongly contested the account in Jezebel, saying they understood those encounters to have been “fully consensual.” But the band broke up shortly afterward, so the complete backstory may never become public. Still, when disputed accusations by unnamed parties turn musicians from rising stars to personae non gratae in less than a week, you have to wonder who let PWR BTTM’s followers down, the accused or an industry in a panic.
Dederer takes a similar tack in describing J. K. Rowling’s vilification as a transphobe. You can see why she wouldn’t want to relitigate such an explosive indictment. But her focus on fan alienation, which entails adopting the progressive wisdom on trans issues, winds up seeming symptomatic of the problem: If artists’ political opinions are being deemed unacceptable, the grounds of that judgment surely deserve careful consideration; the verdict of the group shouldn’t simply hold sway.
An ethics that is casual about proof and doesn’t question the assumptions of the moment looks disturbingly like mob justice. Dederer grasps that the besmirching of an artist reflects the workings of a collective unconscious more than of enlightened opinion formation. The most resonant chapter in Monsters explores what she calls “the stain,” a thing that is “creeping, wine-dark, inevitable.” She borrows the term from the music critic Simon Reynolds, whom she messages to ask his opinion of Michael Jackson. How has his relationship with Jackson’s music changed in light of accusations that he sexually abused boys? He responds,
i am currently trying to do the aesthetico-moral calculus thing re. MJ’s music, like, is the Jackson 5 stuff okay? … does the stain work its way backwards through time?
Jackson was a child himself when he was in the Jackson 5, so presumably he wasn’t abusing any children then—in fact, Jackson later said he had been the victim of abuse by his harsh and domineering father. So why would we worry about listening to his early music? Dederer thinks we can’t help it. The spreading of the blotch “is not a choice,” she says. “It’s already too late. It touches everything. Our understanding of the work has taken on a new color, whether we like it or not.”
Dederer’s ultimate recommendation for dealing with immorality in artists is very sensible. We should engage with their art, not quash it, and work through our qualms at the same time. It’s a noble aspiration, but I suspect that the logic of the stain will defeat it. If hearsay about artists’ misdeeds or thought crimes is top of mind when we interact with their paintings, or prose, or poetry, or films, or music, that’s what we’ll look for and that’s what we’ll find traces of—or not, but that will have been our prism.
As it happens, Oscar Wilde isn’t just the rare genius whose questionable desires have somehow evaded contemporary censure. He was also a philosopher of art whose ideas may help us find a way out of our obsession with adjudicating artists’ conduct. Wilde was an aesthete, meaning not only that he responded deeply to art but also that he was a member of the late-19th-century Aesthetic movement—in fact, the most famous member of it. Aestheticist ideas about beauty emerged in vigorous opposition to the Victorian insistence that art be morally instructive. Aestheticism was a “battle-cry for artists and critics claiming freedom of artistic expression,” in the words of one historian. Art shouldn’t have to justify its existence. It is not required to be wholesome and uplifting. Nor should it be seen as expressing “the temper of its age, the spirit of its time, the moral and social conditions that surround it, and under whose influence it is produced,” Wilde wrote in his essay “The Decay of Lying.” Elsewhere, he wrote that art and ethics belong in “absolutely distinct and separate” spheres.
“All art is quite useless,” he declared in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. And again, in a lecture: It “has no meaning but its beauty, no message but its joy.” Any critic today who evinced such a haughtily apolitical view of life and art would probably annoy their more virtue-oriented readers. And yes, Wilde had a personal interest in cautioning against the encroachment of ethics on creative pursuits. In the libel trial that led to two criminal trials and, ultimately, Wilde’s conviction, lawyers offered the risqué Dorian Gray as proof of Wilde’s vicious character. I don’t believe you can separate his aestheticism or his buoyant writing from his role as a sexual nonconformist, and I think we should heed his warning about the consequences of a triumph of morality over art: “Art will become sterile, and Beauty will pass away from the land.”
This article appears in the May 2023 print edition with the headline “It’s Okay to Like Good Art by Bad People.”
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.