art monsters -- 6/9/23

Today's selection -- from Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma by Claire Dederer. The author struggles with the legacy of Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Michael Jackson:
"I realized that for me, over the past few years of thinking about Polanski, thinking about Woody Allen, thinking about all these complicated men I loved, the word [monster] had come to take on a new meaning. It meant something more nuanced, and some­thing more elemental. It meant: someone whose behavior disrupts our ability to apprehend the work on its own terms.

"A monster, in my mind, was an artist who could not be sepa­rated from some dark aspect of his or her biography. (Maybe it works for light aspects too. Maybe there are golden monsters. But it seems very unlikely, or at best very rare.)

"These shortcomings of the word 'monster' were clarified to me one day when I was messaging with a historian and music critic friend about the Michael Jackson problem. He wrote (in a telegraphic message-language that seemed elegant to me):

i am currently trying to do the aesthetico-moral calculus thing re. MJ's music, like, is the Jackson 5 stuff okay? oh but then in a different sense that also involved child abuse or exploitation too -- michael himself. how about the 'don't stop til you get enough', 'rock with you' era -- surely he wasn't at it then? but does the stain work its way backwards through time? I expect in practice it'll be hard to resist the pull of the music when you hear it out and about. like with the Polanski films.

"This image of the stain immediately took hold of my brain (an especially poignant image in the context of Michael Jackson and the bleached anti-stain of his skin).

"The word 'monster' is like a suitcase packed full of rage­ -- the rage that gives rise to its utterance, the rage with which it is heard, whether by friend or foe of the monster in question. The stain is something else again. The stain is just plain sad. Indel­ibly sad.

"No one wants the stain to happen. It just does.

"I thought of the critic's note about Michael Jackson a couple weeks later, when I was eating breakfast at a diner and 'I Want You Back' by the Jackson 5 came on. I bopped a little on my stool, I couldn't help it. It was exactly as my critic friend had said -- ­I found it hard to resist the pull of the music, borne on the air. And yet the moment was ruined too. I was placidly forking hash browns and all the while feeling like something terrible was (sort of) happening.

"That's how the stain works. The biography colors the song, which colors the sunny moment of the diner. We don't decide that coloration is going to happen. We don't get to make deci­sions about the stain. 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.

"The tainting of the work is less a question of philosophical decision-making than it is a question of pragmatism, or plain reality. That's why the stain makes such a powerful metaphor: its suddenness, its permanence, and above all its inexorable real­ness. The stain is simply something that happens. The stain is not a choice. The stain is not a decision we make.

"Indelibility is not voluntary.

"When someone says we ought to separate the art from the artist, they're saying: Remove the stain. Let the work be unstained. But that's not how stains work.

"We watch the glass fall to the floor; we don't get to decide whether the wine will spread across the carpet. 

"The stain begins with an act, a moment in time, but then it travels from that moment, like a tea bag steeping in water, coloring the entire life. It works its way forward and backward in time. The principle of retroactivity means that if you've done something sufficiently asshole-like, it follows that you were an asshole all along. This cool-sounding formula codifies what I have hotly lived. My own life has shown me that a current moment can remake the past anew, can imbue the past with new truth. A woman says what happened to her, an abuse is revealed, and the stain travels backward, affecting and defining the per­petrator not just at the time of the abuse, and not just after the abuse, but before he committed the crime. Our knowledge of the crime affects the person he was all along. The knowledge is a time traveler -- because our idea of that person is affected by our new knowledge.

"Strange idiosyncratic personal rules arise from such knowledge -- I personally have a much easier time watching films that Polanski made before he raped Samantha Gailey. And yet, at the same time, Polanski -- predator, rapist -- collapses into Polanski, preternaturally talented Polish art student, wunderkind, Holocaust survivor. When we stream Knife in the Water, we wish we could give our few dollars to that blameless young Polanski. We wonder: how can we bypass this terrible old criminal? We can't. We can't even bypass our knowledge of what he's done. We can't bypass the stain. It colors the life and the work.

"Does the stain go so far that it touches the child who will become the monster? And what about that child's own experi­ence of having things done to him? As my critic friend pointed out, the child MJ grew up in an exploitative milieu. That exploi­tation travels through time too -- travels forward. We call it cau­sality. We yearn for a reason behind the terrible acts of men, and we rest in the explanation. We tell ourselves: MJ's crime grew out of his exploitative childhood; Polanski's crime grew out of his survival of the Holocaust and the grisly murder of his wife; R. Kelly's crime grew out of his own (probable) childhood sexual abuse. In this way we explain the monstrousness.
"In any case, we're left, like it or not, with the stained work. The deed colors all it touches. (And at the same time, 'I Want You Back' sounds as good as it ever did.) None of us want to know the things about Michael Jackson that we know. We wanted to keep loving him. When the Leaving Neverland documentary came out, no one really even wanted to watch it. It was a dreary task we thought we ought to do. We felt we should witness the survivors and their stories."



Claire Dederer


Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2023 by Claire Dederer


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