Chloë Ashby

Should we judge a work by the character of its creator?

Does knowledge of the wrongs committed by Caravaggio, Picasso, Roman Polanski and other ‘monsters’ condition our response to their art, wonders Claire Dederer

Caravaggio’s self-portrait as Bacchus. The painter was often arrested for violence – but killing a man in a brawl meant permanent exile from Rome [Bridgeman Images]

‘Most of my heroes are monsters, unfortunately,’ Joni Mitchell once said, ‘and they are men.’ The singer-songwriter was able to detach the maker from the made. Should we do the same? Is it ethical? Even possible? These are the questions Claire Dederer deftly considers in Monsters, which puzzles through the problem of what we ought to do about great art by bad men.

Ideally, nothing. Early on in her quest, Dederer longs for someone to invent an online calculator:

The user would enter the name of an artist, whereupon the calculator would assess the heinousness of the crime versus the greatness of the art and spit out a verdict: you could or could not consume the work of this artist.

Alas, said calculator has yet to be programmed, so it’s down to her to do the maths.

Part biography of baddies, part examination of the audience (who, spoiler alert, aren’t always goodies), Monsters is divided into chapters that consider contributing factors such as the fan, critic and genius. First up, the seed of the book: the child rapist. It was while researching Roman Polanski for another writing project in 2014 that Dederer tried to solve the issue of admiring someone who had done a terrible thing (in Polanski’s case, rape a 13-year-old). ‘I wanted to be a virtuous consumer, a demonstrably good feminist, but at the same time I also wanted to be a citizen of the world of art.’

She started keeping a list of offenders: Caravaggio, Bill Cosby, Norman Mailer. ‘Add your own – add a new one every week, every day,’ she writes in characteristically chatty, candid prose. Monstrous men are nothing new, but after Trump’s Access Hollywood tape dropped in 2016, and the Weinstein story broke the following year, the #MeToo movement that had been simmering for a decade reached boiling point and there was a ‘collective rage-fest’.

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