In Monsters (Knopf, Apr.), book critic Dederer examines the complexities of loving art by problematic artists.
You write about your skepticism of supposedly “objective” viewers of art, could you elaborate on that?
I think that a lot of times when someone talks about an objective viewer or thinking of oneself as objective, what they really are is a subjective viewer whose subjectivity is invisible to them. In general, that tends to be a white male, for whom the idea that they’re actually a person who’s subject to history and experience gets lost.
Do you think that it’s possible to get outside of one’s subjectivity when consuming art?
Sure, anything’s possible, but I also think that coming to a work of art with an awareness of your own subjectivity, as in so many areas in life, is the key, more so than getting past it. In the case of criticism, you want to have a critic who’s passionate and emotional, and at the same time, you want critics to be able to see past their own limits and say to themselves, Well, I don’t like this book, but what would a person who likes this kind of book think of it?
What role do you think feelings should play in evaluating art?
The emotional response is the foremost response I’m interested in, and I think it’s the basis for all other kinds of responses, like evaluation and criticism. I think that if a work of art is meaningful and powerful, we have an emotional response to it. It’s just a matter of acknowledging that response. The emotion of the response doesn’t make us wrong. I think that there’s this weird conflation of objectivity with lack of emotion. And that’s a gender distinction, right? But if we’re looking for a sterile response to art, well, how good can the art be?
You look at some individuals that don’t usually come up in conversations about separating art from the artist, namely Doris Lessing and Joni Mitchell. Why did you decide to include them?
The motivating metaphor in the book is “the stain,” the idea that these are people whose biography touches everything about their work. For me, Doris Lessing and Joni Mitchell fell into that category of artists whose work I couldn’t shake free of their biography. From the minute I had the idea for this book, I wanted to explore this idea of female monstrosity, but the only person I could think of was Joan Crawford. I became really interested in this idea that for a woman, the greatest crime isn’t an act of violence, it’s an act of abandonment. It has to do with this idea that ultimately your job is to be a nurturer. What happens if you reject that in the most powerful way possible, which is to reject or leave a child?