Claire Dederer has written a much-discussed essay for The Paris Review, “What We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” It’s a good question, and Dederer, a former film critic and author, focuses much of the essay on the difficulty of evaluating Woody Allen’s work in light of the Great Sexual Harassment Panic of 2017.
Specifically, there’s no getting around Allen’s celebrated film “Manhattan.” Allen’s character in the film dates a 17 year-old Mariel Hemingway, as if an older man having a sexual relationship with a teenager is a perfectly normal thing to do. It certainly doesn’t seem so normal when you consider that Allen later started dating, and eventually married, the adopted teenage daughter of his then-wife Mia Farrow.
Dederer’s essay is worth reading for the thoughtful and self-aware things she has to say. Specifically, the downfall of others is always an invitation to look inward at our own flaws. “Even in the midst of my righteous indignation when I b-tch about Woody and Soon-Yi, I know that, on some level, I’m not an entirely upstanding citizen myself,” she writes. However, Dederer’s essay also unintentionally reveals a great many troubling blind spots about the explicitly political nature of the relationship that liberal America has with popular entertainment.
The False Choice of Bad Habits Justifying Good Art
By way of a discursive explanation, there’s this Bill Hicks bit — he can be a creative, even brilliant comedian, but I used to like Hicks a lot more when I was in high school and immature enough to think that being transgressive and angry passed for funny — about how if you had a problem with drug use you should probably just burn your record collection because drug use was so inspirational for so many musicians. The explicit point here was to force acceptance of the idea drug use is a good thing to some extent.
However, I have ears. Anyone can do drugs. No one else besides John, Paul, George, Ringo could have made “Sgt. Pepper’s,” regardless of whatever altered states may have influenced it. I’m an avid vinyl collector, and let me assure you, for every “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “Dark Side of the Moon,” there are a million terrible, undisciplined recordings made in the ’60s and ’70s while the artists were high that were justified as artistically valid because they sounded “trippy.” And there’s the fact that drugs are also the reason Jimi Hendrix, among others, is no longer with us.
But I would also think the Hicks bit rang hollow because, despite my youthful dalliances in Hicks records and various other counterculture affections, I was raised in a religious household by a Marine colonel who fought commies in Vietnam. The Hicks argument is a fundamentally flawed, but brutally effective, counterculture bit of rhetoric that presents people with a false choice: Either you reject your parents and any inherited wisdom that might come with oppressive conventions you were born into, or you can embrace Total Individual Autonomy Free From Judgment Which Is The One True Path To Genius. Left unstated is that the embrace of Total Autonomy™ requires picking up at least as much, if not more, new political baggage as you are allegedly jettisoning.
Given this false dichotomy, the third and eminently more sane option is to evaluate art, and its connection with the artist to the extent necessary, on its own terms. You can put it in personal and other specific contexts, and be honest about how these things color your views while trying to make objective judgments. There’s even a word for this idealized process: “criticism.”
Why Liberals Can’t Do Art Criticism Any More
In art, as in life, anyone with a developed sense of morality has to confront situational examples and modeled behavior where people make mistakes and have tragic flaws, then make judgments separating the good behavior from the bad. Yet for 50 years popular entertainment has been a one-way cultural ratchet designed to make once damnable behavior more acceptable. Liberals haven’t wanted stimulating and provocative art that forces too much self-examination of their own actions. They want art that reinforces their mores, while simultaneously afflicting people who disagree with their politics, which are far too often indistinguishable from their artistic sensibilities. (A friend of mine has long joked that since Hollywood makes so few films that don’t appeal to liberal themes, “a conservative is someone who thinks Easy Rider had a happy ending.”)
Dederer is not wrong that “Manhattan” is shocking to watch, but she doesn’t began to wrestle with the most shocking thing about it: A movie about a grown man having sex with a teenager wasn’t shocking 40 years ago, and not only that, it was the height of “culture.” Allen and Hemingway were both nominated for Oscars, and the film won a Golden Globe for Best Drama.
Frankly acknowledging this might suggest that the liberals have endorsed ideas — e.g. oxymoronic notions of “sexual liberation” — that have been deeply harmful to women, all for the sake of knocking down obstacles to political power. I wonder how much betrayal Allen must feel now. He did his part to push a liberal sexual and political agenda, was celebrated for it, and now he’s being drummed out of polite society for enjoying the fruits of these efforts?
(Also, speaking of the surprise realization that older men having sex with teenagers is icky, well, maybe we should start tossing our record collections on the bonfire after all? Sex with teenage groupies was the droit du seigneur for three decades of rock stars. Remember when Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones married a 19-year-old he’d been seeing for years? Then he got divorced, and later his son married his ex-wife’s mother, making his ex-wife his granddaughter? And as long as we’re making filmmakers answer to a newly empowered sexual sensitivity apparat, what about Cameron Crowe? “Almost Famous” is the story of a bunch of drug-addled musicians having their way with vulnerable young women, and makes everyone feel good about it by turning them into a bunch of remarkably self-actualized manic pixie dream girls — even though the actual reality of ’70s rockstars and groupies involved all kinds of sexual unpleasantries up to and including shark rape.)
Maybe Some Self-Awareness Can Come Out of This
But the main theme undercutting this essay is the betrayal Dederer feels for having reached a point where she feels that she’s no longer free to assume that mainstream artists share her values. Gosh, that must be such an alienating feeling! Never mind how Dederer’s lifelong assumption that everything she enjoys is undergirded by a politically agreeable liberalism has made her critical faculties dull to the point that she’s just now confronting the fact that Allen’s witty urbane sophisticate shtick masks some pretty morally abhorrent ideas? Better late than never, I guess.
Just wait until people realize Allen has made not one but two movies that basically amount to troubling fantasies about getting away with murder. At first I thought the protagonist of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” achieving total psychic peace with himself was designed to shock the viewer’s conscience. But then Allen made “Match Point,” which is, thematically at least, a remarkably similar film, only this time it all has a decadent and glitzy British setting.
It’s about a man who feels no remorse after murdering a woman he’s having an affair with for refusing to get an abortion. If we ever find out Allen murdered someone in real life, the why-didn’t-we-see-this-coming thinkpieces are going to make the hand-wringing over “Manhattan” look like—forgive me here—child’s play.
While it’s not a universal truism, more often than not, bad morals make for bad art, and the unwillingness to say so produces even worse criticism. This is why for some time now, far and away the most interesting cultural observers have either been conservatives or liberals somewhat mugged by reality (Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, and Caitlin Flanagan all spring to mind). If well-intentioned liberals are suddenly willing to accept that art has consequences, well, maybe they should burn their collection of Paris Reviews and see how those people who don’t literally and figuratively live in “Manhattan” think for a change.