Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Art vs. artist: On Bill Cosby

There's an interesting thing you'll notice if you follow the conversation around celebrities who speak their minds politically - namely, how they are dismissed by their enemies.

Victoria Jackson spouts nonsense on TV about how Obama is a secret Muslim who's destroying America and almost certainly you'll find those on the left dismissing her by saying, "She's an unfunny actress who hasn't worked in 20 years."

Wil Wheaton expresses pro-gun control opinions on Twitter and his mentions fill up with Right Wingers whose most frequent comeback is some form of, "You're just some shitty actor, Wesley."

Ted Nugent implies he'd like to shoot Obama and Hillary, and you'll find no shortage of people who leap to call him an awful, no-talent musician.

And so on and so on.

It's weird that that's how so many people choose to engage with the mouthpiece of a view they don't like, rather than attacking the disagreeable view on its merits. It's like if Hitler said, "We must round up all the Jews, take their money and possessions, and exterminate them!" and the most frequent comeback he got was, "Oh yeah, well you have a bad haircut and your paintings are shitty, Addie!"

But for whatever reason, we conflate the art with the artist. If you want to attack the artist, the first target is the art, even if that product is neutral in the matter at hand. Where this gets interesting is when someone responsible for a beloved work runs afoul of public decency.

I wonder what would happen if universally beloved icons like Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg suddenly came out as card-carrying members of NAMBLA. Would we all suddenly have to denounce Jurassic Park and E.T? Would this instantly make Castaway and That Thing You Do "shitty movies?" Can you picture cinephiles declaring that Jaws "was never that great?"

More likely, the public at large would cling to whatever denial they could muster that Hanks and Spielberg weren't REALLY as evil as that declaration made them out to be. They made dozens of movie we all loved! Surely no one responsible for Forrest Gump or Close Encounters could be an evil man! As I'm making this argument, does it sound silly to you? Do you think you could still love these films, while not giving these men a free pass?

Which brings me to Bill Cosby. Over the past year, some 36 women have come forward with tales of being drugged and raped by the beloved comedian. Lest you think Bill had a busy 2014 and 2015, I'll note that many of these accusations date back decades, some as far back as the 1970s. Several of these woman had been speaking out for years, but their accounts fell on deaf ears. But then a funny thing happened - as a routine from comedian Hannibal Buress drags the accusations back into the limelight, other women come forward with their stories.

Not unexpectedly, the charges are met with skepticism. Surely these women are fame-seekers, or are just looking to get a quick payoff of hush money by going after a wealthy American icon and inspiration to black people everywhere. I don't doubt that some liars have threatened celebrities with false rape accusations, with intent to blackmail. The thing is, "hush money" is called that because it buys silence. Extortionists making utterly false claims probably aren't going to make public charges because the fear of exposure is the leverage they have against their target. A public accusation is a "shoot the hostage" move if all you're after is money.

On top of that, a lot of these women are credible, and few come across as fame-seekers. Sure, the fact that so many women seem to come forth at once might look fishy, but let's put that aside for a minute. Judd Apatow had a remark that really cut to the heart of it for me: "If even one of these accusations is true, he's a monster."

That's really all that needs to be said, isn't it?

Enough of these accusers have come forth with believable stories that I have zero problem believing that at least one out of these 36 is on the level. More specifically, I believe they all are.

This is the part where Cosby supporters usually scream "innocent until proven guilty" and note that he hasn't been convicted of any crime. The presumption of innocence is really only relevant in terms of the State's disposition to Mr. - excuse me - "Doctor" Cosby. You're allowed to render your own, non-legally binding judgements on someone. I can call him an "alleged rapist" and not he's not been convicted even while being certain that he did all of the acts in question.

But here's my problem - I really enjoyed The Cosby Show. (Or at least the first few seasons before its inevitable decline.) It's one of the most iconic sitcoms of all time. I've not been faced with a body of work that significant being tainted by association with the abuses of its actor. I knew Roman Polanski as a child rapist long before I ever saw any of his films. The creepy allegations surrounding Woody Allen were also mostly my introduction to the man. In both cases, it made me less reluctant to peruse the works of those gentlemen, knowing their failings.

I eventually gave in and watched Chinatown, largely because of how influential it was as a screenplay, but I can't bring myself to seek out Polanski's work otherwise. With Allen, knowing the older man/younger woman themes often infest his films has kept me clearly, largely because I doubt I'll be able to watch any of those movies without scanning the subtext for hints of his pathology.

So I've essentially dealt with the art vs. artist conflict by avoiding it altogether. But what do we do about The Cosby Show?

There's an understandable urge to not promote the work of a repugnant person. On that level, I understand the pulling of the show from syndication. However, considering the show's significance, it feels wrong to strike it from the record, as it were. But I don't think preserving the show's legacy requires defending "Doctor" Cosby's legacy either.

Is trying to support one without the other a case of me attempting to have my cake and eat it too? I hope not. It's going to be a long time before I can watch a Cosby rerun and not think of the rape accusations. But it should be possible to separate the art from the artist. After all, it's not like The Cosby Show was about drugging someone so it's easier to have sex with them against their will...

Oh dammit, there's that pesky subtext again.

In an ideal world, art and artist are two different entities. I should be able to laugh heartily at Cliff Huxtable while calling for Bill Cosby to be locked up for the horrors he's mostly likely responsible for, dating back to well before I was born. Condemn Cosby, celebrate The Cosby Show.

Celebrate Chinatown, tell Polanski to burn in hell.

Laugh at Naked Gun, scream "murderer" at O.J. Simpson.

Enjoy Victoria Jackson in UHF, make "cuckoo clock" noises during her Fox News appearances.

Can it really be that easy? The culture these people created is already part of the lexicon. It's fruitless to pretend we can put that toothpaste back in the tube. It's also equally naive to assume that by tearing down The Cosby Show, it's really hurting Bill Cosby in the way he deserves. If we collectively decided The Cosby Show was just a hack sitcom, would that do anything to help Cosby's victims?

And to flip that - no matter how much we enjoyed The Cosby Show, that pleasure doesn't mean we owe Bill Cosby anything. Don't let him use that as a shield. If this end to his career tarnishes his legacy, it's not a sign that we failed him. It means that he failed us.


  1. This mildly reminds me the controversy regarding Orson Scott Card prior to the Ender's Game film being released, where advocates of the LGBT community urged a boycott of the film based on Card's personal antagonistic views regarding homosexuality, that reflected his Mormon faith. This is especially controversial on Card's part, especially when the crux Ender's Game's game moral argument was how humanity was too quick to enact genocide (or in homosexuality's case, discrimination) against a race (lifestyle) we didn't bother to understand. As somebody who was raised in Card's faith until distancing myself from it during college until I "converted" to atheism, it's a certainly an amusing case where an artist's accolades can greatly be undermined by his actions or views.

  2. I'm not nostalgic about The Cosby Show, but I grew up on his standup albums and I really can't listen to them now, and that bothers me. It doesn't seem possible that NONE of the accusers is telling the truth, and as Apatow says, that's enough. The idea of the statute of limitations on rape is somewhat insane. I do wish justice could be found. But will I ever be able to listen to "Chicken Heart" again? I honestly don't know.

  3. I tend to agree with you. Look how many talented people and hard work went in to creating The Cosby Show. I can understand boycotting his stand up, but I don't agree with punishing the entire cast because of him.

    I feel the same way about the Duke's of Hazards.

  4. I agree with Madara. The Cosby Show wasn't solely Bill Cosby. Many people were involved with the writing, production, acting, etc. Their hard work shouldn't be ignored or punished because of Cosby's acts.

    The Dukes of Hazzard boycott is just inane.