The conviction this week of Bill Cosby brings, once again, the distinction between art and artist to the fore. Whereas it might be possible to look the other way for an artist that had problematic behavior at the level of “only unsubstantiated accusation” or a single incident once way in the past, Cosby’s history makes it clear that he was abusing from his first stand-up days, and throughout his film and TV career. It raises the question of how we view his media output in the light of this. For some, Cosby has made his media work a betrayal of the values that it conveyed. But for others? Does his behavior make his standup less funny? I grew up thinking his album “Wonderfulness” was one of the best, with routines like “Tonsils” and “Chicken Heart” memorized. There was none of his abusive behavior in those stories. Indeed, throughout much of his early standup, shows like “I Spy” and his various TV series (The Bill Cosby Show in the 1960s, Cosby, etc.) were mostly wholesome entertainment. How is that tainted by the abhorrent behavior of the artist? Or to put it bluntly: You’ve got the LPs, the CDs, the DVDs of those performances, although paid for. He makes no money whether you view them anymore. So what do you do with them? Is listening to them betrayal of your values or support of his behavior?
This, in essence, is the broader question of how we separate the art from the artist. It would be wonderful if all of our artist were good people (same for our politicians). If we enjoy their work, we want the artist to be good. But people are complicated, and art is complicated, and complicated people produce art with complications. Do we abandon the artistic output of people like Woody Allan, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski? Do we not listen to bands where the rock stars slept with underage groupies? Do we delay doing so until the artist is dead, or will no longer make money from us that they can use towards abuse?
It’s not an easy question.
Complicating this is the fact that in having abusive sexual behavior, the victim is not the only one who is screwed. Think of all the other innocent actors on Bill Cosby shows, who are now not earning residuals because of Cosby’s behavior. Think of the media companies that no longer make money, the writers that no longer get exposure. The people for whom their association with Cosby is now a stain on their resume. They didn’t ask for this. In penalizing the man, we hurt a larger community. [By the way, in saying this, I want to make clear that I don’t support his behavior or think we should look the other way. I’m only noting that his behavior hurts a far wider circle.]
It also raises the question of how we view art and artistic output in the #MeToo (and post-#MeToo era). Cosby has raised the question of good art from badly-behaving artists. But there’s also the question of the #MeToo lens. I’ve noted how our new environment has made me look at shows I watch and see differently — both for the good and bad. Some shows, like Steel Pier, resonate more post-#MeToo. Others are painful to watch because of the stereotypes they perpetuate or implicit privilege they capture (How To Succeed is an example of this, but far from the only one — perhaps Gone With The Wind is the best example). What do we do with this art, and how do we handle and reinterpret it. Do we need to explicitly express the historic context to enjoy it. Do we hide it away, embarrassed? Does art transform from good to bad because of its message?
Just as with people, art is complicated. Would there be simple answers?
I certainly don’t have them. But I see the conflict, I see the lens. I recognize the bad behavior of the artists, and (at least for some time) may set aside the artistic output. But I remain conflicted? What should I think when a song from Beyond the Sea with Keven Spacey comes on the iPod? To that end, what do I think about when I hear great music from artists that abused women? No easy answers.
I’m open to your thoughts. How are you dealing with the question of art and artists, in the post #MeToo era?