Bill Cosby and Bill Cosby’s Art

The spectacle of Bill Cosby imploding across the American skyline is a sad and dreary sight. It’s no shooting star, that’s for sure. It’s more like a radioactive barrel of garbage, flaming down through the concrete highrises of Hollywood.

Cosby’s treatment of women over the decades, if true (and it certainly looks like it’s more than true with the multitude of accusers and painfully specific detail), is reprehensible, evil, and without excuse.

However, the situation brings into focus an old question: is the art separate from the artist? Can we still enjoy Cosby’s art (his sitcoms, standup, etc), despite his despicable actions?

Many people are returning tickets to his shows these days. Networks are canceling reruns of the Cosby Show. It’s clear that sentiment is on the side of not separating Cosby art from Cosby the artist.

But, is that logical?

Many artists down through history were reprobates, villains, loathsome creatures. Richard Wagner, the composer, is often cited as an example of a foul individual (given his views on races and master races), despite the beauty of his music. Should we not listen to his operas because of who he was as a person?

George Bernard Shaw, the fantastically talented writer who, among other works, wrote the play Pygmalion (remade into My Fair Lady, for those fond of Audrey Hepburn). But Shaw was also an ardent defender of Stalin and an enthusiastic supporter of eugenics. He believed that the less desirable portions of the human population should be culled out. Shaw considered poison gas an admirable solution for mass killing. Shaw, obviously, was a monster of a human. Does that mean we should stop reading Pygmalion and stop watching Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle?

Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood figures investigated in the 1940s by Congress for Communist connections. By his own admittance, Trumbo was a dedicated Communist. For some people, myself included, such a philosophy is highly distasteful, particularly in light of the fact that Trumbo was a Communist during the Stalin era, a time of brutal repression and mass murder in the USSR. Despite being such a worm and an apologist for a bloody dictator, Trumbo also wrote some fantastic screenplays, among them Leon Uris’ Exodus, Spartacus, and Roman Holiday.

Roman Holiday! Who doesn’t love Roman Holiday? Never before has film seen such a heart-wrenching romance. Two hours with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Rome contains more bittersweet fire than a thousand Nicholas Sparks movies.

So, back to the original question: can one still enjoy Cosby art, despite Cosby the artist?

6 thoughts on “Bill Cosby and Bill Cosby’s Art”

  1. I don’t really have a position on whether one should or shouldn’t attempt to separate the art from the artist.

    A couple of things I do believe though:

    Some art takes on a whole new (positive or negative) aspect when approached with a bit of knowledge about the artist.

    It’s a lot easier to separate the art from the artist when said artist is long dead and/or you know little to nothing about them. Or when the impact of the artist’s deeds or misdeeds is emotionally remote from the person encountering that art.

    Said person does not “owe” it to the artist to judge the art on its own or any other terms. And they most certainly don’t owe anything to the work itself. I find that attitude particularly baffling.

    Likewise, neither do they owe it to anyone to dismiss an artist’s work because that artist’s actions or beliefs were criminal or offensive.

    Lastly, it’s awkward to talk about “art” in the abstract as opposed to some specific medium. 🙂

    1. True. The different mediums certainly have a profound bearing on the discussion. Sculpture versus story, for example. It would be difficult to wring as much meaning and emotion out of a sculpture as it would out of a story. That said, a story has the potential to be much more dangerous (or uplifting, conversely) than a sculpture.

      Your point about emotional remoteness is a good one. Cosby is much more emotionally close to me than George Bernard Shaw. I admire both of their work. Cosby is a comic genius, and Shaw’s Pygmalion is a stunning play. However, that emotional remoteness angle really does have quite an effect. I find myself not thinking that seriously about Shaw’s ghastly opinions on euthanizing entire populations of less desirable people; whereas, the spectacle of Cosby’s grizzled face in the news is much more disturbing to me. Time has a dampening effect?

      At any rate, I’m still haven’t figured out my position on the issue as well. Interesting and troubling topic, but I find myself unable to come down squarely on one side.

      1. Re. this: “It would be difficult to wring as much meaning and emotion out of a sculpture as it would out of a story.” Next time you’re up San Francisco way, stop in at Stanford and take a look at Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais”. If you spend as much time with that sculpture as you would with a short story, I’ll bet you’ll feel as gut-punched as if you’d just been told a story. But then again, maybe not – I guess different media speak to different people. Tone-deaf folks probably don’t get any emotion from music.
        And that’s probably also why the Bill Cosby fiasco matters to you, but not so much to me – I barely know the man; certainly didn’t spend my childhood watching him deliver family-friendly entertainment, while to you, as an American, you “know” Cosby; he’s been a frequent visitor in your home and the homes of your friends during your growing years. Shaw, by comparison, is just a distant great-great-uncle whose sepia picture hangs on the wall.

        1. I love Rodin’s work. Always have, ever since I got into sculpting iron, way back in almost forgotten chapter of my life. The elongated delicacy of his forms seems to speak of life’s fragility, in combination with the durability of medium: man is like grass, but, even though he’ll be gone soon, his mark is left for eternity.
          That said, I’d still argue that sculpture as a medium is much more limited in its language than story.
          Yeah, Cosby is pretty much an American thing.

  2. It’s a really interesting argument – what’s the role of the creator in the piece of art? In literary criticism, the New Critics of the 60s and 70s insisted that a piece of literature has to be looked at purely on its own merits; the author, time of its writing, reader’s response etc was completely irrelevant (so they said). We’ve long swung away from that and now acknowledge that the author is an integral part of the work and needs to be looked at.

    However, the *ad hominem* argument that says you now have to shun Cosby’s shows because you know his morals are objectionable also goes the other way; it’s largely responsible for the fact that mediocre to poor art (of any medium) which wouldn’t make it on the secular market can make money on the religious scene because “The author is a Christian!” Which is, really, falling off the horse on the other side.

    1. Excellent point about Christian art. That deliberate blindness makes me shudder. I suppose, now that I consider it more, I would fall more on the side that the art stands alone. But not completely. Trees, for example, have much more meaning if taken within the Larger Context.

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