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?