Monday, October 12, 2015

Bill Cosby, and the challenge of separating the art from the artist

The child actors cast in the roles of Dr. "Cliff" Huxtable's progeny during the 1980s run of the Cosby Show are all now well into middle age. They have been weighing in regarding how (or not) the sex scandal involving the show's patriarch has affected the series' legacy. So far, their opinions are divided.

I will openly confess that during the early days of the scandal, I was among the many people who hoped that Bill Cosby would be ultimately exonerated.

I have a history with Cosby, you see. Bill Cosby's rise neatly paralleled my own childhood. In the 1970s I enjoyed his performance as the human host of the cartoon series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Cosby was then an already fatherly man in early middle age. During scheduled breaks in each episode, he would deliver poignant and pithy remarks about the lessons that the animated characters learned (or should have learned) throughout  various adventures and misadventures.

And of course, I watched the Cosby Show.

I was in the middle of high school when the Cosby Show premiered in 1984, and I had many other things on my mind: girls, track meets, and trying to keep my head above water in chemistry class.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I've never been much of a television addict. But the Cosby Show was one of a handful of sitcoms that I usually made time for. It was well written and peopled with engaging, fully human characters. These are among the reasons why it became one of the most highly rated series of the 1980s. Almost everyone who watched television watched the Cosby Show in those days. It is no bombast or exaggeration to declare that the show was a cultural icon of that decade.

Since this blog sometimes opines on matters of race and political correctness, it may be appropriate to make a few remarks about the racial aspects of the Cosby Show. That won't take long, because the show basically didn't contain any. Although the Huxtables were an African American family, the show rarely touched on racial themes at all, and never engaged in anything that could be fairly described as race baiting.

Likewise, millions of white viewers tuned into the Cosby Show each week, myself among them. But no one watched the Cosby Show in order to "show support for diversity" in the sanctimonious, self-conscious, and contrived manner of the present time.

The Cosby Show wasn't a "black show"; it wasn't a "white show". Decades before the term was coined, the Cosby Show embodied the best of what we might call "post-racial" American culture. It was an originally conceived and skillfully produced television sitcom. That is why it was so successful for so long.

But how should we feel about the Cosby Show given what we now know about Bill Cosby?

Anyone who consumes art in any form will occasionally be confronted by the need to separate the art from the artist. I've been reading and enjoying Stephen King's novels for more than thirty years; but my status as a diehard fan is occasionally challenged when I make the mistake of reading the author's political ramblings on Twitter.

Political opinions we don't like are one thing, of course; Bill Cosby's gross misconduct is another.

This leads to an important question that has implications far beyond the case of Bill Cosby: How closely should the work of an artist be associated with the artist himself, or herself?

Suppose that Bill Cosby had invented a new power window for automobiles, or a new electric can opener. In such a case, we would have little difficulty separating Cosby’s professional contributions from his personal failings. But because this is ‘art’ we are talking about, we tend to consider the work and its creator inseparable.

This would be a reasonable approach if Bill Cosby's public work had overtones of misogyny. But nothing could be further from the truth. The depiction of women on the Cosby Show was always respectful, even by the most exacting feminist standards. Relations between the sexes were, likewise, portrayed in a ‘family-friendly’ manner.

There is not a single clue in the content of the Cosby Show to suggest that the series' main creative force drugged women and had nonconsensual sexual relations with them in his private life. If anything, the Cosby Show seems, in retrospect, to have been Bill Cosby's expression of ideals that he recognized, yet fell tragically short of achieving.

Some observers will nevertheless ask why we shouldn't declare the Cosby Show tainted, before purging it to the dustbin of history and moving on. After all, the show went off the air nearly a quarter-century ago, and it had its heyday a half decade before that. This is hardly a topical bit of television.

The problem, rather, is a larger one of general principles: Bill Cosby is far from the only creative person with significant skeletons in his closet. Lewis Carroll indulged in the highly suspicious hobby of drawing and photographing young girls—often in the nude. At the height of middle age, Charles Dickens left his frumpy but faithful wife to cavort with Ellen Ternan, an actress young enough to be his daughter.

Three generations of conservatives have now made the reading of Atlas Shrugged a rite of passage; and many regard Ayn Rand as the supreme embodiment of self-detached objectivity.

But in yet another instance of middle age sexual folly, Ayn Rand engaged in an openly adulterous affair with one of her young male (married) acolytes. She conveniently managed to reconcile this behavior with her philosophy of Objectivism. Rand even found a way to celebrate her extramarital affair symbolically through the polyandry of Dagny Taggart, the main female character of Atlas Shrugged.

Do the above data mean that we shouldn't read Alice in Wonderland, David Copperfield, or Atlas Shrugged? These books were, after all, the works of artists who did Bad Things.

Not at all. But we would do well to remember that artists commonly fail to live up to the ideals expressed in their art.

Bill Cosby is now approaching eighty. Even had the scandal not broken, his professional career would likely have been over.

Similarly, The Cosby Show long ago joined the historical archives of television, along with I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island. The question is not how to watch it (almost no one does anymore) but how to remember it.

I would argue for a functional approach: The reputation of Bill Cosby may be forever sullied; but The Cosby Show remains an admirable, if idealized, depiction of family life and enlightened parenting.

In this regard, Bill Cosby had a constructive vision, even if he sometimes led a contemptible life.

We should remember Cosby’s work on its own merits, just as we do the work of other artists whose personal lives were marred by gross misbehavior.

We can condemn the artist, even as we appreciate the art.

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