Bill Cosby is over, for now. The Cosby Netflix special is postponed.The NBC Cosby-helmed show, slated for fall of next year, has been canceled. “I’m just going to call it,” wrote Lindy West at GQ.com. “Bill Cosby is done. There will be no comeback, there will be no damage control, there will be no prevailing core of true believers tipping public opinion back in his favor. It’s over.”
As the ill-fated #CosbyMeme illustrated, when people look at him, what they see has changed. It’s not Cliff Huxtable or Jello pudding pops. Not any more.
“[Cosby] believes his artistic legacy will absolve his criminal behavior,” writes Roxane Gay at The Butter. “It cannot. We have to say enough. We have to stop implicitly or explicitly supporting Cosby. We cannot justify our fondness for him any longer. We have to demand that his show be taken off the air. We have to stop supporting any of his endeavors. His art does not absolve him. Art is nothing compared to humanity, nothing at all.”
Bill Cosby’s done for, maybe. Probably. Certainly for now. What happens to Cliff Huxtable?
What becomes of the creations, when the artist goes rotten?
It’s more than just a question of being able to rewatch and laugh. It’s clear that some people may find that impossible now. And in the past several days, people have also been making cases for a reevaluation of Cosby’s artistic legacy on other terms than what he’s accused of.
But moving past the Cosby Show, this is going to happen again. This public dismantling of an artist is an increasingly familiar process. Remember Woody Allen? So what do we do next time? What is our responsibility as the people who have consumed what these flawed creators have made?
It’s a question that comes up every time someone who makes something that is powerful and beloved is revealed as (or powerfully alleged to be) less of a person than you hoped. This person who has made something that helped make you, you, who created something – a character, a movie, a song – that helped you become a human – is so much less than perfect that it sickens you. What now?
The humanity of artists is almost always disappointing. It can be a minor infraction – James Joyce was once rude to Marcel Proust in a taxicab – or it can be something as immense and horrible as what Cosby now stands accused of. Charles Schulz of Peanuts cheated on his wife. James Brown was abusive. Who knows exactly what Lewis Carroll or J. M. Barrie was up to? How about Michael Jackson? The list is almost impossibly long.
We know all these things, and on another level, we refuse to know them. It is hard to look these facts in the eye and still feel that flush of gratitude that you instinctively feel when someone has given you something you love. Because what these people made was so powerful, you expected that they would be great, too. They weren’t.
So what do you do about the work you love? What is your responsibility, in all this?
It used to be that we pilloried artists for crimes that were not crimes at all. If you were an atheist or a libertine, you had to leave England. You wrote against the King, and your newspaper was shuttered. Oscar Wilde, who believed art ought to stand on its own — “The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose,” Wilde wrote — was tried for “gross indecency.” His name was removed from theater marquees, but “The Importance of Being Earnest” kept playing. The artists suffered, but their works survived. “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read,” to borrow a W. H. Auden quip. And things got better.
Now, artists get pilloried for what seem pretty clearly to be the right reasons, when their actions as human beings have left people seriously hurt. We’ve gotten better, we hope, at realizing what constitutes real harm and what was just a pointless stigma better done away with.
But I think one of the things that helped us to do this was art. One of the many reasons for art is that it can make you better at being a human being. It can reflect your story through a new lens. It can push the borders of your compassion. It can expand the sphere of your experience to include someone else’s.
And consequently I’ve always believed that if we should be able to say: “The guy who made this is a despicable meatsack with no redeeming qualities. If I ever had to spend so much as an elevator ride in his company, I would set myself on fire. But what he made was beautiful and helped me to be a better human.” If we can’t, we’re going to be worse off. I have lines and lyrics and stories tattooed into my memory from people whose personal lives horrify me. From people who were anywhere from simply flawed to monsters, who nonetheless did something for the human race that was objectively a good thing, accumulating a thousand small mercies that built into something big. “That song saved my life.” “That book changed my life.” “That TV show taught me how to be.”
If this Cosby fiasco (and the ire over Woody Allen, and the ire over Roman Polanski) has taught us anything, it’s that artists should be punished as people. Creating something important shouldn’t keep you from being brought to justice. Part of the frustration with Cosby now is the sense that he was given special treatment for so long, that his celebrity allowed voices to be silenced that should have been given a fair hearing and a fair trial. What he’s accused of is awful. If the allegations are true, a man should be punished for a crime like that. Statute of limitations being taken into consideration, we can’t deal with this in the legal system, and so we try him in the court of public opinion and cloud his name in an ominous cloud and take out our ire on what he’s made.
It’s hard, admittedly, to separate the two. People and their works get knit together — are you talking about Bill Cosby or “Bill Cosby”? You can’t just hand someone money and say “Use this only to feed your imagination, and do not take it into your private life.” If only. Lines blur. The right to a pedestal granted to someone with a sitcom is different than the right to sit down with a keyboard in a room by yourself.
The Daily Beast has a rundown of other scumbags. The list includes people who have made incredibly wonderful things, things I shudder at the thought of not having. When do we say stop? When do we say ‘enough’? When do we say, no, we don’t want you to make things for us any more? When do we say, sorry, your despicable meatsack-ness has spoiled this thing for good?
I think a clear line is emerging. And that line is not quite where I thought it was. It’s not when people feel you’re a bad person who has wrecked lives that they stop accepting what you’ve made. It’s when people feel that because of your art or your celebrity, we’ve let you get away with it. That because you were so good at making something, we allowed you to wreck actual lives with seeming impunity.
And much of this does revolve around sexual assault. This kind of maker’s privilege has been afforded mostly to men, often to men who were cavalier or worse with female lives, men who threw ashtrays and tantrums and hit people but they were Geniuses so It Was Okay.
This kind of “yes, but I am a great man” immunity doesn’t fly any more. Now, if people feel that because of your work, you have not been held accountable for your behavior, they start to feel uncomfortable about your work. What was that laugh worth, in trauma? Was that crane shot really good enough to keep you from ever facing trial? We start to weigh art in ways you shouldn’t have to, because it’s impossible to make a calculus like that. It’s not commensurate with reality that way.
Ending this misguided immunity is progress, especially because if we start punishing the artists as people, we stop being forced to punish their art. That’s a mistake of a whole different order.
I wish we’d even go a step further.
When we put artists on pedestals, they let us down. Instead of recognizing the danger in thinking better artists make better people, and deciding to stop demanding that people who make things we love be at all lovable themselves, we’re moving in the opposite direction. Now, with branding and the internet, we have the pernicious notion that we have to like, or even approve of, the people who make us things. You can’t just like a science fiction novel. You are expected to also like the author, as a person, check out his holiday photos on Instagram, laugh at his jokes on Twitter, approve of his political views.
Bust you shouldn’t have to.
Fortunately, Cosby is far from the only person with something to say. There are other people can take the microphone he’s leaving vacant.
But I don’t think we are good enough to say, “Okay, well, we’ll only take art from good people.” No. We are all flawed. We are all lousy. Sometimes we make things. Sometimes those things are worth a great deal more than we are. We can’t hide behind them, but they do have a value and power that we shouldn’t understate. We have to be careful to create a space where we can appreciate creations for being all the things their creators aren’t: patient, wise, kind, good, capable of changing lives for the better. It is possible to make something that is better than you. Bill Cosby did it. Cliff Huxtable should stand — or fall — on his own.