Bill Cosby’s interview with an Associated Press reporter, filmed Nov. 6 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, shows power and privilege in operation. After reporter Brett Zongker asked the comedian about allegations that he had raped or sexually abused women, Cosby suggested that such questions were irresponsible. He and his wife had chosen to sit down with the AP, he said, because they thought the AP was a reputable news organization and would not dig into those unpleasant accusations.
Cosby tried a classic power play, hoping to intimidate the reporter into suppressing the video: “I think if you want to consider yourself to be serious, that it will not appear anywhere,” he said to Zongker. After making this equation — between reportorial seriousness and deference to himself — Cosby asked David Brokaw, his longtime media representative, who was standing off-camera, to get on the horn to the AP and do everything possible to ensure that the videotaped encounter was “scuttled.”
Zongker, who covers art and cultural issues in the nation’s capital, deserves credit for asking the hard questions.
“It was his duty to ask the question as a reporter and journalist,” said Lou Ferrara, an AP vice president whose purview includes entertainment news.
Cosby may have hoped that as an arts reporter, Zongker would limit his inquiries to art matters. Arts reporting is often assumed to be soft reporting, a feel-good beat on the edge of the real news business. Sometimes this is true, especially on television, where stories about the arts are vanishingly rare and almost always are used as inspirational postludes to the main event, which is all about strife, mayhem and the downward spiral of civilization.
But Cosby’s effort to hold the hard questions at bay also was premised on assumptions about the larger field of arts and culture — that it is a safe place, where the expectation of old-fashioned civility and the ubiquity of uplifting narratives would give cover to a man increasingly under pressure from dark allegations about his past sexual behavior.
He was sitting in a museum, at the Smithsonian, surrounded by his own art, in the midst of being feted rapturously for having lent his collection — for the first time — for public exhibition. The entire milieu seemed to insulate him from unpleasantness and controversy.
This piety — that art and worldly matters should be kept apart — is widely shared, even by humble museum-goers who have no entry to the elite social set that swirls around art collecting and museum openings and galas. The world of high culture has its own form of trickle-down economics, a belief that the social boon of seeing art in public is so powerful that one should not worry too much about the ethical and even moral compromises that may go hand in hand with exhibitions such as “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue.” Put simply, many think we should feel thankful for whatever art rich and powerful people allow us to see.
On Nov. 9, I reviewed the “Conversations” exhibition and expressed three reservations: that the works on display from the Cosby collection did not appear to good effect next to stronger pieces from the Smithsonian’s African art collection; that Cosby’s art collection would be stronger if it engaged with the best of the past 50 years of contemporary African American art; and that the Smithsonian should not exhibit private collections unless those collections are certain to be accessioned by the museum. The last of these is based on the messy quid pro quo that can develop when the prestige of a public institution is lent to a private collector, potentially increasing the value of that collector’s art and complicating all further relations between the two parties.
Many commentators expressed strong objections to mixing art with “non-art” matters, such as Cosby’s reputation and museum ethics. One person wrote that the “review is filled with so much social commentary and opinion on non art matters that it loses all credibility as an art exhibit review. How relevant are Bill Cosby’s personal problems or past comments on society to evaluating the exhibit?” Another said that my brief mention of the rape allegations had “no place in the lexicon of art criticism.”
My reason for including mention of the allegations followed exactly the same reasoning elegantly expressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a Nov. 19 piece for the Atlantic: “Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists. But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person’s word over another — it requires you take one person’s word over 15 others.”
The question now is whether the Smithsonian has been put in the same place as journalists writing about the Cosby art exhibition. If the Museum of African Art ignores the allegations, it seems to tacitly accept the proposition that all 15 women are liars. But if it tries to issue a statement or contextualize the exhibition with some kind of acknowledgment of the controversy, it appears to say the following: “It’s unfortunate that many people believe he is a serial rapist, but we’re happy to have his art anyway.”
When asked for a statement on the allegations, the museum chose option A, saying, “This world class collection helps to define the history of American art created by persons of African descent and it further enhances the canon in that it brings . . . attention to the public artists whose works have long been omitted from the study of American art history. The educational outreach for such an exhibition is enormous in that it brings together African diasporic studies that can be readily understood and appreciated.”
And this is yet one more powerful reason why museums should not be in the business of showing private collections that haven’t been given to them. The Museum of African Art would have a great deal more freedom to distance itself from Cosby if it owned or were certain to own the art rather than having it on loan. It could say, without too much hypocrisy, that art is art, and no matter what he may or may not have done, the art is now in our collection and unrelated to Cosby’s private life. The museum could point to the great collections of art in major museums around the world and argue: Is this not the largesse of plutocrats, robber barons and colonialists? If the British Museum can keep the Elgin Marbles, why can’t we keep the Cosby art?
But the museum can’t make that claim, and it was foolish to get itself put in an uncomfortable position. Worse, it was a mistake to build the exhibition around not just the Cosby art but Cosby’s personality and celebrity, including a work by his daughter, a quilt with family images on it, and quotations on the wall from Cosby himself, which now sound calculated to remind viewers of his reputation as a genial patriarch: “Quilts tell a story of life, of memory, of family relationships.”
For centuries, wealthy people have used art to burnish their reputations. William Corcoran essentially was a war profiteer, and Sen. William A. Clark, who added greatly to the Corcoran’s collection, was so corrupt that Mark Twain once wrote, “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation.” Now Corcoran and Clark are just names associated with art, not scandal, and uplift, not corruption.
And that is yet another reason the Smithsonian shouldn’t be exhibiting the work of living collectors. Although plans for the Cosby exhibition were underway long before the long-standing rape allegations started to receive renewed attention earlier this year, it now looks as if the museum is offering Cosby a haven, a place where he can be celebrated for generosity even as more than a dozen women have denounced him as a predator. It may not have intended the show as an exercise in art washing — the use of art to cleanse a reputation — but it will look that way to skeptics.
The fascinating thing about all this is the atavistic return of an old idea: “polite society.” The dynamics of polite society were unspoken, a complex web of hypocrisy that helped assure elites that they could operate and socialize without being confronted about moral and ethical failings. Cosby’s response to Zongker, and the response of many readers to unflattering news about Cosby, demonstrates the tenacity of the idea of polite society even in an age when civility is in shreds everywhere else.
Art museums emerged more than a century ago as a ruling-class strategy to civilize and educate the masses and make them more deferential to the leadership of polite society. That pretty much failed everywhere, and no serious museum today wants any connection to the arrogance of that old mission. And yet when it comes to Cosby at the Smithsonian, it seems deference is still in play, preserved like a priceless artifact, still exerting its magical power to flatter the vanity of a wealthy art collector, no matter what he may have done in the past.