Bill Cosby and The Problem of Good Art From Bad Artists

By  · Published on November 19th, 2014


Yesterday, Roxane Gay published a passionate, compelling and provocative piece on the recent rape accusations that have re-surfaced against Bill Cosby. In the piece, Gay recounts how meaningful The Cosby Show was to her as a child growing up in a black middle-class family, when she was unable to find representations of her world onscreen. She brings this up to demonstrate how Cosby, who has refused to even respond to the accusations except through a lawyer, is hiding behind the goodwill he has earned through his career.

As a response, Gay has a clear and simple wish: “We have to demand that his show be taken off the air.” If she was referring to his upcoming show for NBC or his new Netflix comedy special, her words had an immediate impact: both were canceled within 24 hours. But it stands to reason she is also referring to reruns of The Cosby Show. After all, Cosby still gets paid royalties from his prior works, and Gay has asked her audience to “stop supporting any of his endeavors.” From Gay’s perspective, an artist who commits atrocities against his or her fellow man should have their work boycotted because “humanity is nothing compared to art.”

It’s that last sentence ‐ the final phrase of her entire article, in fact ‐ that seems wrong to me. How can the concepts of humanity and art be separated? Isn’t art the place where we have conversations about our humanity and, in many cases, demonstrate it? In this case, it seems clear that Bill Cosby’s humanity is revealed through his art and, perhaps, only there.

One fact is indisputable: Cosby clearly has a problem with women. A serious one. The accusations from more than a dozen women have convinced almost everyone that Cosby did indeed commit serious crimes. The accusations are specific and astoundingly similar in nature, which probably explains why no one has written any “defending Cosby” thinkpieces yet, like they did with Woody Allen. If guilty, Cosby deserves a reckoning for these crimes, and because the statute of limitations has run out on them, the court of public opinion is our only option. That’s why we need essays like the one Gay wrote.

But I don’t see why we should strike Cosby’s art from the record, especially since The Cosby Show was not just a victory for racial equality but also for gender issues. Gay acknowledges how important it was for middle-class black families to see themselves represented on television, but she mostly skims over its bold depictions of women. Didn’t we just get through celebrating the feminist victories in The Cosby Show? Jason Bailey wrote the most comprehensive piece about this over at Slate (it’s worth a full read), calling Clair Huxtable a feminist “ideal to strive for.” But, of course, it was Cosby himself who first came up with the idea of Clair, even before The Cosby Show came to fruition. He initially pitched a detective show to NBC, suggesting he play a character with a “girlfriend [who] would be a strong woman with her own career.”

After that show was rejected by the network, he came up with the more autobiographical The Cosby Show, but the idea of having a strong woman stuck. Clair Huxtable was easily the most overtly feminist character on the television at the time, but the show’s progressive gender politics extended to other members of the family, too, most memorably Rudy, the youngest of the Huxtable clan. Her friend Bud would routinely espouse his pre-feminist views on gender relations, only to be shot down by Rudy. From this, it should be clear that feminism was one of the show’s subjects, and in the decade that saw few victories for the feminist movement and the death blow to the Equal Rights Amendment, that should be not be erased.

But the question remains: how do we reconcile these different sides of Cosby? Is there some sort of ghoulish calculus we should resort to? How does the handful of women whose lives he irreparably twisted stack up against the millions he may have enlightened through his art? Perhaps the best way to judge Bill Cosby is to acknowledge that there is more than one of him. To accept that people contain multitudes, and to understand that Cosby is one of the many, many artists who functions better in his work than in his life. In life, he was terrible to women, but his art empowered them. That’s the complicated truth.

Even if we accept this duality, there are some crimes that cannot and should not be forgiven, and it’s not clear how we decide. Many fans have already decided to boycott the careers of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski for what are perceived as similar crimes, but what about Bryan Singer? The blockbuster director of The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns, and several X-Men movies was accused earlier this year of drugging and raping a young man, but his case has (temporarily, at least) blown over. He has already been hired to direct the assured blockbuster X-Men: Apocalypse and so far, it appears that his career will not miss a stride.

It’s a difficult discrepancy to unpack. Maybe our reaction to such a controversy is more vehement when the victim is a young woman, as opposed to a young gay man. That’s something we need to grapple with. There is also the fact that Cosby has had multiple accusers, and Allen’s alleged victim was a child, while Singer’s was a fully-grown, albeit young adult.

But another reason for these discrepancies is that we come at these issues with our own personal baggage. A person’s choice to either boycott Cosby’s works or grapple with and ultimately accept his duality probably reflects the way he or she responds to people who have hurt them in their own lives. What’s the right thing to do? Do you shut them out of your life, or do you use the pain to have a meaningful discussion with them? In most cases, an acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the accused is essential, and so far, Cosby has been unwilling to do that, refusing to even answer questions about it during a recent NPR interview. Until he does, this issue is going to linger, and it will surely taint his legacy. That’s an appropriate punishment from the public that propped him up for so many years, but it doesn’t mean we were wrong to do so in the first place.