Sifting through my record collection, I find myself in a quandary when I come across my old Bill Cosby albums. The knee-jerk reaction is, of course, to forego refiling them in my own mini-archive, skip the thrift shop, and instead make a beeline to the trash can with my once-prized comedy albums. Cosby's offenses (some alleged, and others admitted by Cosby himself) are well-documented, and as of today, I read via reliable media that he has already posted bail. It goes without saying that I am neither deity nor juror, so I will defer associated duties to those better qualified. That being said, like just about anyone else, I find it impossible to ignore Cosby's horrendous actions, and it seems nigh impossible that I will ever be able to enjoy his work again.
It's difficult, then, to think back to how my family would gather on the couch with popcorn to watch his iconic Cosby Show once upon a time. My parents spoke fondly of the old Robert Culp/Cosby show I Spy. As a kid, I enjoyed the animated Fat Albert re-runs on Saturday morning TV, and as I grew older I respected Cosby's commitment to jazz.
Those memories and experiences were - and remain - historical facts of my life. Those laughs and happy moments shared with family and friends, now extending decades into my past, are realities. How then, do I reconcile with the realization that the human largely behind those wonderful moments has in all likelihood consistently done terrible things to other humans?
This conundrum is far from a new one. Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece, Chinatown, is regarded as a highlight of cinematic history, and yet the acclaimed director remains not only an alleged rapist, but also a fugitive of justice. Similarly, long before Phil Spector went to prison for fatally shooting Lana Clarkson, the legendary music producer had a long, documented history of erratic behavior, often involving firearms. Nonetheless, the man masterminded many of the 20th century's most celebrated pop recordings. In addition to criminal histories like these, the list of misbehaving artists and their misdeeds is far too long to go through here. Offenses range from heinous crimes to unaffable personalities, and everything in between.
So how can these humans create such profound and beautiful external statements, yet also be capable of such deplorable behavior? Surely both sets of action stem from the same source, and yet the inflections of their shared, informing energy are diametrically opposed. The answer seems to be contained in the question, "Who, or what, is the artist?"
While reading, listening, and conversing with people about the arts, I find a consistent conflation of the term "artist" with other categories like "craftsman," "journeyman," and further titles denoting a skilled or creative person. I feel strongly, however, that the title "artist" should only be bestowed on the shaman of each culture -- that is to say, the unconscious vessels of revelation for their time and locale. We often look to artists to complement their work with supplementary insights via interviews, personal statements, autobiographical backgrounds and the like, when in fact they are the last people to whom we should look for that sort of revelation. As artists, their duty is only to act as conduits for as-yet unexpressed human compulsions toward the unknowable. The work of the artist cannot be explained or clarified by the artists themselves, and if it could be, their art would be rendered superfluous.
I feel certain that some will take issue with my grouping of Cosby, Spector, and Polanski, and complain that some or all of them are not artists. To this I can only say that I feel all three captured the zeitgeist, even if only briefly, of a time and place. They were somehow receptors, and then broadcasters, of a set of ideas and feelings. These thoughts and feelings resonated with so many people because, as artists (according to my definition above), they expressed externally what hitherto had only been felt internally, but never been actualized. I could choose any number of other brilliant artists who have led troubled lives, but as Cosby fills the feeds and timelines of today's modern media forums, I think he is a good starting point.
So in this sense, it becomes clear that artists do not teach by example, but rather teach us about ourselves by holding up a mirror for us. We are not looking deep into the hearts and souls of the artists when we interact with their work, but rather recognizing some element of our own felt experience. These artists, then, should not be seen as spiritual gurus or moral authorities, because this simply is not the job of the artist.
While I find it unlikely that I will be putting the needle to the vinyl of a Cosby record any time soon, in the broader sense I feel that I must somehow separate the art from the human, and recognize that whether it's a comedian, filmmaker, musician, or other artist, the resulting work done by them is just a captured fraction of a mysterious cosmic reality, and not the sole property or invention of those artists. That truth remains valid, then, regardless of the extracurricular activities associated with the artist. To ignore the artist's personal life and focus solely on the art is, of course, easier said than done. Nonetheless, I stand by the premise that the human foibles, errors, and crimes must be at least partially separated from art.
One more case worth considering: that of Fatty Arbuckle. Accused of rape and manslaughter in 1921 and 1922, the once-lauded comedic superstar saw his professional and personal lives end prematurely, and in ruins. Though the case against him was weak, and he was acquitted of all charges, the stigma stuck. How then, are we to interact with Arbuckle's pioneering cinematic work, without any insight into the validity of the accusations? Would we be able to lightheartedly enjoy his comedies if we knew he were innocent? Is his work somehow less important or effective if he is guilty? A conundrum indeed, though I maintain that ultimately, it serves us well to remember who artists are, who they are not, and then continually approach their work with this in mind.
So what do I do with those Cosby records, and the memories associated with laughing at someone who suddenly seems far from funny? I don't see any easy answer to this problem. While I thoroughly believe the theoretical separation of human from art, it sticks in the proverbial throat once I am asked to put that separation into practice. Enjoying group efforts like the Cosby Show seems even more problematic, since they involve full casts and crews which surely must have been comprised of many good, talented, hard-working people. Like the Arbuckle films, it strikes me as tragic to erase the work of all those people because of the (factual or alleged) disdainful deeds of one person.
For now, then, I'll keep the records on the shelf, but it will probably be a pretty remote and dusty corner they inhabit.