What do you want? What do you expect of your artists?
Of course, as we go to (digital) press the cause celebre horrible of the moment is the strange case of Mr. Cosby.
My first awareness of Bill Cosby as a comedian came not through television, so much as the albums. And my first encounter with him was not the albums, but someone doing Cosby’s material and killing with it. You have to realize how mainstream a comedian is if a white Presbyterian minister in Oklahoma in the early 1970s is doing the comedian’s material for the church talent show. The pastor was up on the little stage of the “Fellowship Hall” with a microphone doing the “Noah” routine.
“Hoompa Hoompa Hoompa” [sound of carpentry done directly in mic]
“Noah, I want you to build an ark.”
The whole routine. Word for word. Getting big laughs. That same pastor would likely not have done David Steinberg’s Bible material, by contrast. But in the Bible-Belt, a white pastor felt very comfortable doing Bill Cosby’s stuff.
I don’t know what further proof we need of mainstream success. And not a Huxtable to be seen as far as the horizon and beyond. That was still years in the future.
Oh sure, there’d been rumors. But nothing dramatic.
And after the awards, Fat Albert, guest hosting for Johnny, getting the doctorate in Education, and (yes) the Huxtables – everything seemed to be fine.
We could go on. Michael Jackson creates “Thriller” – one of the most successful albums of all time. Those stories coming out of Neverland Ranch sure sound odd.
Now we could stop there and talk about the anxiety created in the USA by creative men of color being very successful and how that works in the culture. We could speak of Mr. Cosby’s critique of youth culture a few years ago and the backlash that aroused in some folks.
Or we could go on and speak of how Elia Kazan “named names.” We could speak of the blatant anti-Semitism of a poet like Ezra Pound. And we could start the long litany of awful people.
My “favorite” artist to beat up on is Paul Gaugin. I’m guessing that there are some readers who like Gaugin and admire the work. He abandoned his wife and his children,
moved to the South Seas where he had more children by mistresses and largely abandoned them as well.
I was walking through a museum in Moscow with a dear friend. I mentioned that I didn’t care for Gaugin because of these elements of his biography. I got upbraided because my friend argued Gaugin needed to abandon his wife and children or his art. Art trumped all.
I think about that conversation regularly because this happens with some regularity.
We learn the sad truth that our artists are human.
This harsh truth is far worse for our actors, I think. Particularly worse for actors who we know primarily from television. These actors we watch in our homes. In our living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms.
I’m not suggesting that date rape or molestation or harassment is normal, nor should it ever be considered so. Nor do I suggest that such evils are common. Nor should these evils ever be common.
Rather, I’m noting that artists are part of flawed humanity. I don’t think abandoning your wife and children is good. And while abandonment happens far more than it should, it’s not common – and most of the time, it’s not for art.
One of my comedic heroes is Groucho. And yet I know that in private life his emotional problems drove at least one of his three wives to drink. And you realize that you would not want most professional comics to come over to your house. They’re amazingly funny people. But you wouldn’t want to have them over for dinner. Many, if not most, have problems.
Where does this end? I don’t know that there will ever be an end. I don’t know who will be next. But there will be a next person. We’ll learn that this favored artist did this or that thing. And we’ll have to make a judgment – can we live with that?
A long time ago Leonard Nimoy wrote a one-man play about Vincent van Gogh. The play’s character was Vincent’s brother, Theo. The setting is a rented theatre in Paris about a week after Vincent’s death. Theo talks to whoever comes to the theatre about his brother –
What do you expect? What do you want your artists to be? . . . Your thinkers, your visionaries, your philosophers . . . what do you expect of them? What do you want them to be? Will you not simply accept the contribution of the individual? Won’t you judge him for his work or must he satisfy your social needs as well?
I’ve heard it said among you. . . .”he was mad” . . .”he was strange” . . . .”he was not like us” . . . . No, he was different. . . . And you are blessed by that difference . . .
Does Gaugin’s life diminish the painting? Does Jackson’s weirdness (at least) stop the music? Does Cosby’s alleged mistakes make the laughs hollow?