ART - Thoughts on Bill Cosby: Art vs. the Artist

January 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I was older when I learned that Adolf Hitler was an artist.  I'd only known him as the monster he became later in life, but for several years he attempted to make a living as a painter.  It was actually a fictitious account on a television show that sparked my interest, and led me to discover his paintings and their short-lived revival in the 2000s, fetching hundred of thousands of dollars at auctions.  On the television show, an actor playing an art collector was buying up every Hitler painting he could, and the protagonist of the show was dumbfounded at learning the collector was Jewish.  The show ended with the collector setting fire to his home and all the paintings, revealing that he'd bought them only to destroy them.

Hitler PaintingHitler PaintingThe Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich, painted by Adolf Hitler       Germany Hitler PaintingGermany Hitler PaintingThe Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 photo shows a picture titled “The Old City Hall”, right, that - as the auction house said - was painted by Adolf Hitler and the original bill of sale and a signed letter, left, from Hitler’s adjutant Albert Bormann, brother of the better-known Martin Bormann in Nuremberg, Germany. The 100-year-old watercolor of Munich’s city hall is expected to fetch at least 50,000 euros (US$ 60,000) at auction this weekend, not so much for its artistic value as for the signature in the bottom left corner. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Bill Cosby's recent fall from grace reminded me of that show.  Even without any form of investigation or judgement rendered, it begs the question: can art stand at odds with the artist?  What is a person's work worth if reprehensible flaws are found in that person's character?  At what point does a seemingly negative personal identity outweigh the merits of any good deeds they have done? And as I journey toward a life as a creative, are there things about me that will ultimately decide the fate of the things I produce?

Bill CosbyBill CosbyComedian Bill Cosby holding cigar. Bill CosbyBill CosbyBill Cosby still taken during his 1983 stand up comedy concert title Himself, at the Hamilton Place Theatre in Hamilton, Ontario.

Most of my family and friends could take it or it leave it when it comes to Bill Cosby, but I've been a fan of pretty much everything he's ever done as an entertainer.  His television shows during my childhood were blueprints for good family values, and a welcome alternative to the Black television families we'd been given up to that point.  As I got older, I discovered his life before the Cosby Show and A Different World, and fell in love all over again.  To this day, Uptown Saturday Night and Let's Do It Again are two of my all-time favorite movies.  And I regard Cosby's comedic special Himself as one of the greatest stand-up routines of all time.  Most would have to agree his art is undeniable, not to mention the philanthropy it has funded for countless black and brown children all across this country in one form or another.  But regardless of the art, allegations are now challenging the artist.

The world is such a complex place now.  Knowing the truth about anything can seem almost impossible, and that has definitely proven to be the case with rape allegations against Bill Cosby.  I've heard many sides to it, and personally haven't come to any conclusions.  On one hand, how can so many individuals allege the same horrible things about someone and there not be some truth to it?  On the other hand, there are some undeniable factors that point to a possible coordinated, pre-conceived smear campaign against Mr. Cosby.  And given this nation's track record, you'd be a bit naive to think something like this could not be orchestrated in today's time.  But I'm not concerned with proving Mr. Cosby's innocence of guilt.  I'm torn about how I should feel about his work.

Shows are being cancelled, endowments refused, syndications halted, and it seems that anything Cosby is now taboo.  Should I feel the same way?  Should I discard my Cosby Show DVD's, burn my standup VHS tapes?  Should my memories of those magical moments, and their relations to my own past life, now hold some bittersweet tinge?  What do I do with the melody of Aretha Franklin singing the Different World theme song?  How do I keep from smiling when remembering Rudy singing Ray Charles' "Nightime" on the Cosby home's stairwell?  The nerd actually getting the girl, ala Whitly and Dewayne at Hillman... entrepreneurship lessons learned from Cosby having a private practice in the lower level of his home... falling out laughing at Cosby as Billy Foster threatening George Foreman with a "left foot in yo navel..."  dealing with an unconventional family, via Denise and Olivia.... Theo's designer shirt woes and a love of Gordon Gartrelle... learning the real origins of the name "Biggie Smalls..." and on and on and on.  

Theo HuxtableTheo HuxtableTheo Huxtable (Malcom Jamal Warner) in a knock-off "Gordon Gartrell" shirt his sister made for him.

"A Shirt Story" Season 1 of the Cosby Show
Denise and OliviaDenise and Olivia

We have always had this love-hate relationship with our artists, particularly ones that were pioneers or attained a level of celebrity.  And it's completely understandable, not just on a human nature level, but also as it  relates to the Black experience.  A great deal of our ascension from second-class citizens under segregation (and pure racism) was fueled by those whose art was undeniable.  They became our representatives and our vestiges of hope for normalcy in this society.  To find them unworthy of the pedestal, or fatally flawed is a serious blow to us as a people.  And I don't know that we have found a way to properly deal with the human sides to the accomplishments of our artists, or even our leaders.  I'm unsure as to what standards we have unknowingly set for the generations to come, and where the change will need to begin.  Bill Cosby (alleged or not) isn't the first, and will not be the last.  Abernathy made clear the weaknesses of our beloved Dr. King.  The horrific domestic abuse of Tina Turner at the hands of her husband have been reduced to punchlines in our culture ( "You tryna help Ike?" and "Eat the cake, Anna Mae!!")  Huey P's duality as both political leader and street thug are legendary.  James Brown is still the Godfather of Soul, even though he was a known abuser of women and maintained his staff with mob violence (even his most famous musician, Maceo Parker had to defend his life).  I won't even get into the levels of hell my beloved Hip Hop has fallen to.

I would love to hear from other artists out there?  What do you feel should be the relation of your personal life to your work as an artist?  Should your art be allowed to stand strong on it's own merits and complexities, even if you fall in your personal life?  Is it even possible for your art to not reflect who you are?


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