The entertainment world is full of actors, directors, and musicians who have had personal shortcomings. Every year there are celebrities going to rehab or being exposed for some kind of lack of good judgment. But not all lapses in judgment are created equal. It’s almost commonplace for Hollywood stars to have problems with alcohol and drugs, and sex tapes come out every few years. But there’s a difference between doing harm to yourself and doing harm to others. The general public can forgive people like Robert Downey Jr., who battled with drugs and eventually rebounded. The public has little grace for people who victimize others. Just this week Mark Salling of the hit show Glee was indicted on child pornography charges. Even if he cleans himself up, gets help and is held accountable, it’s safe to say he’ll never work in Hollywood again.
But other people, with a much higher profile, have had serious lapses in judgment. Film director, Rowan Polanksi is still wanted in the United States after being charged with multiple sex charges in the late 70’s, including rape, and fleeing to France after an incident with a 13-year old girl. He’s gone on to make some amazing films including The Pianist for which he won an Oscar for best director. A more recent example is Bill Cosby who has been accused of sex crimes by over 20 women. This raises the question, “What happens when bad people, or people that do bad things, make good art?”
It’s because of this question that I have a dilemma. My children, who are six and three years old, love The Cosby Show. We introduced them to it before the scandal. Both my wife and I loved the show growing up and our kids love it just as much. Bill Cosby and the producers created something that has inspired generations of visible minorities to want to accomplish more. Even non-Black families connected with it. It’s probably on most people’s lists of the top five sit-coms of all time. Heathcliff Huxtable was the father that everyone wanted, especially for Black people. Just yesterday a friend told me that as a child he never wanted to get married because of what he saw at home with his parents, but The Cosby Show made him want to get married because of the relationship between Cliff and Clare. My son even said once that he wanted to be a doctor after watching the show.
Is it possible to separate a creator from his art? Can we appreciate something great that has been created even though the creator may have done something bad, even criminal? The Hollywood Walk of Fame seems to think so. When asked whether Cosby’s star would be removed, former chair of the walk of fame committee, Johnny Grant, said, “Stars are awarded for professional achievement to the world of entertainment and contributions to the community. A celebrity’s politics, philosophy, irrational behavior, outrageous remarks or anything like that have never been cause to remove a Walk of Fame star.” Basically, they award stars based on professional merit not moral uprightness.
This is the same debate when it comes to Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, who was apparently quite racist. There are calls for monuments and other public commemorations of the man to be scrapped because of his beliefs. Is it realistic to scrap the chief architect of your country from the history books because of his personal beliefs? I mean he built the country. Whatever he believed, you can’t deny his impact on the birth of Canada.
I recently attended a leadership conference where Andy Stanley said the most profound statement of the day. “People don’t follow integrity, they follow clarity.” He referenced Hitler and Donald Trump as examples. People will follow whoever can provide them with a clear picture of the future, despite their moral shortcomings. According to Stanley the ultimate goal is to provide both integrity and clarity so you can achieve maximum impact.
Despite what they’ve done or believed, both Bill Cosby and Sir John A. MacDonald were successful in providing people with a clear picture of the future. They redefined what was possible for people group’s that needed inspiration, whether Black people or a budding country.
So in the case of The Cosby Show, my two alternatives as a father are either: (a) Don’t allow my children to watch The Cosby Show even though my children are completely unaware of the legal proceedings, or (b) allow them to watch because the message resonates with them. The truth is if I disallow my children from watching The Cosby Show, or even throw out my DVD sets in the garbage, am I really hurting Bill Cosby? I’d probably be hurting my children more than Bill Cosby (I’ve already bought multiple seasons so my money is already in his bank account). There’s a message of empowerment resident in The Cosby Show, especially for Black people, that has never been duplicated since; a message that my children connect with decades after the show last aired. Frankly, deep down my children want to see successful Black people on TV. They need it and there’s nobody doing it.
Another question comes to mind in this whole thing. What’s worse for our creative industries, bad people creating good art or good people creating bad art? People doing bad things is bad for everybody, but when it comes to our creative industries, is good people creating bad art just as destructive to our creative industries as bad people creating good art? I’ll leave that for another article.
So my conclusion is that for now I’ll allow my children to partake of Bill Cosby’s art (if they ask) for two reasons. First, my children are being impacted positively by the message and they want more of it. They’ve connected with the clear picture he’s painted of the future. Second, I don’t condone the things he has allegedly done, but the place for Cosby to be judged for his crimes isn’t my living room, it’s in the court of law. If he’s indeed guilty, he deserves to go to jail and the victims deserve justice, and I don’t blame them for wanting to get compensated financially; the court, and ultimately God, will judge him. His personal legacy is shot either way and he may never work again (unless he tries YouTube). For a creator, not being able to create is as close to hell as you can get. In the end, telling my children they can’t watch a show that’s inspiring them won’t accomplish anything.
I’d love to hear from you on this. Is it possible to separate creators from their art? Let me know.