I’ve gone round and round with this issue in my head a lot over the years. But it was our friends at Radio Vs. The Martians that gave it a name.
Sam Mulvey calls it “the Card line.” And Mike Gillis refers to it as “the Cosby problem.” I think they use it to mean roughly the same thing… the place where separating the art from the artist becomes impossible. But the more I think about it, the more those examples seem to me to be two different things.
Let’s take the Cosby one first. To me that problem is when you find out that someone whose work you enjoy is a terrible, terrible person. Does that discovery color your perception of the work itself? Is it still possible to enjoy it?
In my particular case? Mostly, yeah, I can still enjoy the work. But it helps if the artist in question is long dead. For example, Dashiell Hammett was, by all reports– even according to his longtime lover Lillian Hellman– not a good guy. He was a drunk who hit women, he was a serial philanderer, he was often vindictive and mean-spirited. But he still stood up to the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s and went to jail rather than betray his friends, and he gave us some of the finest detective fiction ever written.
He was one of the leading writers of the “hard-boiled” school along with Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and other crime fiction writers of the 1930s that changed the detective story genre forever. And you can make a case that he also created the “cute couple solving crimes” style of mystery fiction with Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man, which led to a series of movies that is more or less the direct ancestor of TV shows like Hart To Hart, Remington Steele, Castle, and a bunch of others. (The irony is that if you actually read Hammett’s original Thin Man novel you will see a strong streak of self-disgust and cynicism underlying Nick’s first-person narration; Hammett seemed to have a certain self-awareness about his drinking and the hollow lives of the New York social set he was running with at the time, though not quite enough to change his actual real-life behavior.)
A lot of Hammett’s fiction was about guys desperately trying to do the right thing in a morally ambiguous world, of the necessity of holding to a personal code of justice no matter what. But was he actually that iron-willed ethical guy? Should that matter?
In fairness, that’s an impossibly high standard. Say, rather, was Hammett at least someone I could find admirable just as a person, or that I’d want to spend time with in real life? No, not really. All right, then, should that matter?
I think not. I don’t have to be pals with him. He’s long gone, and so are the people he wronged. Time and distance have made it okay for me to enjoy his books without worrying about it.
Well, what about stuff that’s more current? How about our title example, Bill Cosby, accused rapist?
Certainly his public image is destroyed. “Bill Cosby, family entertainer,” is pretty much over as a marketable brand. It’s impossible for me to look even at old episodes of the Fat Albert cartoon without feeling skeeved out.
Especially since each episode began and ended with Cosby giving a little morality lecture. That well’s poisoned now.
In fact, pretty much any sitcom he was ever in is tainted for me by the knowledge that the cardigan-clad family man widely regarded as America’s Dad would end up a grizzled and bitter defendant against fifty-plus allegations of sexually predatory behavior. I can’t ever see the cheerful salesman pushing Jello Puddin’ Pops without also flashing on all those perp-walk shots of the evil old man in the hoodie.
But there’s one exception. I still love I Spy.
The Cosby problem is just not a thing for me with that show. I own a bunch of them on DVD and can watch them all day long without once remembering that Bill Cosby (allegedly) drugged women and molested them.
Why? Well, part of it is the time-and-distance thing I mentioned before. The I Spy character of Alexander Scott is differentiated from the guy I think of as ‘Bill Cosby.’ He doesn’t move like him or act like him or do any of the comedy schtick that Cosby did as a stand-up, or even on Fat Albert just four years later. On I Spy, Scotty’s primary function on the show is to be the Exposition Nerd. He became much more, but that is still his raison d’etre in most episodes.
But even more than that, I came to Alexander Scott as a literary character. Up through the mid-1980s, I’d never actually seen an episode of I Spy. I knew the books. First the Whitmans, and later the paperbacks from “John Tiger,” the pen name of Walter Wager. (Fun fact about Wager– he went on to write 58 Minutes, which would eventually become the movie Die Hard 2.)
There were also the I Spy comics that were not terribly evocative of Bill Cosby other than the photo covers.
So by the time I got around to watching the show, roughly fifteen years after reading all the books and comics? Alexander Scott was completely separated for me from Bill Cosby. So I Spy is not tainted for me. Your experience might be different.
(That was actually my experience with a lot of cool stuff growing up. My mother was a bit restrictive and tightly wound and we were pretty much forbidden from anything non-Disney when it came to movies and television. But I found that books and comics were an acceptable work-around. So my ideas about James Bond, Kwai Chang Caine, the crew of the Starship Enterprise, and so on… those were all from the books. And those books were often quite a bit more lurid than the movies and TV that Mom thought she was shielding us from, but I sure wasn’t going to let on.)
…sorry, digressing. My point is that I rarely have a problem separating the art from the artist. Gene Roddenberry was certainly not noble, despite the ongoing effort of Star Trek fans to canonize him, but I’m totally fine with enjoying his shows. (Though when I write about them I try very hard to give the appropriate credit; Roddenberry often claimed to be the creator of things he had nothing at all to do with.) It can be harder with actors– it’s very difficult today for me to see Bob Crane on screen without remembering how awful he was, to say nothing of his ignominious end.
Really, though, the worst one for me is O.J. Simpson. I have a hard time seeing him as comedy relief in the Naked Gun movies today, but the one that really hurts is The Towering Inferno.
I love The Towering Inferno. It’s my favorite of Irwin Allen’s run of disaster movies, even more than The Poseidon Adventure. It was the very first non-children’s/Disney movie I was allowed to see in a theater and I think it holds up well to this day.
But there’s a subplot where O.J. is a hero security guard who gives his life trying to save trapped victims and I can’t see those scenes any more without thinking about how he killed two people, left a DNA trail a mile wide, and the LAPD still couldn’t put him away. It takes me right out of the movie.
Fortunately, it’s not a HUGE part of the movie, but it does somewhat dim the pleasure of seeing it today. I don’t even bother with the Naked Gun movies any more; all I can think of when I see them now are the super-awkward interviews with Leslie Nielsen where they were asking him about O.J., and how Nielsen could hardly talk, he was so troubled by each new revelation.
The “Card line” is a slightly different thing. In those cases, you know going in that the artist is not someone you approve of and you are faced with the dilemma of whether you want to continue to finance the bad behavior by supporting the work. The name comes from Orson Scott Card, who sparked an angry fan boycott of his books with his anti-LGBT comments a while back.
It came to a head in 2013 when DC Comics wanted him to write a Superman miniseries for them. Fans threw a fit and said if there was anyone unfit to write about truth and justice and the American way, it was that hateful bigot Card. And so on. The artist actually walked off the assignment and DC ended up pulling the story.
So the Card line, basically, means the line you won’t cross, the guy whose personal stuff is so abhorrent you can’t bring yourself to support his work or add to his income in any way.
I have a couple of creators on a mental list where I’ve sworn I’m NEVER EVER BUYING THEIR WORK, but you know what? Card’s not one of them. I disagree vehemently with his views but I really don’t see it in the work. He’s not a Klansman or a militia type blowing up AIDS clinics. He is a writer and he is politically active. When the Supreme Court said gay marriage was legal he accepted it as the law of the land and stopped fighting it. At no point did he do anything that was illegal. In fact, he used his platform to try and be socially pro-active and applied his talents to a cause he believed in. These are all things that, to my way of thinking, are admirable and worthy of encouragement. The fact that I think his actual cause was completely wrongheaded, and that at its core is essentially bigoted and nasty, is not really the point. People are allowed to campaign for their ideas in this country. If I disagree, I am allowed to campaign against them. But neither Card nor I should be prevented from making a living at our day job because of it.
My solution to this has always been to establish more of a no-fly-zone. I went to high school with a woman named Maggie Gallagher, who was a devotee of Ayn Rand and went on to become one of the most prominent anti-gay-rights activists ever. Maggie and I agree on almost nothing. I often wondered how she could do what she did considering that several of her high school friends and even faculty mentors turned out to be gay, but I never asked her; it was possible, after all, that those folks weren’t out to her and she is on television all the damn time, so I figured it was better to keep my trap shut. We certainly were not close friends.
But we did share one. My dear friend Janet, who helped me put together my first zine project back in high school, was a staunch Republican and ended up being very active in state politics for years. She and Maggie were very close and the three of us often ended up at the same functions, Christmas gatherings and whatnot. In high school we’d all done the speech and debate thing, and those friendships were stronger than politics. For Janet’s sake, Maggie and I had a no-fly-zone about politics (for that matter, I had one with Janet too, though we broke our rule once or twice a decade.) But Maggie and I never got into it about anything ever. Janet passed away about a year and a half ago and at the funeral the first person to recognize me and give me a hug was Maggie. We were both feeling gutted over losing Janet and even though I still think Maggie has wasted her life serving the Forces of Evil, she endeared herself to me forever when CNN called and she hung up on them, snarling that she couldn’t talk, she was at her best friend’s funeral. The FUCK OFF was unspoken but implied. I don’t respect her position at all, but I respected the hell out of THAT.
See, the day of Janet’s funeral was also the day the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal. Every news outfit in the country wanted Maggie, as a professional pundit, to comment. She blew them all off so she could give Janet’s eulogy, and she barely made it through without breaking down.
Why am I telling you all this? I guess to illustrate the point that politics, for me, is not the person. And if you are espousing views I find completely abhorrent, I might be baffled, but if you are simply using words and argument in the public square, engaging in the kind of vigorous debate that this country is supposed to encourage, I have no problem with you making a living.
Want an example from the arts? How about Chuck Dixon?
Again, we agree on pretty much nothing. But I like his books and he keeps his politics out of them.
When he doesn’t– he’s got a bestselling graphic novel out that is accusing the Clintons of all sorts of terrible things, adapting a book that I consider to be just a half-step away from tinfoil hat territory– well, I don’t buy that book. I’m pretty sure the charges made in that graphic novel are bunk but I am also sure that Mr. Dixon is enough of a man of conscience that he genuinely believes in the book. There are professional Clinton-haters that learned in the 1990s that there was a good living to be made saying terrible things about that family, and moved on to liberals in general when Bill Clinton left the presidency; but Dixon is not one of them. I think we can all agree Chuck Dixon isn’t Ann Coulter. I’d much rather have the next Levon Cade or Bad Times book than this Clinton thing, but I don’t actually get a vote on how Mr. Dixon chooses to spend his writing time.
My “Card Line” is not really ideological at all. It’s mostly made up of creators who have personally wronged me or my friends, and I’m not going to list those folks here. Dirty laundry. Nobody’s business. But I’m not spending money on their stuff, even at second-hand. Period.
Anyway. I make no claim that this is THE best compromise when it comes to being a consumer of entertainment. Everyone makes their own peace with this stuff in a different way, and the rationale laid out above is mine, that’s all.
But I thought it was a subject worth writing about, mostly because I’m curious if anyone else out there thinks about this sort of thing. Have at it in the comments below, but let’s keep it civil, shall we?
Back next week with something cool.