The Bill Cosby Art Controversy / by Chris Hall

If connecting the personal life of artists with their art, that is damning a work of art in connection with the sins of the artist, seems a bit ridiculous to you, it may be some what of a surprise to know that now some critics are conflating art collections with the personal lives of their owners.  The Smithsonian Museum of African Art’s exhibit “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” consists of work from the collection of Bill Cosby, who is a bit of a social pariah at the moment over allegations from over a dozen women accusing him of rape and sexual misconduct.  Understandably the Smithsonian is in an uncomfortable place.  However, in an article for the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott obliquely suggests that the Smithsonian should have cancelled the exhibition.  

If the Museum of African Art ignores the allegations, it seems to tacitly accept the proposition that all 15 women are liars. But if it tries to issue a statement or contextualize the exhibition with some kind of acknowledgment of the controversy, it appears to say the following: “It’s unfortunate that many people believe he is a serial rapist, but we’re happy to have his art anyway.”

What Kennicott seems to not understand is that Cosby didn’t create the work, nor did he even curate the show (the show comprises the work of artists such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, and is curated by Dr. David Driscoll).  Kennicott also fails to understand that a museum changes direction about as fast as an ocean-liner.  Exhibitions are planned years in advance, there contracts to be signed, legally binding contracts, insurance is purchased, brochures are printed, and many other investments aside from time are required in order to put up a show.  It is hard to just cancel an exhibition.  Mind you, it can be done; the Corcoran Gallery did it in 1989 with a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. The Corcoran cancelled their show, anticipating that it would ignite a political firestorm (the show was partially funded by a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts).  But if the Smithsonian cancelled their exhibition, with work no where near as controversial as Robert Mapplethorpe’s, they would certainly invite criticism for capitulation, ironically, from the same press who are now criticizing the Smithsonian for deciding to keep the show up.  

I am frankly surprised that anyone would conflate the personal life of the owner of an art collection with the art collection itself.  It is already bad enough that many people today tend to equate the artist's personal life with their art. Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Henry Ossawa Tanner are not the ones who should be put on trial, and if the Smithsonian were to cancel their show, it would be as if they were the ones being judged.  Art collectors as well as artists can be terrible people, but that doesn't necessarily taint the art. Perhaps the Smithsonian should distance themselves from Cosby (promotions and such), but they shouldn't distance themselves from the art.

Below is some work by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.