As Bill Cosby struggles to reinvent himself, he can hire The Drifters (or a descendant group) to open his appearances with "Up On The Roof(ies)." Today, we have a daily double on Cosby and his accusers a mea culpa from Ta-Nehisi Coates and critique of the Smithsonian's craven lack of integrity by Kriston Capps. Poor ol' Cos is bedeviled by a nattering regiment of female victims and the best he can do is shake his head, "No" in response to respectful questions from NPR's Scott Simons. Bill Cosby is a hypocritical fraud. If this is (fair & balanced) facade-smashing, so be it.
P.S. Helpful hint from the blogger: click on the bracketed numbers below to hop from one item to another; click on "Back To Directory" to return to the starting point. Thanks be to Vannevar Bush for giving us the idea of hypertext.
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The Cosby Show
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
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On Monday, 66-year old Joan Tarshis accused Bill Cosby of raping her. Tarshis says the attack took place in 1969, when she was 19 and working as comedy writer:
...[H]e told me that he wanted to work on a monologue together, and I had an idea for something about an earthquake that had just happened. It was my first earthquake. I had some funny lines, and he said, Sure, let's work on that. And then? We went up to his cottage after they were done shooting. That's when it happened. He offered me a drink. It was a red eye, a bloody mary topped off with beer. He always made the drinks; he didn't have a bartender.
And then next thing I know, I was being undressed on his couch. I was so out of it. But I remember saying to him—I thought I would outsmart him—I said, I have an infection down there, and if you have sex with me, you're going to get it, and then your wife will know. He immediately switched to another orifice, which was worse....
Yes. He was holding me down. He's much bigger than I am. He's very big. I couldn't resist. He was forceful. He definitely used force. There was nothing I could do except wait for it to be over. I was in shock.
Tarshis is the fifth woman to publicly accuse Bill Cosby of raping her. There is now a sixth: model Janice Dickinson. In a civil suit brought by Andrea Constand, some 13 women were set to testify that Cosby had raped them too. They ultimately did not testify because Constand settled with Cosby. Tarshis says she was not among those 13, and so the total number of accusers appears to now stand at 15 including Dickinson.
Perhaps it is not fair for a journalist to consider, or even publicize, anonymous allegations of criminal activity. Even then we are left with six accusations of sexual assault: Tamara Green says that Cosby drugged and groped her in 1970. Beth Ferrier says that Cosby drugged and raped her in 1984. Janice Dickinson says Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982. Barbara Bowman says that Cosby drugged and raped her "multiple times" when she was 17 in 1985. And Andrea Constand says that Cosby drugged and raped her in 2004. Taken together, the public accusations span some 30 years and are remarkably similar in their detail.
Most of these allegations came after Constand sued Cosby in civil court. Her lawyers tracked down several accusers, some of whom wanted to use their names, and some of whom didn't. Perhaps all of these women are lying. Certainly, false criminal allegations happen. It is not unheard of for celebrities to be targeted for false allegations. The Cosby case is different, though, in its sheer volume and lack of ulterior motive—no civil suit, no criminal charges.
A defense of Cosby requires that one believe that several women have decided to publicly accuse one of the most powerful men in recent Hollywood history of a crime they have no hope of seeing prosecuted, and for which they are seeking no damages. The alternative is to see one of the most celebrated public fathers of our time, and one of the great public scourges of black morality, revealed as a serial rapist.
I spent parts of 2006 and 2007 following Bill Cosby around the country. He was then in the midst of giving a series of "call-outs" in which he upbraided the decline of morality in the black community. Our current organic black conservative moment largely springs from these efforts. It's worth distinguishing an "organic black conservative" from a black or white Republican moment. Black Republicans, with some exceptions, don't simply exist as people who believe in free markets and oppose abortion, but to assure white Republicans that racism no longer exists. Organic black conservatives (like Cosby, for instance) are traditionalists, but they hold no such illusions about America's past. They believe this country to be racist, perhaps irredeemably so, but assert nonetheless that individual effort can defeat trenchant racism. The organic black conservative vision is riding high at the moment. Thus even the NAACP cannot denounce the outriders of Ferguson without the requisite indictment of "black on black crime."
The author of this moment is Bill Cosby. In 2004, he gave his "Poundcake Speech," declaring black youth morally unworthy of their very heritage. Cosby followed the speech with a series of call-outs. I observed several of these call-outs. Again, unlike typical black Republicans, Cosby spoke directly to black people. He did not go on Fox News to complain about the threat of the New Black Panther Party. He did not pen columns insisting the black family was better off under slavery. He was not speaking as a man sent to assure a group that racism did not exist, but as a man who sincerely believed that black people, through the ethic of "twice as good," could overcome. That is the core of respectability politics. Its appeal is broad in both black and white America, and everywhere Cosby went he was greeted with rapturous applause.
I published a reported essay in 2008, in this magazine, on these call-outs. In that essay, there is a brief and limp mention of the accusations against Cosby. Despite my opinions on Cosby suffusing the piece, there was no opinion offered on the rape accusations. This is not because I did not have an opinion. I felt at the time that I was taking on Cosby's moralizing and wanted to stand on those things that I could definitively prove. Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists. But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person's word over another—it requires you take one person's word over 15 others.
At the time I wrote the piece, it was 13 peoples’ word—and I believed them. Put differently, I believed that Bill Cosby was a rapist.
Rape constitutes the loss of your body, which is all you are, to someone else. I have never been raped. But I have, several times as a child, been punched/stomped/kicked/bumrushed while walking home from school, and thus lost my body. The worst part for me was not the experience, but the humiliation of being unable to protect my body, which is all I am, from predators. Even now as I sketch this out for you publicly, I am humiliated all again. And this happened when I was a child. If recounting a physical assault causes me humiliation, how might recounting a sexual assault feel? And what would cause me to willingly stand up and relive that humiliation before a national audience? And why would I fake my way through such a thing? Cosby's accusers—who have no hope of criminal charges, nor civil damages—are courting the scrutiny of Cosby-lovers and rape-deniers. To what end?
The heart of the matter is this: A defender of Bill Cosby must, effectively, conjure a vast conspiracy, created to bring down one man, seemingly just out of spite. And people will do this work of conjuration, because it is hard to accept that people we love in one arena can commit great evil in another. It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn't just indict Cosby, it indicts us. It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows. It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.
And one cannot escape this chaos by hiding behind the lack of a court conviction. O.J. Simpson was not convicted in court for murdering his ex-wife. The men accused of killing Emmett Till were found innocent. ("If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long," mused one of them.) Police and government forces conspired to kill a Black Panther, Fred Hampton. They were never criminally prosecuted in any court.
Courts belong to the society, not the other way around. This is why many Americans scoff at the idea that O.J. was never convicted of killing his wife. And this is why many other Americans scoff at the idea that the government didn't kill Fred Hampton. Ducking behind an official finding is kind of cowardice that allows us the luxury of never facing hard questions. Cowardice can be insidious. Sometimes it is a physical fear. Other times it's just taking the easy out.
I would not dismiss all journalists who've declined to mention these allegations as cowards. It's worth considering what it feels like to, say, have been among those convicting Richard Jewell in the press. And should I have decided to state what I believed about Cosby, I would have had to write a much different piece. It would not have been enough to say, "I believe he is a rapist." A significant portion of my reporting, perhaps the lion’s share of my reporting, would have had to be aimed to investigating the claims.
The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else's salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby's moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I'd ever written.
It was not enough.
I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality—and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible.
I don't have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away. Ω
[Ta-Nehisi Coates (He pronounces his given name /ˌta-nɘˈhasi/.) is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for the magazine. Coates has worked for The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, and Time. He has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Washington Monthly, O, and other publications. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle (2008). Coates attended Howard University.]
Copyright © 2014 The Atlantic Monthly Group
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Why Is The Smithsonian Standing Behind Bill Cosby?
By Kriston Capps
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Bill Cosby did not want to talk about rape with the Associated Press. That much he made clear in an interview with AP arts reporter Brett Zongker, who interviewed Cosby and his wife, Camille, upon the opening of an exhibit of their collection of African American art at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. During the November 6 interview, which took place at the museum, Cosby rejected a question from the reporter about the allegations of sexual assault that have lingered over the popular performer—and national father figure—for nearly a decade.
“There’s no response,” Cosby tells Zongker during the filmed interview, which the AP released in its entirety on Wednesday. Seated in front of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s powerful 1894 painting, "The Thankful Poor," Cosby appeals to the reporter after the interview concludes (with the tape still rolling) to omit any discussion of the allegations of sexual assault. When that doesn’t appear to work, Cosby tells someone off camera, “I think you need to get on the phone with his person [Zongker’s employer], immediately.”
Now it’s the Smithsonian that doesn’t want to talk about rape. Through a spokesperson, both the National Museum of African Art and the larger Smithsonian Institution declined to discuss allegations from as many as 15 women that Cosby drugged and raped them. Two women, Joan Tarshis and model Janice Dickinson, have come forward with their accusations since the November 9 opening of “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue.” A third woman, Therese Serignese, said yesterday that Cosby drugged and raped her when she was 19.
In a two-sentence statement, the Smithsonian made clear that it is standing behind Cosby, without saying as much. “Conversations” will remain on view through the start of 2016. That’s the end of the conversation from the museum’s perspective. But it should be the start of one. The National Museum of African Art had no business hanging Cosby’s art collection in the first place. But now, with serious questions about Cosby’s past finally coming to light, the Smithsonian must reconsider its own role in framing the one conversation that matters most right now.
“When you choose to launch a show about a collector, rather than a show about art, you’re putting the collector on the pedestal, rather than artists and art and its history,” says art critic Tyler Green, host of the popular "Modern Art Notes" podcast and blog. Green, an art-world watchdog, has been a vociferous critic of exhibitions like “Conversations,” collector-driven shows in which the focus is the pursuit of artworks, rather than an artist or a theme. “That can go south really fast, and here, it has.”
The individual collector hardly matters, Green says. Collector-driven shows run contrary to the mission of art museums, which serve to tell the history of art and its makers. While there does exist a school of thought that art history in fact is the history of its benefactors—a theory from the 1980s called the New Art History—critics today tend to dismiss this approach. And in practice, shows about collectors tend inevitably toward hagiography.
“Art museums, through their exhibitions or collection galleries, tell a story of accumulation: how artists accumulate knowledge from their cultures or the art around them,” Green says. “Turning the focus to acquisitors rather than artists makes the focus on accumulation a story about shopping.”
The Smithsonian has a record of condescending to viewers with thin collector exhibitions. “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,” a 2010 show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, traded on two of Hollywood’s biggest names for a scholarship-free presentation of one of America’s most overexposed artists. It was a blockbuster. The same museum planned an exhibit of Western ephemera from the collection of Tea Party backer Bill Koch, including Western art—like the celebrated nocturne paintings of Frederic Remington—but also non-artworks, like pickaxes and gold nuggets. (The show never panned out.)
Beyond their low nutritional value, there are other reasons to object to collector-driven shows. Collectors stand to see the value of their works rise after a museum exhibition, which is why museums should never entertain collector exhibits unless the collection is promised to the museum, as former Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik explained by email. But that’s not the real problem with the Cosby show at the Smithsonian, he argues (putting aside, for a moment, the horrific allegations surrounding Cosby).
“How many collectors, buying only over a span of a few decades, have really amassed just the works an exhibition needs to make some significant art-historical point?” Gopnik writes. “In judging any curatorial exercise, I always ask, ‘What mark would this get if a student handed it in as an exhibition proposal in a curatorial studies class?’ A one-collector exhibition (even including some comparative objects from the permanent collection)? That would get a definite D-.”
The timing of this exhibition can't be seen as a coincidence. Cosby has been on a publicity blitz this fall. "Bill Cosby 77," an hour-long comedy special, was set to air on Netflix on November 27. (Netflix has since postponed the program, perhaps indefinitely.) A biography, Cosby: His Life and Times (2014), was published in September to mark the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show. (The book is now taking a drubbing.) Most notably, Cosby was set to reunite with Tom Werner, the producer of "The Cosby Show," for a new NBC series. (That series has been cancelled.)
Even TV Land has pulled re-runs of "The Cosby Show" from its lineup. Only the Smithsonian is providing Cosby any cover. While it’s troubling to think that the National Museum of African Art can be lined up like an appearance on David Letterman—which, incidentally, Cosby cancelled—perhaps removing an art show in the face of controversy merits some debate. After all, it’s hardly the fault of the artworks that their owner is discredited. Removing powerful works by wonderful African American artists like Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold does a disservice to museumgoers who want to see them.
The Smithsonian has censored an exhibit once in the recent past. In late 2010, Secretary G. Wayne Clough removed an artwork from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. A 1987 video called "A Fire in My Belly" by artist David Wojnarowicz, one of the works included in “Hide/Seek”—a groundbreaking exhibition of portraiture by LGBT artists—drew the ire of a conservative activist-journalist employed through Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center. Just as Bozell’s Parents Television Council used to overwhelm the FCC with complaints about indecency on television, the Media Research Center flooded the National Portrait Gallery with hundreds of phone calls and emails, all registering the same ultra-specific complaint: "A Fire in My Belly" was anti-Christmas. (The surreal video artwork featured snippets of ants crawling over a crucifix.)
When then-ascendant GOP leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor spoke in favor of taking down the queer-art exhibition, Secretary Clough took action: Over the objections of the museum’s then-director Martin Sullivan, Clough had the video removed. It was absolutely the wrong decision, and Clough later earned a (mild) rebuke from an outside panel organized by the Smithsonian’s board of regents. Artworks shouldn’t be removed from exhibitions that have already opened, the panel recommended. (Secretary Clough is retiring at the end of the year.)
In “Conversations,” the artworks are not the issue. (They present a skewed narrative of African American art history, writes Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott in his review, but never mind.) It’s the show itself that is the problem. It should never have opened. Its origination calls into question the Smithsonian’s ethical standing as a fiercely independent public institution, and not a vehicle for celebrity. Removing “Conversations” would do the museum no harm.
“We’re not talking about a museum of art in Dubuque. We’re talking about the National Museum of African Art, which has a fine collection, and one of the finest collections of its kind in the United States,” Green says. “If it has to take down a show because it’s embarrassing itself, it’s not like they’ll be showing empty walls.”
Supporting “Conversations,” on the hand, invariably means supporting Cosby. But there might be a step short of pulling the exhibition: The Smithsonian could offer to strike the Cosbys’ name from the show. Pull down the Simmie Knox portrait of the couple that makes them look like modern-day Medicis. Scrub the word “Cosby” from the walls. That would show that the leaders of America’s cultural treasury are not willing to, as my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “take one person's word over 15 others.” It would no doubt lead to the show collapsing.
That would be for the best. In the AP video interview with Cosby, the gallery goes to a dark place. What happens in the room is an abuse of the dignity of an art museum. It’s not just Cosby telling Zongker to shut down the conversation, but several people. It’s not just the reporter that this room wants silenced, but by extension the women who have testified about their pain. One man from Cosby’s retinue tells Zongker that another AP reporter accepted Cosby’s refusal to discuss the allegations against him—and so should he. A woman off-screen whom Cosby doesn’t appear to know (he refers to her as “ma’am”) confirms Cosby’s opinion about Zongker’s line of questioning: “I don’t think it has any value, either.”
“We thought, by the way, because it was AP, that it wouldn’t be necessary to go over that question with you,” Cosby tells Zongker. (The original November 10 story mentions the allegations in the final paragraph of a 1,000-word piece on Cosby’s collection.) “We thought AP had the integrity to not ask,” Cosby adds.
Now it’s the museum’s turn to prove its mettle. Does the Smithsonian have the integrity not to ask? Or does it have the integrity the situation deserves? Ω
[Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post. He received a BA (English and art history) from The University of Texas at Austin.]
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