May 18, 2018

Portrait of the Artist as an Unperson

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By Terry Teachout

IN THE WAKE of Bill Cosby’s conviction on three counts of sexual assault, the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center has voted to rescind his 1998 Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the performing arts, as well as his 2009 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. A written statement explained the decision as follows: “The Board concluded that [Cosby’s] actions have overshadowed the very career accomplishments these distinctions…intend to recognize.”

I can’t say I’m surprised, any more than I am by the fast-growing list of colleges and universities that have shredded the honorary degrees they previously conferred upon Mr.

Cosby. He was already well on the way to becoming a cultural unperson when the Kennedy Center joined Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame and Yale—among many others—in the #MeToo-triggered pile-on. In addition, none of his old TV shows is being telecast anymore, and even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has given him the bum’s rush, simultaneously expelling Roman Polanski for good measure. (Yes, it took them long enough to do something about Mr. Polanski, but that’s another column.)

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the Kennedy Center, the Motion Picture Academy and Yale were deliriously happy to ride on the capacious coattails of Mr. Cosby’s celebrity once upon a time. Yale went so far as to confer an honorary doctorate of “humane letters” upon him in 2003 for his “contributions to society.” We are now invited to suppose that those contributions have lost all meaning in light of the revelations about the viciousness of his sex life.

Meanwhile, Met Opera Radio, the Metropolitan Opera’s Sirius XM satellite radio channel, has admitted that it is no longer broadcasting live recordings conducted by James Levine, who performed at the Met from 1971 until last December, when he was suspended and subsequently fired after an investigation in which the Met claimed to have found “credible evidence” that he “engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct toward vulnerable artists…over whom [he] had authority.” (Mr. Levine continues to deny the accusations, and unlike Mr. Cosby he has not been charged with any crimes.) The Met says that recordings of his performances “will be reintroduced to the programming at an appropriate time.” It would be hard to come up with a statement less transparent, or more evasive, than that.

I won’t lose any sleep over the twin descents of Messrs. Cosby and Levine into the dark pit of disgrace. But there’s a difference—a huge one—between shunning such men and rewriting the history of which they are a prominent part. Not only

was Mr. Cosby the first black man to star in a weekly dramatic TV series, “I Spy,” but “The Cosby Show,” for which he is now best remembered, was universally praised for portraying a middle-class black family in a way that appealed to viewers of all races. As for Mr. Levine, he was one of the halfdozen greatest opera conductors of the postwar era. Yet the Kennedy Center and Met Opera Radio seem to be trying to pretend that neither man ever existed.

Few of us like to admit it, but most human beings are impossibly complicated, none more so than artists. You can simultaneously be a great comedian and a sexual predator, a great musician and a pedophile. To argue otherwise is to falsify history, and to falsify history is to dynamite the foundations of reality.

I used the word “unperson” earlier in this piece. It was coined by George Orwell in “Nineteen EightyFour,” his 1948 dystopian fantasy about a totalitarian society similar to the Soviet Union whose ruler, Big Brother, rewrites history every day to expunge his enemies from the record books. To this end, his Ministry of Truth prints new editions of books and newspapers from which the names of politically incorrect “unpersons” have been scissored out, even as the offenders themselves have been jailed and brainwashed. As a character explains, “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?”

Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much that the Kennedy Center has hosed Mr. Cosby’s name off its increasingly trivial roll of pop-culture sycophancy. But Met Opera Radio did something far more consequential when it chucked Mr. Levine’s historic recordings into the memory hole, an act of suppression that bears a distant but nonetheless definite resemblance to book-burning. By doing so, it effectively declared that great musicians must also be good men—a position that can be defended only by the tone-deaf.


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