I read reports of Louis C.K.’s alleged sexual misconduct, now confirmed by Louis himself, on the same laptop that held a “Louis C.K. is my spirit animal” sticker. Before I began to peel it off, not wanting to force the face of sexual harassment on my fellow students, I was struck by the age-old question that plagues modern audiences: how do we separate art from the artist?
My earliest memory of attempting to distinguish between the two dates back to my introduction into the world of Woody Allen. As a young adult, I was carefully warned by my parents of his problematic relationships and allegations of sexual abuse. Nonetheless, I continued to give my full attention to much of his work, from Annie Hall to the more recent Midnight in Paris. I found myself empathizing with his autobiographical treatment of neurotic existentialism and overlooking his questionable past. Few could deny his indelible legacy within the history of cinema. Neither could I.
Years later, I still overlook the misdeeds of artists when enjoying their art. If Good Will Hunting were to come on my TV, I would not change the channel despite the handful of people involved in the film who have been accused of sexual harassment: actors Ben Affleck and his brother Casey Affleck, along with the now infamous producer Harvey Weinstein. As with Woody Allen’s films, I would maintain some emotional distance but take away the same moral truths as I had before.
Beyond Hollywood and the heinous politics of sex it fosters, I somehow manage to reconcile my Jewish identity with the art I admire from anti-Semitic artists. Richard Wagner’s revolutionary contributions to musical drama do not require me to agree with the racism he espoused in his time. When I listen to “Ride of the Valkyries,” I think not of the composer’s association with Nazism but instead of the piece’s grandeur and atmospheric qualities. Similarly, I can appreciate painter and sculptor Edgar Degas for the impressionist trailblazer he was without thinking about how he exposed his own latent anti-Semitism when he falsely accused Alfred Dreyfus in the French political scandal of the late 19th century.
Yet something was different about Louis C.K. I stared at the sticker for some time, looking deep into his furrowed brow, familiar grimace, and eyes that could have belonged to your neighbor or professor or, dare I say it, dad. He had really been my “spirit animal,” making me uncomfortable in the best way possible with his crude jokes and human sensitivities. This same pleasant discomfort has now soured as I think of all the times I listened to clips from his standup on the way to school or watched his Netflix specials with my family.
Throughout the years I felt as if we had somehow defied the laws of the comedic cyber world to become friends. He gave details into his private life, allowing me insight into his relationship with his daughters, his awkward sexual escapades, and even his unrestrained thoughts on masturbation. I gave him the privilege of entering my thoughts, influencing my humor, and coming up in dinner table conversation.
But before I go so far as to say that I feel personally betrayed by my “friend,” I want to point something out that should make us all a little less surprised by his misconduct: Louis has been dropping hints all along. In his 2005 special on the HBO series One Night Stand, he joked, “These days my problem is very simple: it’s trying to find a place in my house where I can masturbate without somebody bothering me.” In his 2008 special Chewed Up, he joked, “I jerk off way too much and it upsets me and I don’t know why.” And in a 2011 show at the Beacon Theater, he joked, “You’re a tourist in sexual perversion. I’m a prisoner there.” Why then, should I feel betrayed by someone who has been so obviously in control of writing his own perverted script? As a loyal audience member, I should’ve paid closer attention.
What I feel truly betrayed by is our culture of hierarchizing actors, artists, politicians and everyone else in the public spotlight at the top. Too often we forget about the fallibility of celebrities, or rather, of humans. Louis C.K. is no cautionary tale—we have been warned of the prevalence of this kind of behavior in Hollywood long before him. He should be reminding us that what separates our total veneration and disgust for perpetrators like Louis C.K. is the truth. How many other artists out there have committed the same, if not worse, acts of sexual misconduct? Why should it take a band of brave and vulnerable women, and some men, coming together each time to inform the world that these offenses occur on and off screen? Why are we pretending like sexual harassment is news when it burdens women everywhere every day, especially women with significantly less economic power than actresses?
In trying to answer the question of how to separate art from the artist, Randy Cohen of the New York Times wrote, “It’s hard to be a good person; it’s hard to produce great work. Most of us accomplish neither. To demand both might be asking more than human beings are capable of.” I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a man be able to make jokes and keep it in his pants at the same time. So I peeled off my sticker.