How do Fallen Idols Hurt Us?

I loved Bill Cosby when I was growing up. I would listen to his records again and again and again. I all but memorized his “Chicken Heart” sketch. As a kid I had like 7 albums and 5 of them were Cosby records. I just laughed my ass off listening to him. I may never have been more amused by anything in my life.

By the time his horrible crimes became common knowledge, I no longer thought he was producing excellent work. I was not laid low by learning he was an awful person because it would cost me future enjoyment. And it was not just that yet another random public figure turned out to be an awful human being. I felt harmed more personally than that, something closer to being betrayed by a friend. It somehow cost me in the coin of past enjoyment. Obviously it is not that what I learned about Cosby undid what happened in the past. My past happiness and amusement were beyond the reach of his evil. Rather, I could no longer smile down happily on those childhood memories. The past happiness was spoiled somehow. It is almost, but not quite, as if that past happiness happened in an Experience Machine disconnected to reality.

But this effect, if I am describing it in a way that resonates with others, is confusing. My joy was not taken in his evil. My happily dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” was responsive to the music’s excellence, not anything bad about him. Why should we feel our experience is sullied? The music remains excellent. And if the person who made my computer or the medicine I need turns out to be awful, my benefits would in no way similarly be tarnished. It has something to do with our feeling of having something like a personal connection to the comedian or musician that we do not have to the faceless people who benefit us. I think part of appreciating some art forms involves a feeling a positive connection to the author. Oversimplifying, the thought might be “It took a beautiful soul to produce this excellent work and through the work I feel some connection to that beautiful soul.” And this perhaps helps partially explain our sense of betrayal or deception when the unity of the virtues spectacularly splinters in our idols.

I wonder, first, if the experience I am trying to describe is common? I think it is but would be happy for confirmation. Second, I wonder if the initial attempts at explaining it I offer seem on the right track? Third, I wonder if people have other thoughts about what is going on in such cases (or know of other discussions of such cases)?

10 Replies to “How do Fallen Idols Hurt Us?

  1. I wonder, first, if the experience I am trying to describe is common?

    I share the experience. I can’t do Cosby any more. Even though it is, strictly speaking, not an art form, I can’t do Searle as well. I feel soiled.

    Second, I wonder if the initial attempts at explaining it I offer seem on the right track?

    You said:
    t took a beautiful soul to produce this excellent work and through the work I feel some connection to that beautiful soul.

    So, I don’t think the beautiful soul business is on the right track. We’ve long known that great art was often made by people who deserve their own circle of hell. Gauguin is exhibit A.

    The personal connection bit rings true. Reading a piece of philosophy or enjoying a work of art involves some sort of personal (or pseudo-personal) connection to the artist/ author. Or at least it evokes some sort of mimicry of such a connection. The feeling is like being betrayed by a friend.

    Third, I wonder if people have other thoughts about what is going on in such cases (or know of other discussions of such cases)?

    I don’t know of any such discussions off hand, but the friendship business might be fruitful. Do we create a special place in our hearts for the creators of works which we enjoy? The thought here is that he has become our buddy. Someone that we can rely on to give us entertainment (e.g. make us laugh) every thursday night. For philosophers, they are people who have revealed their thoughts on a particular topic. If I know your most intimate thoughts on something that is near and dear to your heart, that seems like something only a friend would typically reveal to us.

    Perhaps consuming good works of art/philosophy give us a certain goods which we typically associate with friendship. Therefore, we construct an image of the artist as friend in our mind. If this is right, this would cause the malfeasance of the artist/author to hurt us the same way the malfeasance of a friend would.

  2. Murali,

    You wrote: “So, I don’t think the beautiful soul business is on the right track. We’ve long known that great art was often made by people who deserve their own circle of hell. Gauguin is exhibit A.”

    I take this thought. Perhaps the Cosby and Jackson cases are a common form, but still a subset of, artistic appreciation: call them cases of “naive appreciation”. In these cases we have no reason to doubt the overall goodness of the author. But there could well be appreciation of an author’s work where that is not the case, as you point out.

  3. A relevant part might how our admiration for others tends to spread. So a person may admire a musician for their musical talents and work, but then come to admire (or at least see more favourably) the musician’s political views or take the musician to be more epistemically credible than they ought to. We suggest that this is partly why we often see fans defending their artistic heroes from accusations of sexual misconduct (e.g. many Michael Jackson fans will either outright deny the accusations made about him or try to play them down). While we don’t go into the point about the feeling of betrayal in the paper, this may also be related to admiration spreading. Rather the person coming to defend the artist from the accusations of immorality or playing them down (e.g. accepting what they did but holding that it’s not wrong), the person comes to feel that the art itself isn’t as good as was or they can’t enjoy it anymore. Very roughly, admiration’s spreading effect seems to create a kind of link between the admirable parts of the artist/their work and the rest of them. For some people, this means rejecting claims of immorality against them. For others, this means rejecting that they did good artistic work in the first place (or not being able to enjoy it).

  4. Hi David,

    I’m writing a book about this general topic, and there will be a chapter specifically on this feeling of betrayal that you describe (which I definitely think is common). I wrote a little bit about some relevant considerations in this short post about sellouts over at Aesthetics for Birds: https://aestheticsforbirds.com/2018/09/13/artworld-roundtable-can-todays-artists-still-sell-out/#matthes

    I also recommend Benjamin and Alfred’s paper!

  5. I think there’s an interesting point made regarding how we’ve long since known a lot of great art (or entertainment) was made by horrible people. I think this might actually reveal something important about the phenomenon you’re describing.

    A similar thing might actually be going on when people choose to protest/boycott organizations that have some sort of connection to evil that gets revealed. Nike makes their sneakers in sweatshops and you are outraged by this and commit to no longer buying Nike, for example. Not because their shoes are any less good, and it doesn’t make the shoes you bought from them in the past any less good, they were still comfortable and did their job at protecting your feet and aiding your sporting activity or whatever. Now, however, that the truth has been revealed to you, you might look back on those shoe-experiences with a kind of disappointment and think “If I had only known they were from a sweatshop I would never have bought them….” and I think this is sort of what is going on in the Cosby case. Your buying his albums and enjoying his performances contributed to his fame which directly contributed to his ability to do evil in the same way buying Nike products perpetuates the continued sweatshop activity.

    This is somewhat different in the case of evil people who make art, especially if the making of their art is not directly related to their evil. Moreover, even if it is, if they are dead, or far removed, or you are ignorant of their evil (as we tend to be with most artists – oh we know they ‘probably’ have some strange moral weirdness, but we don’t know what it is for sure, and we prefer not taking steps to find out, perhaps even for this reason! It would ruin their work for us.)

    Finally, there is also a kind of social element to this as well. When you enjoy what someone does well, you are essentially raising a signal of your own – you’re saying “hey, I share this taste too!” and there is a kind of interpersonal connection between you, that person, and others with similar aesthetic or humor (or whatever) tastes. Psychologically, it is always disappointing to discover that someone with similar tastes to mine is evil, and this is, I think, because it is a kind of non-superficial value. But if my values are the same as an evil person…..do you see where this is going? It is false, of course, but psychologically and emotionally, it’s literal falsity does nothing to help the phenomenology.

    Just a few thoughts. Does this seem on any right tracks?

  6. Sorry, let me finish this thought –
    “This is somewhat different in the case of evil people who make art, especially if the making of their art is not directly related to their evil. Moreover, even if it is, if they are dead, or far removed, or you are ignorant of their evil (as we tend to be with most artists – oh we know they ‘probably’ have some strange moral weirdness, but we don’t know what it is for sure, and we prefer not taking steps to find out, perhaps even for this reason! It would ruin their work for us.)…”

    I meant that if they are already dead, or far removed, or we are ignorant of their evil, then it might not trigger this kind of tainting of our enjoyment of their work. It doesn’t really matter whether we admire the work of a dead person, because our admiration does nothing to contribute to their evil, we are able to separate the value of the thing (work of art or performance) from the “values” of the person, since that person no longer exists or whatever.

    Sorry about leaving this thought unfinished there.

  7. As an arts journalist, this is a question central to my work. In my response, I am guided by one overriding consideration: to be as faithful to reality as possible.

    In the Cosby case, for example, that obligates us to admit that the comedy records are still brilliantly successful achievements, while simultaneously acknowledging that his private life is unforgivably awful. Many people have a hard time holding those two thoughts in their head at the same time, but that’s what reality demands of us. You can decide to revisit those old recordings or not—and either choice can be justified by your own psychological needs—but you can’t reject the excellence of the early albums without falling into league with climate-change deniers.

    Cosby is an extreme case, of course, but every single human being is flawed. If you’re expecting your artists, politicians, philosophers or athletes to be flawless human beings, you’ll be disappointed every time. Martin Luther King cheated on his wife, Mahatma Gandhi demanded that young girls in his movement sleep next to him to test his chastity. Bruce Springsteen publicly humiliated his ex-girlfriend; Cal Ripken baited umpires. Every person has failings.

    Let reality be our guide. We need to admit that Barry Bonds was the greatest baseball player who ever lived and that he was an obnoxious asshole. We need to admit that Woody Allen made some of the best American movies ever made and that he at the very least mishandled his relationships to his several stepdaughters. We need to admit that Van Morrison is one of the greatest singers of his generation and that he is a cranky old codger. We need to admit that Loretta Lynn is one of the greatest country songwriters of all time and also a right-wing Republican. It’s not an easy thing to do, but we need to hold those contrasting perceptions in our minds at the same time.

    –Geoffrey Himes 1/10/19

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