When three new women accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault this week, the government’s Smithsonian Institution, “the nation’s attic,” suddenly found that it had been lured into assisting a clever PR ploy by the disgraced comedian. [ Full disclosure: I have worked for the Smithsonian recently, delivering a five hour lecture on the cultural and ethical influence of classic Western movies last December.] The revelations were the most graphic and disturbing yet ( Sample: “I was shocked. I didn’t know how I had lost so much time. My clothes were thrown all over the room and I felt semen on the small of my back and all over me…” ), and brought the total number of accusers near the half-century mark. Meanwhile, an exhibition of art owned by Bill and Camille Cosby will be on display at the National Museum of African Art until January 2016.
How many women will have come forward by then? Let’s start a pool!
In July, the museum posted a notice by the exhibition that reads in part:
“Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” opened to the public in November and is scheduled to conclude in early 2016. In the months leading up to the show, and in recent weeks, cultural commentators have questioned whether the museum should have moved forward with the exhibition in light of the rape allegations that have dogged the comedian. Attorneys for Cosby have denied the accusations…[which] cast a negative light on what should be a joyful exploration of African and African American art in this gallery. The National Museum of African Art in no way condones Mr. Cosby’s behavior. We continue to present ‘Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue’ because it is fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not Mr. Cosby.”
Sure. Tell us another.
The Washington Post critic who visited the exhibit recently said that he tried to count the number of references to Cosby in it and “stopped counting at 40.” The exhibit is a departure from established museum practice, which usually does not exhibit private collections of living people unless the collections have been donated to the institution. Of course, the Cosbys donated something to the Smithsonian: $716,000, which the organization did not make an effort to disclose until pressed. Museum director Johnnetta Cole is a close friend of the the corrupt couple, and Camille Cosby serves on the museum’s board of advisors.
It should be obvious that the Smithsonian has been put in the position of appearing to bolster the arguments of Cosby’s defenders by placing its imprimatur—at a cost to taxpayers of $136,000 dollars—on a public exhibition that hypocritically extols the “family values” of couple who now appear to have conspired to allow the comic to pursue an avocation as an adulterous sexual predator.
I don’t know that I agree with the assessment of Post cultural critic Phillip Kennicott that the exhibition, in context, appears to bolster the oppression and subjugation of women through rape. I do agree with him that…
“This isn’t about borrowing art from an unsavory rich guy; it’s about hosting an exhibition that celebrates the family life and character — “the personal importance of family to the collectors cannot be overstated,” reads one exhibition text — of a married man who by his own admission acquired Quaaludes to give to women he wanted to have sex with…Now the Smithsonian has chosen to stand behind an exhibition celebrating a collector who personifies the nexus of power, wealth and celebrity that allows too many men of high social standing to treat women with violence and impunity…No matter what the Smithsonian asserts, the Cosby exhibition is now inextricably tied to women’s portrayal of Cosby as a sexual predator. Its casual celebration of patriarchy and traditional female role models will be read in context of women who claim that he allegedly used drugs to incapacitate them.”
In other words—ick. It shows atrocious taste and inexplicable judgment for the government to sponsor a hagiographic exhibition in the nation’s capital that serves as a tribute to a man as his warped and even criminal secret life is unfolding daily. More ick: the exhibit includes such text as “the personal importance of family to the collectors cannot be overstated” and “What about the word no don’t you understand?”
“Conversations” should be taken down. It should have been taken down as soon as the credible accusations started rolling in.
I have wrestled with whether to simply state now why today’s post is materially different from this one, in which I found unethical Disney’s decision to remove Cosby’s bust from its Florida TV Hall of Fame exhibit, or to mercilessly mock the inevitable commenter who can’t see the distinction. I guess I’ll be nice. The Disney exhibit honors Bill Cosby for his undeniable accomplishments in comedy, breaking down walls for black entertainers, and revolutionizing TV sitcoms. He didn’t buy the honor, and it has nothing to do with his sexual misconduct and hypocrisy. Nor is the Florida exhibit mounted in the name of the nation itself, on the taxpayer’s dime. “Conversations,” however, now appears to be a state-endorsed celebration of Cosby’s personal values even as they are being shown to be a spectacular ruse.
The Smithsonian exhibit is a lie, devised to perpetrate a lie.
That’s the distinction.