THAT’S The Concept I Was Looking For—“Cultural Vandalism”!

Does he still seem like God to you?

“Cultural vandalism”!

Perfect! That’s the ideal description of what artists, especially performing artists, do when they engage in such revolting conduct that it becomes difficult or impossible for us to enjoy their work the way we could before we knew they were disgusting human beings.

We owe Vulture writer a debt of gratitude, not only for identifying the conduct as cultural vandalism (a term usually reserved for acts like stealing the Elgin Marbles), but also for explaining, in his article The Cultural Vandalism of Jeffrey Tambor, clearly and powerfully, why it is a serious ethical breach beyond the misconduct itself.

He writes in part,

Once I know something like this, it makes it impossible for me to look at the actor and not think of the horrible things they’ve allegedly done. I don’t care to argue whether this is rational or not (I think it is), or whether I hold inconsistent opinions of works that are problematic for whatever reason (everyone does). The repulsed feeling is still there, and it makes a difference in how I react as a spectator…This sort of thing seems categorically different from, say, watching a film starring an actor whose political beliefs are different from yours (though there, too, a line could be irrevocably crossed). Once you believe that a particular actor or filmmaker or screenwriter is a predator or abuser, you’re aware that the environment that produced your entertainment — the film set — was engaged in a conscious or reflexive cover-up, in the name of protecting an investment. You can still be passionately interested in the thing as a historical or aesthetic document — seeing it through the eyes of, say, an art historian who can contextualize Paul Gauguin within the totality of 19th-century painting, or an African-American studies professor who’s fascinated by Gone With the Wind — but you can’t lose yourself in it anymore. You can’t be in love with it. You can’t really enjoy it in the most basic sense, not without playing dumb.

You didn’t do that to the artist. The artist did that to himself…

And it’s awful. People’s lives get ruined, their careers get interrupted or destroyed. The emotional, physical, and financial damage that problematic artists inflict on people in their orbit should always be the first and main subject of discussion…On top of all that, we also have the collateral damage of cultural vandalism. Fun, meaningful, even great works that dozens or hundreds of people labored over, that built careers and fortunes and whole industries, become emotionally contaminated to the point where you can’t watch them anymore…. in recent years, an entire wing of African-American cultural history has been vaporized by the Bill Cosby allegations and his recent felony sexual-assault trial, including the most popular sitcom of the ’80s (The Cosby Show), some of the top-selling comedy albums of all time, the precursor to the R-rated buddy comedy genre (Uptown Saturday Night and its sequels), and the first Saturday morning cartoon with a predominantly black cast (Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids). Predators’ careers are getting raptured, as well they should be. But unfortunately — perhaps inevitably — their work is getting raptured along with it, imploding into dust as the culture moves on to things that aren’t as problematic (or that might have skeezy stuff going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about yet)….

…Nobody is stopping anyone from watching these works (though they’re no longer as easy to find, and you probably have to own a DVD player). We can still talk about them, study them, write about them, contextualize them. But the emotional connection has been severed. The work becomes archival. It loses its present-tense potency, something that significant or great works have always had the privilege of claiming in the past.

That’s all on the predators. It’s not on you. None of us asked for this.


This is pure cognitive dissonance scale stuff, of course. Regular readers here probably don’t need this, but here it is again:

If the Cosby Show was a 10, and Bill was a 10 along with it, but drugging and raping women is below a -10, as it should be, it is going to pull Cos and his show down the scale to the point that most people don’t find Dr. Huxtable’s funny faces hilarious any more.

Seitz also suggest that artists should consider it an obligation not to destroy cultural works by engaging in personal misconduct tat will forever mar them. They should, I agree, but I wonder if anyone so perverse and ethically rotten as a Spacey, a Louis C.K., a Woody Allen, a Polanski, or a Cosby would pause a second before they savaged a human being to think–“Wait a minute! If I do this and it comes out, that classic film/TV show I was in will never be as enjoyable again!” I doubt it.

More Seitz:

It’s not incumbent upon the audience to pretend not to know unpleasant facts about the performer so that they can enjoy fiction. It’s incumbent upon the artist never to put the audience in that position in the first place. It might sound like I’m describing one of those “morals clauses” in Old Hollywood contracts, but it’s a different thing, because it’s about protecting the audience’s emotional investment in the art, not just the studio’s investment in the product. It’s a basic courtesy, an implied part of the unwritten agreement that ought to exist between the artist and the viewer.

Certain things you can forgive or forget. Other things you can’t because they stain the mind. This is the misdemeanor on top of the crimes.

Again, in principle, I agree. In reality, most of these people are sociopaths and narcissists. They have no conscience. A lot of them are emotionally and mentally ill. Is it reasonable to expect, for example, a Gig Young to not kill his wife and himself because he knows nobody will be able to enjoy Doris Day comedies like “Teacher’s Pet” and “Send Me No Flowers” again? I can’t enjoy the “Naked Gun” films like I used to, because every time O.J. comes on the screen as the bumbling “Nordberg,” I think of bloody gloves and cut throats. Do you think O.J. cares? After his murder, it came out that Bob Crane was obsessed with kinky sex and hung out with the lowest of low-lifes, leading to his ugly demise. I doubt that Crane worried about the peril his lifestyle posed for his fellow “Hogan’s Heroes” cast mates, who have all lost a great deal of income from the residuals that vanished once funny and likable Colonel Hogan was revealed as bondage/ sadism/masochism freak.

That’s the problem. The performing artists who have enough basic decency, integrity and professionalism to feel an obligation not to degrade their work by personal misconduct aren’t the artists likely to behave unethically anyway.

19 thoughts on “THAT’S The Concept I Was Looking For—“Cultural Vandalism”!

    • Thanks. Yeah, I read it. I have no idea what happened with Allen and his alleged molestation of his youngest pseudo daughter. The fact that she says she was molested, by #MeToo standards, should carry the most weight, no? I know this: that was one dysfunctional family.

      But it doesn’t matter what happened in pegging Woody as a sick creep. There is no question that he carried on an illicit, semi-incestuous affair with his adopted pseudo-daughter while being pseudo-married to her mother. Nice. Creep. No doubt about it.

  1. Have you changed your position on entities taking away artistic awards ex post facto for this sort of thing? This guy’s essay seems to make such de-honoring more defensible, or at least comprehensible.

  2. Back in graduate school, I worked as a teaching assistant to a brilliant professor, Ron Willis, in his Introduction to Theatre class. Seitz’s commentary intersects with two of the concepts Ron highlighted in his course. The first of those is what Ron called para-aesthetics: those elements which affect an audience’s reception of an aesthetic event without being the aesthetic event.
    These can be entirely coincidental (it’s pouring rain) or created specifically by the production company (the poster). The company many have had some, but not complete, control over the influence (there’s insufficient parking, in part because of another event in the area). The para-aesthetic influence could apply to the entire audience (the leading actor is a big star, the auditorium is freezing) or to an individual (the leading actor is your best friend, the person next to you thinks that showers are for other people, you’ve had a couple glasses of wine before the show).
    The fact that a Bill Cosby’s off-camera life has been considerably short of exemplary matters in a para-aesthetic way. But each individual spectator will respond differently to each impulse. That leading actor—my best friend—is someone else’s ex. Facebook tells me that a year and a day ago I saw a play in London with a young movie star in the title role. His presence mattered to me not a bit, but there were dozens if not hundreds of his fans in the house: people who were there specifically to see him. That play was an adaptation of a script I adore and indeed directed a few years ago. The fact that the play as presented bore little if any resemblance to the original bothered me a lot; those who didn’t know the 19th-century version were far more able to accept the 21st-century revision on its own terms.
    In other words, our responses are individualized. But it’s more than that, I think. The cognitive dissonance might be too great, for example, to watch Bill Cosby in his eponymous sitcom: the witty but loving and innocuous husband and father character just seems too out of synch with what we now know about the actor. But “I Spy,” in which Cosby’s character, though unquestionably a hero, is at some level living a lie… yeah, I might watch that again.
    Cognitive dissonance, in other words, is affected by a variety of individualized factors, including—in terms of this discussion—the nature of the alleged offense and the perceived credibility of the allegation. This latter point leads us to the other of Ron Willis’s concepts: closure. Ron’s thesis, and I agree with it, is that we as a species have a felt need for closure, for making things fit, so we go out of our way to find the pattern that explains everything. Closure is good at the end of a mystery story, less good in real life. I’ve decided to vote for Candidate X. Therefore, when I hear something really negative about X, my immediate impulse is to reject the new evidence—it’s a smear campaign by Candidate Y or by the fillintheblank-leaning media, or whatever.
    Of course, sometimes, rejecting that new information is the thoroughly appropriate thing to do: the allegations against George Takei, for example, now appear to be somewhere between unsubstantiated and outright untruths. Too often, though, actual evidence is ignored. Still, when the accusations attain critical mass, we respond. If there’s any constitutional concept as misunderstood as freedom of speech, it’s “innocent until proven guilty.” If you hear from someone you consider a reliable source that a prospective babysitter snorts cocaine on the job, you’re not going to hire that babysitter… and it is not only acceptable but imperative that you make that decision. That babysitter is not legally guilty of anything (yet), but you’re not the government. You’re not going incarcerate her, but you’re sure as hell going to hire somebody else to take care of your kids.
    We’re certainly at this point, or indeed somewhat further down that road, as respects a number of big-name celebrities. We mustn’t be too sure too soon that they have indeed brought all this on themselves, but the fact the we liked this or that movie or TV show or song or whatever can’t be granted any sway in our perception of their off-stage life. Para-aesthetics work only in one direction: it is reasonable that what we know about actors affects our perception of their performance, but we cannot allow our admiration for (or revulsion at) their performance to affect how we regard them as citizens.

    • “If there’s any constitutional concept as misunderstood as freedom of speech, it’s “innocent until proven guilty.” If you hear from someone you consider a reliable source that a prospective babysitter snorts cocaine on the job, you’re not going to hire that babysitter… and it is not only acceptable but imperative that you make that decision. That babysitter is not legally guilty of anything (yet), but you’re not the government. You’re not going incarcerate her, but you’re sure as hell going to hire somebody else to take care of your kids.”

      I think that another way to think of this is that in the ‘court’ where the jurisdiction is restricted to your own life, the reliable source is indeed evidence enough for a guilty verdict with the understanding that we’re talking about JUST your life. In that context, the ‘sentence’ you hand down as a result of that verdict is one that is within your power: the babysitter in question will never be hired again.


  3. “Predators’ careers are getting raptured, as well they should be. But unfortunately — perhaps inevitably — their work is getting raptured along with it,”

    Did Seitz mean “ruptured”, because I think that makes a little more sense…

    Anyway, I wanted to toss this out: What if we don’t want to know, and make an effort NOT to know? What if I see an article about a star I really like behaving badly, and I choose not to click on it? Does that make me a bad person? While I get what Seitz is saying, that you can’t just forget what you know, how obligated are you to study up on this in the first place? It’s certainly important if you’re a part of the industry (or looking to break in), but what obligation do us mere consumers have to vet our entertainers?

    • I think he means rapture in the sense of the rapture before Judgment Day, in that the people involved are just disappearing from the industry in the blink of an eye. It seems the writer approves of that, but questions if the person’s existing work should also be disappeared.

      I don’t think consumers have much of an obligation to vet the private lives of entertainers. I’ll make a bit of a confession: I recently watched a part of a Cosby Show episode that I thought was funny 35 years ago, and I think that it’s still funny. Cosby was something of a hero to me when I was young, but that all went away when Dr. Cosby started lecturing evetyone. I think that we know far too much about entertainers, and that we should be trying to reduce the amount of attention they get, whether for their political views, sex lives, or police records.

      • There was a line I read on that point yesterday, to the point that actors were more likable when they had publicists who monitored everything the public read about them or heard what they said, so they didn’t reveal themselves to be the creeps, narcissists and idiots they were.

        • It’s tough not to pay attention to these people. I try to ignore “royal” weddings, but then Pippa goes and dresses like an iced tea can:

          How can you not click on a link to that?

  4. Great. Now I have to erase all those ‘Hogan’s Heros’ episodes on my DVR.

    And I was going to binge watch them this weekend.

    Maybe I can still use Schultz’s “I see nothing!” method…

    Rats. Won’t work.

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