Arts  •  November 17, 2017

Louis C.K. and the Debate Over Art and Artist

The recent string of sexual harassment scandals has reignited the debate over whether we should separate art from the artist. We’ve had this in the past with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Now the latest is Louis C.K. I’m singling out C.K. here because, in my view, he goes beyond being an entertainer; he is an artist. A rule of thumb I would use is whether the person is replaceable or not (although, admittedly, it’s still quite subjective).

Harvey Weinstein is a businessman. Many great films will still be produced without him. Someone else will take his place. No big deal. Even Kevin Spacey is replaceable; in fact, he is being replaced on Ridley Scott’s film as we speak. But Louis C.K.? No. He is not replaceable. Nobody else can create what he created. Others can certainly imitate his work but nobody would be able to beat Louis C.K. at being Louis C.K. That’s what artists do; they create something irreplaceable because they successfully express their singularity.

Art ultimately is a solitary pursuit. Some people are good at organizational pursuits while others are good at solitary pursuits. Artists are in the latter camp. Even for the artistic mediums that require a large group of people to collaborate, like film, the more the product reflects the director’s personal vision, the better. This is particularly true if the film is more art than entertainment. A film tends to turn into a piece of entertainment when the director’s vision is diluted by a focus group. If in the future, a film can be produced alone, many artists would. It’s not that involving more people improves the artistic substance of the film.

Sexual harassment is an abuse of power within an organizational structure. If the act is illegal, like rape, it’s beyond “harassment.” Illegal acts are simpler to understand because we have a robust system in place to define and handle them. Sexual harassment is governed not by our judicial system but by various codes of professional conduct. The latter is not universal and it varies from industry to industry, from company to company, and even from generation to generation. I think the public discussions taking place now will be instrumental in making them more universal. I think it’s a good thing.

But at the end of the day, organizational ethics is not a subject matter that concerns most artists because art is not a group effort. Even if others help in the production of it, the artistic substance will be about the artist. For this reason, sexual harassment claims are relatively rare among writers, fine artists, and musicians as they do not need to hire people to produce their work.

Male rock stars routinely sleep with female fans. Only our judicial system governs their behavior, not corporate guidelines or codes of professional conduct. But as soon as they hire these women, their behavior must change. The difference would have to be stark.

But unfortunately, most artists are going to be quite bad at this. One of the reasons most of them pursue art in the first place is because they are not good at functioning within a hierarchical organizational structure. Artists do not make good team players. It’s because they are singularly focused on themselves that they produce great work. People who are singularly focused on the world outside would be politicians. In this sense, artists and politicians occupy the two opposite ends of the personality spectrum. This is why even a slight misbehavior can taint a politician’s career (e.g. using profanities, doing drugs, or even being unmarried) whereas we expect artists to misbehave.

The problem with Louis C.K. is that he is an artist who failed to adapt to the organizational world. Even though he was making millions of dollars, employing hundreds of people, he kept behaving as if he is still a solitary artist. He did not understand that he is now a corporate professional. If he wanted to remain a solitary artist, he shouldn’t have scaled up his business. He should have kept doing his stand-up routines.

To produce honest and authentic art, artists must accept themselves for being who they are. They can’t be quick to judge and censor. They must allow themselves to express what they truly are. All of us humans are made up of many irrational and contradictory feelings and drives. The job of the artists is to express them as they are, not judge. The audience can and often do the latter. Artists pose questions; they don’t serve prescriptions.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is not to say that artists can get away with breaking the laws or violating the code of professional conduct. No. But to be able to explore the greatest range of possibilities, they need to stay away from behavioral constraints that are not necessary for them. For instance, if they don’t need to hire anyone to produce their work, they shouldn’t. As soon as they hire someone, they need to be ready and willing to abide by the code of professional conduct. Louis C.K. is obviously not capable of it, so he should go back to working alone.

So, to answer the question about whether to separate art and artist: No, we can’t. Great artists make great art because they are willing to expose, without judging, all the conflicting, contradicting, and irrational feelings and impulses we have as human beings, so that we can ask ourselves critical questions and learn something about ourselves. Someone has to do what artists do because most of us are too busy pretending as if who we are makes perfect sense, as if no contradictions exist within ourselves. We have to pretend because that is the only way we can work effectively with other humans within organizational structures. We have to be able to assume that others would behave rationally, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get things done reliably. But this is only a pretense required for practical purposes. None of us are actually rational. So, when we come home, we need art to reconcile how we behave outside with who we really are inside.

Most artists give up in their 20s the idea of having a secure job in the corporate world because that would conflict with what they need to explore as artists. So, they shouldn’t go back to it even if they become successful like Louis C.K. did, unless they think they are capable of switching between the two modes of being. Not many artists are so socially skillful. C.K. made a mistake and he will pay for it, but the value of his art does not change because of it.