Monday, August 31, 2015

Tenuous Connections - Richard Wagner and Bill Cosby

Ring Festival LA is gone and forgotten, pretty much.  Has it really been five whole years since the Los Angeles Opera tried to market their production of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle to ten million people by holding a county-wide arts festival?

Only a few really cared much about the underfunded festival one way or the other.  Opposition centered around the fact that Wagner himself was an antisemitic jerk and also that his music was favored by Adolf Hitler.  Absolutely no one in recent history is considered worse than Adolf Hitler. Although Hitler still serves a useful purpose: eventually almost everyone compares almost anyone they don't like to him.  Adolf is our go-to guy when we need to call something the most evil thing ever.

Supporters of the festival used the arguments that Wagner's music was supremely beautiful and his opera plots were about the power of love.  Neither of these points is even slightly true in my opinion.  I wrote a lot about Wagner and Ring Festival LA back in those days.  It doesn't hurt to mention it once in a while.

The notion that people who create successful, respected, well-loved art and entertainment can be totally awful people in real life is pretty widely accepted.  There are a lot of examples.  And irrespective of the personal qualities or intentions of the creator, works of art can be misinterpreted for evil purposes.  Wagner and his operas, used by the Nazis to promote Aryan superiority, are just one excellent example.

But Bill Cosby?  How does he fit into this discussion?

Cosby's fatherly personal image has abruptly crumbled under the weight of evidence that he has been a serial sex offender.  This has led some people to reassess the real meaning and effects of his iconic eponymous television show.  I came across one interesting article which made this point:  "How 'The Cosby Show' Duped America: The Sitcom That Enabled Our Ugliest Reagan-Era Fantasies” written by Chauncey DeVega.  Go read that now.

Here's a quote:
... the politics and values of “The Cosby Show,” which were so attractive to so many and for such a long time, are based on a distorted and inaccurate presentation of the black community, one that has enabled a pernicious type of right-wing “colorblind” racism to flourish.
Here's another:
... the Cosby family was an African-American version of the model-minority myth, one of the favorite deflections and rejoinders of white racists in the post-civil rights era, where there are “exceptional” minorities and the rest are failures because they do not work hard, are lazy, and complain too much about white racism. While unintentional, “The Cosby Show” enabled some of the ugliest Reagan-era fantasies. 
The idea, more or less, is that The Cosby Show presented America with a very upscale black family dealing with problems any white family might have.  The show avoided specific issues of race that would be unique to black Americans.  As a result those whites who were so inclined could reinforce their racist attitudes against less affluent black families.  (Really, go read the article for yourself.)

I claim even less interest and expertise with Bill Cosby than with Richard Wagner.  The Cosby Show show aired in the midst of a 16-year period when (by choice) I had no access to television.

I do remember seeing one episode.  Dr. Huxtable helps a young boy score points with a young girl by suggesting that he cook her a romantic dinner, cleverly substituting tangy BBQ sauce for the spaghetti sauce.  The flavors, he promised, would really impress her.  In the end Claire Huxtable sees through the plot because Cliff had pulled the same stunt on her years before.  Or something like that.  In light of recent revelations you'd have to wonder what other ingredients, ones unmentionable on television, the real-life Cosby might have considered adding to the sauce.

No matter how little familiarity I claim with that show or with television of the era, I certainly have far far less personal experience with the issues of being black in America.  Like many, in 2008 I expected that having a black U.S. president would inaugurate some sort of post-racial era.  Instead, by his very skin color, Obama seems to have heightened our long-term racial tension.  Somewhere I read a trenchant comment that while the U.S. might be "post-racial" it certain isn't "post-racist".

Being a rapist, however, doesn't make Bill Cosby or his television show or his comedy racist.  The argument here is that he presented himself and his fictional black family in such a way that certain white people could use it to convince themselves, as they looked in the mirror each morning, that they weren't really racists.  Liking the Cosby Show was tremendously reassuring to them as they went about their daily lives actually discriminating against the real, less affluent black people they encountered (and probably others as well.)  Sort of absolution by television.

So, what's the point here?  Is there really a comparison to be made between The Ring Cycle and the Cosby Show?  How can an endlessly turgid grand opera about gods whose petty squabbles result in the destruction of civilization and a situation comedy about the petty daily issues of wealthy New York family who just happen to be black people have anything in common?

The answer is not in the creative works themselves nor is it in the personal failings of their creators.  The answer is in the eyes of the beholders.  And in our ears.  And in our hearts and minds.  And if darkness lives in our hearts and our minds already - be it jack-booted Nazi antisemitism or good old fashioned American-as-apple-pie racism - then an otherwise simple entertainment becomes fertilizer for evil.

And when you mix shit into the earth it helps grow both flowers and weeds.   Sometimes you must wait a while to figure out which are the weeds.  Culture and civilization ought to demand that we do our best to pull the weeds.

Hey, I said it was a tenuous connection.

Here's another ending I wrote for this post:

Whether watching grand opera or television sitcoms, whether listening to singers or stand-up comedians, it is a dangerous thing to completely suspend your disbelief.  Enjoying a performance comes with a small bit of responsibility.  It's a really small bit, but it is a real bit.

Sure, it's super easy to give oneself up mindlessly to the massive numbers of seductive entertainments our culture offers us so casually.  There needs to be just a little bit of situational awareness somewhere way back in everyone's mind as they watch and listen.  This would help keep art and reality separated.

So, the next time you enjoy made-up stories about marauding zombies or conspiratorial politicians or young people on their own for the first time seeking love in the big city or black people or mythical gods or just about anything, remind yourself to take a quick step back and reflect on how you're reacting.  Consider whether this entertainment is reinforcing your better qualities - or your worse ones.  Remember that in reality, reality is a lot more complicated than you'll ever see on a stage or television.

Good luck sorting that out.

Read Mixed Meters' post Mommy, who is Michael Jackson?
Here are all the MM posts labeled "television"
Here are all the MM posts labeled "Wagner"

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