November 13, 2017

JONES | Louis C.K. and the Art/Artist Problem

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Over the summer, I had an ongoing debate with a friend at work about whether it is worthwhile, useful or even possible to try to “separate the art from the artist.” It covered the predictable bullet points this argument usually touches: whether art “ascends” to somewhere outside of the human sphere of its creators or whether it always bears the sign of the creator’s human hand; whether or not it is harmful to continue consuming art that was created by (generally) male artists with odious and/or criminal backstories; and whether it is ever useful or informative to apply an artist’s biography to their work. I was firmly in the camp that the art and artist are inextricable, and the Hollywood revelations of the past few weeks have only made me more sure of this.

The relationship of biography to art was always impossible to ignore in Louis C.K.’s FX show Louie, and this was the way that C.K. intended it. The show’s main character was a reflection of its creator that never pretended to be much different than the man himself, but with his baggage and misbehavior exaggerated (it seemed). Louie was critically adored for seasons, and often praised as an incisive interrogation of masculinity and gender norms. There were some voices of criticism about the ways it depicted sexual assault and harassment — more than one episode features Louis C.K.’s character enduring some form of sexual assault by a female character, and there is a deeply disturbing scene in which he pushes and drags his “love” interest Pamela around his apartment trying to kiss her, an action which has absolutely no repercussions for their storyline. However, the general critical interpretation of the show was that the creator was manipulating the audience’s expectations about sexual misconduct in a way that was intelligent and productive, and that the scene of Louie’s assault on Pamela was posing a thoughtful problem to the audience about the limits of our sympathy for C.K.’s character.

In the light of the revelation of Louis C.K.’s pattern of sexual misconduct and harassment — which, it should be noted, is not a new story but a story only now made widely public — this aspect of his show looks much different than it appeared to me in the past. I loved his show for years, and now the accusations against C.K. have not only made it impossible to watch his show without thinking of his behavior, they’ve also made me question how and why I believed that the portions of the show about sexual assault were productively provocative art. They now appear like purposeful efforts to implicitly excuse his offstage behavior by reversing the usual gender positions in sexual assaults and by portraying him as a hapless, helpless victim of domineering and selfish women.

The trailer for his recently cancelled film I Love You, Daddy, ends with a female character sitting telling C.K.’s character that “we’re all perverts.” This now feels like an overarching message in Louie, and it is one that attempts to make his harassment less repugnant by casting it as an uncontrollable, undeniable and universal aspect of human identity that ignores gender power inequalities. Louie always toyed with its close relationship to autobiography at the same time that it insisted on its fiction, but only now is it clear the extent to which its creator saw it as an opportunity to address and reframe his own life and actions.

The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody said after the Harvey Weinstein story broke that “whatever a viewer knows about a film and a filmmaker can be illuminating… But the better a film is, the likelier that the biography only fills in details regarding what should already have been apparent to a clear-eyed viewing.” The New York Times’s Amanda Hess reads this as “a bizarre calculation that dismisses discussions of bad deeds based on the talent of the person performing them.” Personally, I am completely unable to make sense of Brody’s comment, but it seems nonsensical and absurdly tangential to the debate over the actions of figures like Weinstein, C.K. and Kevin Spacey. But regardless of what Brody intended to say, there is an unsettling truth to his comments when they are applied to Louie. And that is what this scandal has left me with; the suspicion that C.K.’s behavior was on display all along for “clear-eyed viewing,” and that because I found him often funny and insightful, I followed the critics who found ways to cast his jokes and scenes as productive disruptions rather than problematic fantasies and calculated confusions of the realities of gender inequality and sexual assault.

You can’t watch Louie and separate the art from the artist, and you never could; the artist made the show about himself, and there is no way now to watch the scenes of sexual assault or the jokes about masturbation and not connect them to what C.K. was doing to women whom he believed were too much in his debt to harm his reputation. Louie may be a particularly obvious example of this, but I am convinced that it is an educational one because of this. Art is always, always made out of human experience, and I don’t believe in a kind of separate sphere to which it ascends once completed. There is no “pure” way to consume art without coming into some kind of contact with its creator’s mind, and with the creator’s life and experience which informed its creation. I used to love Louie, but I don’t think I will watch it again, because I don’t think I could stand getting that close to the actions that informed its creation. But if you do watch it, don’t tell yourself that you’re going to separate it from its creator. C.K. never intended you to do that; and more than ever, his life explains his show.

Jack Jones is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Despite all the Amputations runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.