Just look at them.
Bill Cosby, stands with his wife Camille, in a picturesque setting not far from that of a fairytale. The atmosphere resembles summer, or a lazy Sunday, as Cosby casually holds a cigar in one hand with a hat by the knee.
This painting, a part of the Cosbys’ art collection, is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art until early 2016.
However, with swirling rape and sexual assault allegations surrounding America’s fatherly figure, the Smithsonian has been criticized for keeping the collection on display, as well as maintaining a “no comment” concerning the controversy.
Well, this publication believes it’s not about the art collector – it’s about the art.
Here’s a brief synopsis of what we know right now.
Since the beginning of November, 17 women, including former supermodel Janice Dickinson, have reported allegations against Cosby of sexual assault and rape. Cosby has repeatedly denied the allegations and when asked about them, his attorney has done most of the talking.
The Smithsonian’s decision to leave the exhibit running is not akin to it tacitly accepting that the accusing women are liars, as implied by art critic Philip Kennicott.
The museum is simply detaching the works of art from their owner, something we are forced to do when the actions (alleged or not) of public figures come into question. We still teach our students about Henry Ford even though he won a Nazi award and was the only American mentioned in Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” We still revere the Declaration of Independence even though its writer, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves.
We still listen to Michael Jackson even though he was accused of child abuse, and we still watch Woody Allen movies overlooking the same. In this case it is even more imperative because it is not even Cosby’s work, it is work that Cosby simply collected and owned.
To keep the exhibit open might be a reminder of painful allegations toward Cosby, but to close it would painfully negate an artistic community so often underrepresented in the great museums of the world.
The Cosby collection exhibition is a celebration of 50 years of a Smithsonian Museum devoted to African and African American art. To shutter the paintings because of who owns them is to silence a segment of the art world so rarely seen en masse.
In an Atlantic article calling for the exhibit to be closed, Kriston Capps argues that a one-collector exhibit is a publicity stunt on the museum’s part, citing a former Washington Post art critic who called that method curatorially unsound.
Capps cites a previous Smithsonian American Art Museum venture that used the big name collectors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to advertise a Norman Rockwell exhibit.
But this isn’t Norman Rockwell.
Rockwell had a new piece on the cover of a national magazine as many weeks as he wanted. Many of the pieces in the exhibit are on view publicly for the first time (or the first time in years). Additionally, this is not two American directors showing pretty but see-through Rockwellian art.
This is a man who – like it or not – is one of the best African-American TV role models in history showing the art of his community, once again an art community that gets far too little attention nowadays.
Perhaps the most troubling component of this entire debate is not the vitriol, nor the generalization, nor the comparison, nor even the horrible allegations themselves. It is something that is missing from the media’s discussion of the Cosby Collection entirely: the art.
Kapps writes “the artworks are not the issue,” but in reality the art ought to be the only issue. They are often beautiful, often jarring, often elated, often sad. But the media jumps past them as if they are nothing, preferring to spread more fiery argument.
One piece comes to mind, with just the littlest bit of fire. In Gerard Sekoto’s “Boy and the Candle,” a small African American child holds a match to the wick of a candle and watches as its light blankets his darkened corner. It is serene, peaceful and pensive.
Gerard Sekoto has been dead 20 years and had no idea what storms would be swirling around the collector of one of his best known pieces.
He did not, with each almost impressionistic brushstroke, envision drugging or raping or any such thing. Goodness knows the boy with the candle didn’t either.
He deserves to be seen, no matter who was responsible for putting him there.