No more laughs for disgraced comic Louis CK

Three unwise men: Louis CK is only the latest figure in the movies to be accused of misconduct.

Should we judge artists by their lives as well as their work? After confessing to sexual misconduct, Louis CK has gone from one of America’s most successful comedians to a national disgrace.

Until last week, Louis CK was something of a feminist icon. The superstar comedian’s routines about male sexual idiocy, and his enthusiastic promotion of female artists, earned him a huge liberal following. But now his behaviour is being seen in a new light.

Over the weekend, CK accepted claims (published by The New York Times on Thursday) that he repeatedly behaved sexually around women against their will. “The power I had over these women is that they admired me,” he told the same paper. “And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”

His sparkling career is now collapsing. The release of his new film I Love You, Daddy — about an old man who dates a 17-year-old girl — has been cancelled. HBO has pulled him from an upcoming benefit concert and removed all his content from its on-demand service.

The fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal continues to spread. Actor Dustin Hoffman and director Brett Ratner now face allegations of misconduct. Last week, it was announced that Kevin Spacey’s scenes in a forthcoming film would be reshot with another actor.

These revelations have revived a classic debate: does it matter who creates the art we love? This question is often asked about two famous film directors: Woody Allen, whose daughter accused him of molesting her, and Roman Polanski, who was charged with raping a minor. Despite this, both continue to make successful films.

Others extend the debate to long-dead artists. Richard Wagner composed wonderful operas but was a raging anti-Semite. Eric Gill produced pioneering sculptures while subjecting his daughters (and dog) to sexual abuse. In all these cases, there is a tension between the person’s artistic brilliance and their moral failure.

This sometimes leads to protests. Wagner’s music is barely performed in Israel. Whenever a new Allen film comes out, some critics make a point of refusing to see it. And now HBO has rejected Louis CK’s back catalogue.

Can we still appreciate great art if the artist has done awful things?

Arts and minds

Of course, say some. Louis CK’s comic skill has not vanished overnight. If we start judging artists by their private lives, where do we draw the line? Do we reject anyone who has ever said anything we find distasteful? No: art is about representing humanity in all its complexity. If it is done well, it deserves your attention.

Come off it, reply others. You cannot separate an artist’s life from their work. To deserve a reputation as a great artist, you need not just creative talent but also moral strength. If we praise CK’s comedy, we are implying that his misconduct does not really matter. There are plenty of decent artists out there — let’s stick to their work.

You Decide

  1. Does this story put you off watching Louis CK’s shows for good?
  2. Should dead artists be considered differently from living ones?

Activities

  1. Design a poster for a campaign against sexual harassment. Make sure to include some statistics.
  2. As a class, split into nine groups, and each research the allegations against one of the people named in this article. Give a short presentation to the class, then discuss the similarities and differences between these cases.

Some People Say...

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”

Oscar Wilde

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Sexual misconduct is widespread in show business, and in many other industries too. This comes as no surprise to those who work in them — especially women. Yet the issue has never been publicised and discussed on this scale before. Weinstein was such an important figure, and the claims against him so numerous, that his story has snowballed into a major political debate.
What do we not know?
Louis CK has confessed, but many people accused of sexual misconduct do not accept the allegations. In such cases, things may be complicated by the fact that the accuser’s account of the incident is vague or inconsistent. Remember that sexual abuse easily leads to post-traumatic stress disorder, which can impair the victim’s memory. In some cases, allegations turn out to be false.

Word Watch

Claims
Five women spoke to The New York Times. They described their fear that speaking out would harm their careers.
I Love You, Daddy
CK financed the film himself; it was shown at festivals. In one scene, the character he plays tells his young daughter: “You shouldn’t say things about someone’s private life when you don’t know them.”
Harvey Weinstein scandal
The Hollywood producer’s predatory behaviour was first reported by The New York Times in October. Dozens and dozens of women have since accused him of harassment and even rape. He denies the latter allegations.
Kevin Spacey
The actor faces a wave of claims of sexual harassment from younger men. He has mostly declined to comment.
Reshot
They have to move quickly: the film is due out in December!
Accused
Allen’s daughter Dylan Farrow says that he touched her sexually when she was seven. Allen denies this; charges have never been brought against him.
Charged
Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with the minor, but fled the USA for Europe before his sentencing. The charges are still pending against him.