Art, Artists, and Shakespeare the Child Molester

Last week I discovered, much to my surprise, one of my favorite games of all-time (Wizardry VII) has a spiritual successor that’s been in the works for twenty years. It came as even more of a surprise to discover it’s finally been completed and released.

Based on the early reviews, it sounds like something I might really enjoy. “If you love Wiz 7, you’ll love this” was a pretty common refrain. And boy, I sure do love me some Wiz 7.

So, it’s possible this game would be perfect for me. But I can’t say for sure, because I’ll likely never play it.

What Lurks Beneath

At the same moment I discovered Grimoire existed, I also discovered it was the passion project of just one guy. That guy, unfortunately, also seems to be a pretty awful person. Comments on the early reviews led to interviews with and comments by the creator, and they were not pretty. “Slightly to the right of the far-right” is how one person politely put it, and they don’t appear to have exaggerated.

So, in spite of the potential enjoyment I may have found with Grimoire, I decided not to buy it. The idea of giving money to support someone who I found so repugnant didn’t sit well with me, so that was that.

But, it did get me thinking again about an argument that feels like it’s come up more and more lately: what do you do when you discover great art is made by terrible people?

(First of all, I am well aware there is a massive spectrum of what one person may consider “terrible” compared to another. So let’s simplify this up to “someone you find repugnant in accordance with your own beliefs”)

Grimoire was an easy case because it was something new and I learned about the problematic nature of its creator ahead of time. In this case, I can ignore it and move on. But what about the more likely scenario where you discover your moral disagreement after the fact?

Consider an example that’s touched a lot of people over the past few years: Minecraft.

Farming tip – don’t keep your cows in your crops

I first bought Minecraft back in its early beta days, and it was a fun tool for roaming around and building things. Markus Persson (a.k.a Notch), the creator and sole developer on the project at the time, seemed an affable guy just trying to build out his passion project.

In the years since then, Minecraft has exploded into a certifiable phenomenon, and Notch has exploded into a troll at best, a raging piece of shit at worst. In this case the decision for me was easy – I’d already given Notch my money before his true colors emerged, and I certainly wasn’t planning to give him any more. I still play the game every now and then because it is, in spite of everything else, still pretty fun.

This is also a pretty simple case because my connection with Minecraft is limited: It’s a game. I play it sometimes. End of story. But what about for my sister and her two boys? Like a lot of younger kids, Minecraft has become a huge part of their childhoods. They spend hours upon hours with their friends creating (and destroying) blocky little worlds. So far, they are pretty insulated from the problems of its creator. Microsoft took over the project years ago, and I don’t think they have any idea who Notch even is. But someday they might delve back and discover, and what will they think then?

This is the sort of thing that hits close to home for me in the form of Bill Cosby.

Bill CosbyFerenet Branca

I’m obviously not alone in Bill Cosby having had a place in my heart. For me, though, it ran a bit deeper than just the Cosby Show. I grew up with Picture Pages and Fat Albert. But, more importantly, there was a time when I was in elementary school where my bedtime routine every night was to curl up under my blankets and fall asleep to cassette tapes of Bill Cosby stand-up.

I don’t recall quite how it started, but it nevertheless was a pretty critical part of my day for many years. I listened to those tapes over and over and over again. I could recite most of the routines from memory, even if I didn’t always understand the jokes. I have no doubt it had some very formative influences on my own sense of humor.

So, in short, a pretty damned fond set of memories.

Fast forward a few decades and we have a Bill Cosby tarnished by scandal after scandal, accusation after accusation.

What do I do with those memories?

Legacies Tarnished

Here’s a little hypothetical scenario to mull over: if tomorrow, through some sort of incredible archaeological coup, irrefutable evidence was discovered that revealed William Shakespeare was a serial child molester, what would you do?

William Shakespeare
Still an ok guy as far as we know

Shakespeare is a major slice of the English literary canon, not to mention an endless well for lazy screenwriters. Would you be able to watch Romeo and Juliet through the same eyes anymore? Would you be comfortable with Shakespeare still being a major part of English education knowing that every kid who looked into him would see his wikipedia page listed as “Playwright/Child Molester”?

How you react to the idea likely depends on how connected you are to Shakespeare’s works. If Shakespeare isn’t your cup of tea, think about Tom Hanks or Beyoncé or whatever artist you have a long, meaningful connection to.

Your reaction, whatever it may be, will also be your own. This is not an issue with a clear-cut answer of right or wrong. Like so much in life, it’s complicated. Each of us has to wrestle with this on an individual basis, because it’s going to vary from artist to artist, and even from piece of art to piece of art.

For me and Bill Cosby, my answer is that I will probably never listen to those performances again. I will probably also not share them with my daughter when she’s around the same age, either, and that makes me very sad. Still, I won’t try to build any sort of great wall of regret in my memories or will them out of existence – the impact his work had on me will always be there.

Of course, there will always be a tarnish on it now. That, I think, is perhaps the most critical part. Speaking to an artist friend about the issue, he noted that the thing artists often value above all else is their legacy. For these artists who have fallen from the public grace for whatever reason – the Woody Allens, the Roman Polanskis – while each of us deals with our relationship with their art in our own way, there will always be that asterisk by their name in the public eye. They will forever be that Playwright/Child Molester our hypothetical Shakespeare would be.

Should that make us feel any better? I don’t have an answer for that…

Like I said, it’s complicated.

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