A grotesque ex­pla­na­tion for Louis C.K.’s in­sight­ful art

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Ex­cerpted from wash­ing­ton­post.com/news/act-four

The al­le­ga­tions that co­me­dian Louis C.K. sex­u­ally ha­rasses women have been float­ing in the air for enough time that when the New York Times pub­lished its damn­ing ac­count on Thurs­day, the only sur­prise was that it had taken so long. The story was still painful, though, es­pe­cially for any­one who cares about in­sight­ful sto­ry­telling about sex­ual mis­con­duct and sup­port for smart fe­male co­me­di­ans.

C.K. has been beloved both for the sharp, queasy in­sights his work of­fered into sex, power and grotes­querie, and for his men­tor­ship of women such as Tig No­taro (who called early and prom­i­nent at­ten­tion to the al­le­ga­tions) and Pamela Ad­lon.

Many peo­ple as­sume that when a male artist makes thought­ful work about misog­yny, his in­sights are shaped by sym­pa­thy for and sol­i­dar­ity with women. The truth is, em­pa­thy isn’t the only route to knowl­edge that makes for great art. You can learn about these things by pay­ing at­ten­tion when women talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences, or you can know be­cause you’ve had the same ex­pe­ri­ences. Or you can un­der­stand the abuse of power and in­ti­mate vi­o­lence be­cause you per­pe­trate those acts your­self and you know how they work. You know what it takes to make a wo­man feel not only hor­ri­fied but also as if she can’t just walk out the door, as if she has to sub­mit to the vul­gar spec­ta­cle you’re forc­ing upon her be­cause if she doesn’t, you can ruin her with­out ever touch­ing her again.

Invit­ing a wo­man up to your ho­tel room, tak­ing your clothes off in front of her and start­ing to mas­tur­bate even when she tells you not to prob­a­bly gives you a lot of in­for­ma­tion about how such a sit­u­a­tion might un­fold and how all the par­tic­i­pants in it might re­act. C.K. said that for a time, “I said to my­self that what I did was okay be­cause I never showed a wo­man my [gen­i­tals] with­out ask­ing first . . . . But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over an­other per­son, ask­ing them to look at your [gen­i­tals] isn’t a question. It’s a predica­ment.”

I don’t have a pre­cise math­e­mat­i­cal for­mula that will al­low us to weigh the value of the in­sights in Louis C.K.’s work against the dam­age he is al­leged to have done to other peo­ple. We all hope that the peo­ple whose work we ad­mire are de­cent and kind, and it’s a lot more con­ve­nient for us when that’s true. But some­times, that hope fails. The next step is to be­lieve that a per­son’s il­lu­mi­nat­ing pub­lic work and their dis­gust­ing pri­vate con­flict rep­re­sent some sort of schiz­o­phrenic schism that al­lows us to de­tach the art from the artist. The darker re­al­ity is that of­ten the best things in a per­son’s art are in­formed and even fu­eled by their worst im­pulses or acts.

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