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