Why Some Artists Are Never Separated From Their Work (and Why Louis C.K. Was)

Louis C.K. as Louie on Louie. Photo: FX

After the news broke about Louis C.K. and sexual misconduct, my mind ran over C.K.’s work, his stand-up, his curmudgeonly late-night appearances, his intimate, formally adventurous TV works, and my thoughts landed on someone else. I thought about Lena Dunham. They’ve been linked in my mind for years, ever since I saw someone give a paper on the way both creators have used the familiar shape of a TV season to create innovative, boundary-pushing stories. Suddenly the comparison took on a new flavor — Dunham’s Girls was always a brilliant, challenging work, and it always became a referendum on her. It was occasionally framed as an indictment of all people her age; it was sometimes focused on a particular portrait of people who live in Brooklyn; it was sometimes seen as a show about the myopia of white feminism. But it was almost inescapably seen as a show about Dunham herself.

Louie was autobiographical, too. We knew C.K. as a parent, and there were his two fictional daughters, looking at him adoringly and in pointed judgment. We knew he was a stand-up, and that he had a seat at the table, laughing and opining on the state of comedy. We knew he was someone who liked to masturbate, whose sexuality, like much of the rest of his personality, was performative — we knew it because he told us, constantly. It was a personal show; it was personal to the point of intimacy. And yet, we never treated Louie as a referendum on white male masculinity. He was never assumed to speak for an entire generation of middle-aged men; he never had the burden of his art being fundamentally rooted in his identity. His show was seen as a brilliant artistic transformation of himself. It promised us he was seeing himself clearly, and he was making a joke about who he was. We believed him.

Dunham, meanwhile, could make endlessly unflattering portraits of Hannah Horvath, rendering her cruel and thoughtless and self-interested, depicting her as gross and painfully immature, and we thought, ugh. She is so awful. And by extension, millennials are such a mess. Her identity, or what we imagined we knew about her identity, was completely collapsed into her art, and it further implicated an entire group of people. They were a closed loop. But somehow we never came away from Louie thinking, “Ugh, masculinity is so toxic and Louis C.K. is a monster. Why can’t all white men just get it together and not masturbate literally constantly, or at least not talk about masturbating constantly.”

It’s no mystery that we think about and write about art differently when the artist is female; likewise, we write about art differently when the artist is queer or a person of color. It reminds me of the study from 2016, which analyzed New York Times book reviews when written about male versus female authors — while male authors were more likely to be described with words including “argument,” “idea,” “politics,” “critic,” and “theory,” women authors were associated with words like “husband,” “sister,” “daughter,” “marriage,” “parent,” and “women.” Women’s work is individual and relational; it is about the person. Men, meanwhile, write about ideas and arguments. They can somehow stay separate.

It’s tough to extend this argument into too many specifics because there are still so few creators we think of as TV and film auteurs in the same way we do men.

But consider, for instance, the flattening of Jill Soloway’s excellent Transparent onto Soloway’s own personal and familial history, and the way criticism of casting Tambor has been seen as an indictment of Soloway’s remnant cis-centric myopia. (Think, too, of the way sexual-harassment allegations against Jeffrey Tambor have felt like a dark spot on Soloway’s entire project rather than on one person.) Think of how many questions Ava DuVernay has, often rightfully, been asked about black representation in her work and how few C.K. has been asked about white schlubby representation in his. Think of how many times Abbi and Ilana have been asked about the differences between themselves and their characters. Recall how Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake became a family affair when she cast her daughter, while Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men was always a genius project that happened to include his son. Consider how often Shonda Rhimes has been questioned about how she balances work with her children, and how many times Noah Hawley’s gotten the same question.

There’s an entire vein of criticism that likes to imagine art in a vacuum, ignoring authorial intent and historical context and anything else, focusing instead on the thing that’s right in front of you. Let’s try to set aside everything we’ve learned about who this person is, and instead just think about the art itself. I’ve always liked that idea of criticism. It’s clean; it feels pure. It lets critics off the hook — it suggests that we shouldn’t have to think about the artist when we think about the art. It’s literary critic Roland Barthes’s Death of the Author, which argues that once a work is out in the world, the artist doesn’t get to (or have to) control what happens to it. It’s a critical absolution from having to deal with all the messy background stuff.

And somehow, even as C.K.’s show became intimately, painfully personal — even when it was a show called Louie, featuring a character often called Louie, dealing with the unbelievably specific life of a comedian in New York — some of that “imagine the art in a vacuum” critical stance clung to his work. He was allowed to hide in plain sight, given the benefit of a doubt that he was actually someone different than the character of himself he portrayed. The art never fully collapsed into the person; likewise, C.K. (and Louie) never had to carry the burden of representing an entire class of people. Louie got to live in a vacuum, and so did Louis.

The revelations about Louis C.K. and all the others make it clear that, whatever I’ve wanted to feel as a critic, only some authors have been allowed the pleasant quietness of living in a vacuum. Only some authors have gotten the safe cover of Barthes’s “death.”

And further, it’s become clear that the death of the author is a safe cover — it’s a luxury. Allegations against Louis C.K., against Kevin Spacey, against Weinstein and Roy Price and Woody Allen and anyone else involved in the production of powerful, well-financed, money-making cultural works, put the lie to that luxurious critical stance. They make it obvious that ignoring the artist as a person can also mean ignoring the power structures that actively harm people. It’s refusing to see the hierarchies that promote some art and some artistic voices and suppress others.

I’m not arguing that all criticism has to be biographical now, or that reading art for its aesthetics — taking it apart like a puzzle, thinking about how it ticks — is no longer viable. Far from it, I hope. But it’s long since time to think about who gets the benefit of that critical cover, and what art is always, unavoidably, tied to the artist. And especially once it’s clear that an artist’s art is utterly, inextricably intertwined with predatory behavior, surely separating art from artist becomes an unconscionable and critically unethical distinction.

We can hope that this flood of allegations will be the end of at least some systems of power and abuse in Hollywood. It also feels like another sort of death: the death of the death of the author.

Why Some Artists Are Never Separated From Their Work