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Is the Art as Guilty as the Artist?

As the sexual misconduct allegations mounted against Bill Cosby, Smithsonian officials met privately and decided the exhibit Cosby was showing should continue. “First and fundamentally, this is an art exhibit”, the Smithsonian’s spokesperson told The Associated Press. “It’s not about Bill Cosby. It’s about the artists.”

Cosby’s African-American art collection covers only a third of the Smithsonian’s exhibition, the other two-thirds came from the museum’s own collection. But the controversy about Cosby himself has been the focal point of the exhibit, but essentially punishing the victims not the criminal. Cosby’s collection, never publically displayed before, includes paintings by former slaves and pieces commissioned by the Cosby’s, art by Cosby’s daughter and quilts made to commemorate Cosby’s murdered son, as well as images and quotations from Cosby himself.

Even without the allegations, there are other issues. Many critics disapprove showing private collections in museums because it can enhance the market value of the work. Also, Camille Cosby sits on the museum’s board, and it was she who initiated the loan; which raises questions about conflict of interest. The Smithsonian revealed that the Cosby’s funded the exhibition with a monetary gift that virtually covered the entire cost of the exhibit. Guidelines call for museums to make public the source of funding whenever an art lender funds an exhibit.

But all this controversy seems to ignore one in important point: The collection is not a showing of works famous artists, but, partly at least, the works of unknowns; former slaves telling their stories through art. It’s sad that these paintings by former slaves are not the real focus, but only a backdrop for Cosby’s personal problems. It’s as if Toulouse-Lautrec’s deformity or Van Gogh’s addictions were the real story, not their works or talents.