It was the comeback story no one wanted. Well, some people must have wanted it, of course – a sizable proportion of the Recording Academy’s voting body, at the very least. But nonetheless, for many people, Louis CK’s controversial Best Comedy Album win at Sunday night’s Grammys was a jarring reminder of just how short-lived public outrage can be. Less than five years after admitting to a number of sexual misconduct allegations, the comedian born Louis Szekely was back on top. Far from the Siberian exile he was sometimes said to be in, it turns out CK was “cancelled” with all the finality of a drunk being ejected from a nightclub and told to walk it off.
The Recording Academy has been lambasted for the decision to give CK the award, and rightly so: celebrating CK sends all kinds of wrong messages about the severity of what he has admitted to, about how willing we, as a society, should be to overlook these transgressions. But there is more to the issue than just this. CK’s win has forced us to confront one of the big dilemmas at the heart of contemporary so-called “cancel culture”. Are we afraid to admit when a bad person has made art that is genuinely worthwhile? How do we reconcile art with its problematic artist?
Naturally, all these things require nuance. Whether or not a problematic figure’s art is still widely consumed depends on many factors. There’s the severity of their transgressions. The level of certainty over their guilt. Their proximity to the art itself – for example, it’s considered distasteful to go in to bat for the films of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski at this point, but Harvey Weinstein-produced films are still fair game. It’s not appropriate or useful to rank disgraced figures as if there were some league table, but it should be noted that CK faced no criminal charges for his behaviour (masturbating in front of several women with their ostensible consent). Given this, and the fact that he initially appeared to accept responsibility for his misconduct, it once felt like his career could eventually recover. I suppose the Grammy win would argue that it already has. But his work – which includes several acclaimed stand-up specials, the groundbreaking TV series Louie, and the sui generis webseries Horace and Pete – has been purged from the cultural conversation entirely.
The tricky thing is speaking frankly about how good CK’s work was. Since his misconduct came to light fully in 2017, public perception has tended to perpetuate the idea that his pre-disgrace reputation was inflated – that he was simply a lucky beneficiary of an industry desperate to identify and idolise the next white male genius. But to some extent, Louie really was that good. It was thought-provoking and radically original – its vignette-y, avant-garde approach to storytelling was unlike anything previously seen on TV. A whole host of the best TV shows of the past five years, from Atlanta to Ramy, to the CK-produced Better Things, owe it a huge formal and aesthetic debt. Horace and Pete, a faux-theatrical oddity set in a Brooklyn dive bar, has proven too idiosyncratic to spawn any clear imitators, but the 10 episodes contain several scenes of incredible dramatic power, and some of the finest work Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco and Jessica Lange have ever committed to screen.
Complicating matters further is the fact that CK’s work explicitly explores predatory sexual behaviour. One episode of Louie sees CK’s on-screen avatar, played by himself, sexually assault the character played by Pamela Adlon (in CK’s script, Adlon tells him “this would be rape if you weren’t so stupid”). Another episode sees him appear on a TV debate programme credited as “Comedian/Masturbator Louie CK”, in which he admits to being a “prolific masturbator”. Now, on the one hand, these scenes have the uncomfortable ring of “hiding in plain sight”. But there’s also a dispossessing honesty to them; we are witnessing a man wrestle with his very real inner demons.
Sincerely Louis CK should not have won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album. It’s a slap in the face to victims of sexual misconduct everywhere. But it does seem to invite a collective evaluation of how exactly we judge the work of someone like CK. It is easy for us to ignore the latest work from Woody Allen, so piss-poor has he been for decades – a boycott has all the dolour of giving up bee stings, or back-alley acupuncture, for Lent. CK was a major artist in his prime, and the fact that he has behaved terribly off-screen doesn’t make his work any less influential. It doesn’t mean that his work is necessarily any less meaningful, that we are not able to watch it and discover more about the world, more about ourselves, as we do with any worthwhile piece of art. But that doesn’t mean we have to keep watching it.
We have not yet learnt quite how to resolve these sorts of dilemmas. Maybe we never will. But one thing’s for sure: the answer doesn’t involve giving CK more Grammys.