Editor's note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. Watch Don Lemon's special, "The Cosby Show: A Legend Under Fire," on CNN on Monday night at 9 p.m. ET. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- Composer Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite whose music was used, after his death, as Nazi propaganda. He was also, as some say, "one of the most gifted, historically important composers to ever grace the planet." So fans of his music, including those in Israel, are willing to overlook his hideous views and embrace his art. This is what is generally considered separating the art from the artist. As writer Jay Parini put it, "Hideous people can make great art."
Since TV Land canceled syndication of "The Cosby Show" recently in reaction to multiple allegations that Bill Cosby is a rapist, I've been thinking more about whether we can separate the art from the artist.
For a certain generation, "The Cosby Show" had a huge impact. I was 7 years old when "The Cosby Show" premiered, and over the course of eight seasons, I grew up with Rudy, Vanessa, Theo and Denise, Sondra, Clair and, yes, Cliff, the father character played by Cosby.
Given the history and context of race in America, it was amazing for middle-class white kids growing up in Whiteville to see a middle-class black family that in many ways resembled their own. For black kids (let alone adults) growing up in America, it must have been transformative to see on TV a happy, successful, normal black family such as the Huxtables.
Black people had been poorly depicted on television for as long as the medium existed, and in mostly negative light. So when TV Guide called the Huxtables "the most atypical black family in television history," it implicitly contrasted them not only with fictional black TV characters, but also with the "welfare queens" and "crack addicts" whom conservative politicians criticized. In such a context, that the Huxtables were normal was actually radical.
"It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn't just indict Cosby, it indicts us," wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. "It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows." Cliff Huxtable may have been just a TV character, but he was also a symbol, and Cosby appeared to embody his positive virtues.
I think some of our collective reluctance to believe more than a dozen women who have accused Bill Cosby of rape stems from our desire to preserve the cultural significance of "The Cosby Show." We drew feel-good conclusions about Bill Cosby the man from pudding-pop commercials and TV shows not just because he wanted us to, but because we wanted to.
It's "difficult to believe something so sinister about a public figure as beloved as Bill Cosby. He gave us Fat Albert, The Cosby Show and A Different World," wrote Roxane Gay in The Guardian. "We ask ourselves, How could a talented comedian -- a family man, a philanthropist -- also be a serial rapist?"
In a way, "The Cosby Show" is like a surrealist work of art attacking our illusions of normalcy. The picture-perfect dad in the show may turn out to be a real-life serial rapist. Illusions are easy to believe, but reality is harsh. Yet the art often survives -- along with, by association, the artist.
Just look at Woody Allen. Earlier this year, Allen's daughter Dylan Farrow resurfaced allegations that Allen had molested her when she was a child. There's also the controversy surrounding Allen's affair with his ex-wife Mia Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi, whom he later married. All of this has seemingly done little to tarnish Allen's career. He continued to enjoy commercial and artistic success with his films. He even received the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes in 2014.
There's also the filmmaker Roman Polanski. In 1977, when he was 43 years old, he was arrested for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl during a photo shoot. Polanski was indicted on six criminal charges and pleaded guilty, but fled America before sentencing. Since then, from exile, he has produced and directed several award-winning films. And a petition from Hollywood dignitaries calling for Polanski to be pardoned includes Martin Scorsese, Tilda Swinton, David Lynch and Woody Allen.
In 2009, singer Chris Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault after beating up his then-girlfriend Rihanna. His third studio album, "Graffiti," released later that year took a hit. But a few years late, his album "F.A.M.E." did great. The fans liked his music despite his previous bad behavior.
Of course, Cosby hasn't been convicted of anything. But given that over a dozen women have come forward with claims of a similar pattern of sexual assault, the allegations should be taken very seriously.
Will Bill Cosby's artistic legacy and reputation survive? We won't know until the dust has settled. But "The Cosby Show" seems undoubtedly tarnished. It's hard to watch it now, knowing what we've heard about Cosby, and not feel slimy and somehow complicit in his alleged crimes. But at the same time, turning off the show seems too easy -- it's not unlike the way we turn away from our discomfort with rape and rape victims. Maybe it's better if we squirm with the ugly picture for a while.