I've thought a lot about David Choe in the past Month. I thought about him before we alerted people to a March podcast episode in which he told a story about sexually assaulting a massage therapist. And I thought about Choe when, after several news outlets picked up the story, he backpedaled, saying he wasn't a rapist, just "a bad storyteller." I actually wasn't thinking about him, however, when I opened up the latest issue of one of the women's magazines I subscribe to and saw a little blurb about his new collaboration with design label alice + olivia, who are using the street artist's watercolor prints on a few pieces this spring.
The pieces are part of the launch of a philanthropic venture imagined by Choe and alice + olivia founder Stacey Bendet, called the Kindness Project. ("Philanthropic venture" is their phrase, although I can't seem to find any further info on how the venture works other than the company's intention to sort of magically spread kindness?)
The press surrounding the collaboration felt a little oddly timed.
I'm not blaming the brand, necessarily -- this collaboration was surely in the works long before the recent allegations, and was actually announced in November. But it is off-putting to search David Choe's name on Google and to see rape allegations now interspersed with pictures of pretty dresses.
I can't place too much blame for Choe's continued success anywhere, really. He's not accused of anything. There are no legal implications; no victim has come forward. All there is is that Choe said he did something horrible. And then, afterward, said he didn't. And everybody shrugged and went back to what they were doing.
More specifically, Choe spent over 30 minutes describing a sexual crime in graphic detail. We reproduced as little of it as possible in our original story because it was so sickening and upsetting. There was no indication in Choe's storytelling or the reactions of his co-stars to suggest the exchange was anything other than authentic and unguarded. And a month later, when people got angry about it, he backpedaled and said that we'd all collectively misinterpreted his art. His statement read in part:
I never thought I'd wake up one late afternoon and hear myself called a rapist. It sucks. Especially because I am not one. I am not a rapist. I hate rapists, I think rapists should be raped and murdered.
I am an artist and a storyteller and I view my show DVDASA as a complete extension of my art.
If I am guilty of anything, it's bad storytelling in the style of douche. Just like many of my paintings are often misinterpreted, the same goes with my show. The main objective of all of my podcasts is to challenge and provoke my friends and the co-stars on the show.
It's entirely possible that Choe made the story up. I just don't see anything artistic about it. Because while Choe's "Rose" may have been fictional as he claims, she ultimately does exist in the women everywhere who are intimidated, coerced, expoited, force and ultimately tossed aside. The story is real, even if it isn't real.
I'm not a prude. I'm not afraid of upsetting topics, and I don't think art (or sex) has to be politically correct. But what is provocative or challenging or interesting or subversive about upholding the status quo of rape culture? One gets the impression that Choe thinks everything he says or does is art simply because he's an artist saying or doing it. Even assuming that Choe did mean to use the artfully use the subject of rape in his work, how can he then feign ignorance that it turned out to be upsetting? Or more simply, how can he deliberately portray himself as a rapist and then be surprised to "wake up one morning and hear [him]self called a rapist"?
The art defense is an excuse, a dumb one designed to make anyone who challenges it look like a censor. Whether the excuse is meant to obfuscate a crime or just general dickishness we can't know. But it will be plenty good enough for those who stand to benefit from their relationship with Choe.
A spokesperson from VICE initially responded to the controversy by saying they were "looking into it," but they did not respond to a request for an update last week. HBO initially pulled a scheduled episode of "Vice" featuring Choe, but when I reached out, a spokesperson told me they had moved on:
"We’ve actually directed people to Mr. Choe’s own statement as this incident had nothing to do with our HBO show but rather one of his other art projects. The episode you mention did in fact air, and we have currently not made any changes to our scheduling." That's right, Choe's sickening description of sexual assault isn't a big deal -- it's just another "art project."
Guys like David Choe get away with it. They always do -- the David Choes and the Terry Richardsons and all the other edgy bad boy misogynists who are accused of abusing women, or at the very least of glamorizing the abuse of women. There will be some anger, some hashtag outrage and some bad Google on the 2nd or 3rd page, but nobody will stop collaborating with him, nobody will stop giving him money, or throwing celebrity-studded parties to celebrate his work.
It seems likely that none of the events of the past month will ultimately disrupt Choe's lifestyle, his reputation or his bottom line. He'll still have art hanging in The White House and decorating the walls of Facebook headquarters worldwide. He'll keep on winning. And the "Roses" of the world will keep on losing.