Late in February, the fashion world was shaken by the upsetting news that Dior head designer John Galliano was filmed spewing an anti-Semitic tirade in Paris. Galliano, who had been with Dior since 1997, was suspended and subsequently fired. The upsetting turn of events raised some questions for me. Dior is by far my favorite fashion house. Ever since I started following current fashion, I adored Galliano’s work and thought I admired him. I’m sure other fans are facing similar doubts. This is isn’t the first time this dilemma has come up in art, and it certainly won’t be the last. Can you love the art if the artist is a terrible person?
My short answer is yes. Some of the most beloved artists were human beings of questionable moral fiber – of course there are asshole artists! In fact, I’d be willing to bet there is a higher percentage of assholes in the art world than in the population at large. Take Picasso’s misogyny, for example. It has rarely gotten in the way of our enjoying his art, though perhaps it’s easier to forgive a man long dead than one of our contemporaries. I imagine if Picasso were alive and kicking and on the evening news, we might feel differently. And it is contemporary artists that I want to discuss.
This problem played out in 2009 with director Roman Polanski. Polanski has long been an expat in Europe after being arrested for the sexual assault of a minor. It wasn’t until September 2009 that the question of his extradition and conviction became a real possibility. I won’t hash out the entire story, but one of the biggest developments was a petition, signed by many prominent directors, actors, and film industry elites, demanding Polanski’s freedom.
It would seem that many of these signers were judging Polanski on his considerable talent as a director, not his personal character. And that is where it gets tricky. Two of my favorite directors, Pedro Almodovar and Wong Kar-Wai, signed the petition. Somehow I’m not conflicted in my love for them, perhaps because I feel they’re in the same position I am with Galliano. They equated the merit of the art with the artist as a person. It’s an easy mistake to make. In merely appreciating art, it’s vital to do just that – recognize that brilliance of the output is not a moral barometer of its creator.
Back to Dior. I still feel less exuberant, less excited when I go back and look at couture collections (particularly spring 2007). I believe it’s because I know that fashion is very much a consumer centric enterprise as well as an art form. Of course most art has a commercial element, but not in the same way. I may still be able to gush over the exquisiteness of a Galliano designed gown, but would I really be comfortable buying one, thus giving money to someone with hateful views that go against my own values? Probably not. And fashion interacts with people on different level than, say, painting. Natalie Portman, who is Jewish and the new face of Miss Dior Cherie perfume, has already issued a statement of disgust at Galliano’s behavoir. I found myself wondering how many models, financiers, and loyal Dior customers there are who are also of Jewish heritage and deeply affected by Galliano’s slurs. If I were them, hell if I were a much wealthier me, I might not be able to still feel beautiful in my Dior clothes.