Author: Chris Au
The announcement in early October that designer John Galliano had been hired as creative director of Maison Martin Margiela surprised the fashion world, and has once again ignited conversations about forgiveness. The prolific designer fell from grace in 2011 after an anti-Semitic scandal, and had been laying low until recently. The saga is a controversial one, making it difficult to straddle the fence as to whether the punishment fit the crime, but more importantly, it begs the question: Can you truly separate an artist from his art? Time and time again this question has been asked, but there never seems to be a definitive answer. One reaches a sort of impasse when trying to defend the artist in question, because it is doubtless that some sort of hypocrisy is involved.
After a video of Galliano making a drunken anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bistro was made viral in 2011, he was dismissed from his role as creative director at Dior and his own namesake label. He replaced his once outrageous personality with a more subdued aesthetic as he went through rehab and a series of confessional interviews. Though he had a much-hyped stint at Oscar de la Renta and a creative director position at L’Etoile, a Russian beauty chain, Galliano had essentially disappeared off the map until this recent appointment.
At the center of this debate is whether or not we can accept the creative output of someone who seems to harbor racist thoughts. Is the art produced free from the values and morals of its creator, or is it forever sullied by it? Can we objectively judge a piece of work if we know the nature of its origins? For some, Galliano’s crime can never be forgiven, and his reinstatement into the industry equates to supporting a bigot, and atthe extreme, to perpetuate his bigotry. His designs, no matter how innovative or romantic, can never be removed from the environment whence they came.
Others, including yours truly, believes that his time in what journalist Robin Givhan has termed the “fashion wilderness” is punishment enough for his past transgressions, and the time is drawing nigh for the redemption of one of fashion’s most prominent provocateurs. Surely I am not suggesting that Galliano’s bigotry is acceptable, although some may accuse me of indirectly doing so by supporting his appointment, but he seems to have acceptedhis guilt and to be working towards vindication. He received a measure of absolution from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an international Jewish non-governmental organization that promotes anti-bigotry, which lauded his efforts for atonement.
This position however is difficult to support, because the moral boundaries surrounding it are so blurry, and also because everyone’s personal moral yardstick seems to differ according to the artist. This is where the issue of hypocrisy is key. Late last year, decades-old accusations of child molestation charges against director Woody Allen resurfaced after Vanity Fair’s profile on Mia Farrow, Allen’s wife at the time. The controversy reared its head when Allen and Farrow’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow penned an open letter in The New York Times, charging the director with molesting her in the family’s attic when she was just 7 years old. The claims are certainly heinous and, should they be true, Allen should not only be ostracized from the film community or society in general, but he should be tried in court. Not being a film buff, I have no connection with films in general and cannot say that I hold Allen on any sort of pedestal except acknowledging that he is a renowned director. That being said, I have made it a point to try not to watch any of his films, and I feel a certain contempt for those in the film industry who have come to his defense. Allen fans might call people like me naïve and claim that his films should not be judged solely against the creator but by its quality, but it is difficult for me to watch his films without feeling as if I’m supporting a child molester. This dilemma is mirrored in my defense of Galliano and my criticisms of those who continually censure him. It is the impasse that many who have tried to argue the same have faced; in my mind’s eye, I see Galliano as repentant but Allen as unforgivable.
These are not unique cases and there are many examples of artists who have either suffered from their actions or have remained unscathed by controversy. Mel Gibson of the famous “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” and “If you get raped by a pack of n****rs, it will be your fault” has suffered immensely for his many despicable comments, as many believe he should have, but Iggy Azalea, who has tweeted homophobic and racist comments in the past, is on the top of the charts right now. Chris Brown has recently made the rounds with his popular song “Loyal”, but everything he releases seems to be haunted by the specter of the pictures of a bruised and bloodied Rihanna.
Situations like these are not simply black and white, even though many try to make them out to be; everyone is guilty of the same hypocrisy that they are fighting against. So when Galliano makes his debut at Margiela this coming February in Paris, the reception will be mixed; for some it will mark the overdue return of a fashion demigod from his exile. For his detractors, it will be akin to a betrayal and the consecration of an anti-Semite in the name of fashion.