In defense of lost causes-----on John Galliano

One of the questions haunting art is: to whom, or what, is the artist responsible? Which translates to: should an artist be held accountable to any domain outside her work? And we saw this question play out recently in John Galliano's fall from grace.

On 25 February, 2011, Dior announced that it was suspending Galliano following his arrest for an alleged anti-Semitic rant in a bar in Paris. The company began dismissal procedures on 1 March, with chief executive Sidney Toledano stating, "I very firmly condemn what was said by John Galliano." [1] No one is disagreeing with Toledano here. There is no defending the second half of Galliano's statement "I love Hitler ... People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed." He is, of course, free to love whomever he wants to, but even the most liberal-tree hugging defender of free speech would hard pressed if (s)he had to make a claim for one being allowed to hurl threats at another (not withstanding the historical accuracy of said threat). If we were to paraphrase Toledano's statement it would go something along the lines of: 'he should be held accountable for what he says, especially in public'. If we were more cynical his would really be saying: 'we don't actually care what he thinks, but he has to take responsibility for what says in public. We (as in the company) cannot let our branding be affected by him'.

One could be more generous, like Patricia Field who claimed: "John lives in theater. It's theater. It's farce. But people in fashion don't recognize the farce in it. All of a sudden they don't know him. But it's OK when it's Mel Brooks' The Producers singing 'Springtime for Hitler'." [2] Field's argument puts the onus of Galliano's alleged misdemeanor on the reader: it is really due to our misrecognition of the form of his speech that caused the outrage. In other words, we have one again fallen for the brilliance of the master provocateur; she could have added that it is our inability to take the joke that is causing us to lash out at him.

Even though Field and Toledano are making seemingly opposite claims, both are relying on the same premise: the artist is responsible to the public. For, even if, as Field posits, the onus is on the reader to read properly (or even correctly) there is a correspondence between the artist and the world out there. And in both their statements, one can hear a strong echo of Plato's warning that art can be dangerous. The power of art is its ability to corrupt: since all learning is mimetic, the manner in which things (or gods in Plato's case) are represented is crucial, as any mis-representation can harm a mind that is not ready to know the difference. Hence, Galliano has to be castigated, shunned in public: for, if he is allowed to continue, his mis-representation of the Jewish people could well corrupt the impressionable youth, for whom he is a hero.

But this is where they have completely missed the point.

For, by focusing on the accountability of John Galliano to the public, or even to his own statements, we have shifted the focus of thinking from the art to the artist. However, if we consider Plato's claim that all learning is mimetic, and that art is the expression of craft at its highest level—where the craft is elevated beyond itself—we have a situation that art is mimesis that is not mimetic. In other words, art comes into itself at the moment when craft is beyond itself. And since one can only learn mimetically, it stands to reason that one cannot learn art: whenever it happens, it happens to one. This is why Socrates posits that his wisdom only comes to him from a daemon that whispers into his ear: it is from beyond. In other words, there is no artist; the person is the medium through which there is the possibility of gestures of art.

Which means that not only do we have to separate a judgment of John Galliano from the work of John Galliano, we have to go even further and separate the representations of John Galliano from his potential gestures of art. This calls for a judgement of his work outside of any criterion other than itself. As Jacques Ranciere elegantly states, "the work … stands under its own law of production and is its own proof." (The Aesthetic Unconscious, 24) This is what allows one to be completely opposed to what Nazi Germany stood for and observe that they had wonderfully designed uniforms.

But this leaves us with the problem of how to judge the medium that is John Galliano. Can one really separate the potential anti-Semite from the genius that produces work that slips into the realm of art? Here, it might be helpful to turn once again to Ranciere who posits that "art [is] the territory of thought that is present outside itself and identical with non-thought." (6) So, even as the work "is its own proof" this suggests that we are never able to say, with any certainty, that a work is art. [3] Perhaps, we can also posit that the medium is precisely the site of this "non-thought"; which is why the art which is a work of "unconditional creativity is identified with an absolute passivity." (24) And when we say that Galliano is a genius, we should not forget "Kant's conception of genius [which] summarizes this duality. The genius is the active power of nature who sets his own creative power against any model or norm. The genius, we might say, becomes a norm for himself. But at the same time he is the one who does not know what he does and is incapable of accounting for his own activity." (24)

Which does not mean that even though we celebrate Galliano's works as art, even as we acknowledge his moments of genius, that we should exonerate his behaviour. Nor should we do the opposite of shunning all that he has done, and might still do. Nor even the standard liberal position of 'yes, he is a horrible person, but his work is good'. We should take the separation of the person from the work all the way to the end: and posit that Galliano's work has absolutely nothing to do with him as a person. That even though he is the medium, at the point when the daemon whispers into his ear, he "does not know what he does"; the point when he is a genius is the point where John Galliano is no longer John Galliano.

But how might we do this?

Our mistake was in attempting to understand why he might have made these statements (he was drunk; too much stress; etc.), or to shift the focus from the content to the form. Or even to distance ourselves from it—like the house of Dior. For, all of these merely reinforce the inseparability of his person (or his name) from the work.

We must also never forget that since we can never be sure of whether something is art or not, the onus lies on our judgement; a judgement that cannot rely on anything other than the fact that it is judging. This means that if we even conceive of him as a person, or even an entity, we are already mixing the medium with representation of that medium.

Ironically, it is the ranting lunatic version of John Galliano that might provide us the possibility of defending the medium who has these gestures of genius produced through him.

Perhaps what we should do is to "fucking gas" John Galliano.

Not literally. That would be too easy.

But to think of him as a non-thing. For, if art is the "territory of thought" and also "identified with an absolutely passivity", we should allow Galliano to be absolutely passive, to be one without a voice, to be homo sacer.

And since bare life is completely divorced from the polis, from society, the question that we opened with is moot. Not just in the sense of the artist is apart from everything, and everyone else, and hence has no responsibility to anything but her work. But more radically: there is no artist as such—and a medium cannot be responsible to anything. Not even to art.

Maybe then, just maybe, the glimpses of art—past, present, and those to come—the glimpses that are in danger of being lost, might be saved.



[1] BBC News. 'John Galliano sacked by fashion house Dior' (1 March, 2011).

[2] Rosemary Feitelberg. 'Patricia Field defends John Galliano' in Women's Wear Daily. (1 March, 2011).

[3] And this is precisely why Plato was so nervous about art: if thought and non-thought are identical, all the reason in the world could never help one distinguish—with any certainly—between them. Which means that art could affect you in ways that were always already beyond you.



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