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Posted at 2:52 PM ET, 03/ 2/2011

John Galliano, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen -- poison and poetry

By Alexandra Petri

Oscar Wilde once said that "The fact of a man's being a poisoner is nothing against his poetry."

But watching the fallout from John Galliano's pro-Hitler, anti-Semitic rant, I have to wonder whether that's still the case.

One of the pressing questions of modern life is: What is the one unforgivable offense? Is there anything that puts you forever beyond the pale?

I would argue that it's getting drunk and making anti-Semitic remarks. That's the one crime from which no one seems able to recover. It used to be, say, murder -- "Murder is always a mistake," Oscar Wilde noted. "One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner." But these days, murder is practically an icebreaker. Remember "If I Did It"? Now the one thing that will get you booted unceremoniously from any locale, except a gathering of the Aryan Brotherhood at a beerhall, is going on a drunken anti-Semitic tirade. Look at Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, and now John Galliano. It's the new Rubicon.

But after this happens, can we blacklist them forever? This seems to be the case with Mel Gibson. Admittedly, his next project is about a man who uses a beaver puppet to communicate and learn to love again, which no one would want to watch under the best of circumstances. But how independent is an artist's work of his or her persona?

"I'm not defending anti-Semites, but ..." is the deadly sentence-starting equivalent of "No offense, but ... " or "It's okay, I voted for Obama." Still, I think the question of how much the private lives of our artists have come to loom over their creations is worth contemplating. In acting, they're hard to separate; stars are stars because they are people you actively want to see, not because they possess more or less objective merit. And in fashion, a shirt isn't just a shirt. I think. I don't know fashion, but I watched "The Devil Wears Prada," and that was the impression I came away with, as well as the vague desire not to eat food ever again.

Increasingly, it's all about personality. We want to know where these things come from. We want the life stories of all those responsible. We want to know Who Made That. And it's not just in art or music. Part of Apple's appeal is that a Person -- Steve Jobs -- seems to be designing our computers. We want to see the man behind the curtain.

The whole concept of messaging and personal promotion is getting ever more closely embedded in our culture. Perhaps that's why the Oscar Wilde quote seemed so apt. Wilde was one of the first celebrity artists whose life was as much an artistic creation as his work -- indeed, he once quipped, "I put my genius into my life. I only put my talent into my work." This is increasingly asked of everyone. The only realm where you can remain safely anonymous is -- well, journalism, because I still feel pretty obscure. But for how long?

Increasingly, the big blow-ups aren't about deeds but about words. Sen. David Vitter was involved in a scandal that allegedly included some permutation of diapers and a prostitute, and he is still in office. Larry Summers once hinted that there might be a genetic difference between men and women when it came to math and science, and he was ridden out of town on a rail.

Under our reigning system, every sin is forgivable except the one that reveals something contradictory about the essence of the individual involved. If I garrote your aunt, that's a shame for her. But if I say that I find aunts conceptually appalling, we have a real problem. Bill Clinton has an easier rehabilitation than, say, Grant Storms, the vocally anti-gay pastor just arrested for masturbating near a public park.

Some thoughts are objectively abhorrent, and if buying Wagner CDs supported the Nazis, I wouldn't buy any.

But is Wagner's music worse because of his political beliefs?

The Galliano case is different. There are lots of designers out there, and in the world of fashion, there is more to a designer than his or her designs. And Mr. Galliano knows this, which is why he has been apologizing -- and why he cultivated his over-the-top persona to begin with.

Fashion, like acting and, increasingly, politics, is a realm where judgments are based not merely on what is made but upon who makes it. That's why those polls come out about whether we'd like to drink beer with the presidential candidates and who's taller and who looks better in plaid. "Sure, John Kerry seems to share some of my policy preferences," we say, "But the man is too fond of kale for me to trust him."

But this is dangerous. As we cultivate the illusion that we know these people, and the parallel delusion that our entertainers and politicians and artists should be people we'd actually like, we should keep in mind what a limited slice of the world that leaves us. Many great individuals were personally toxic and did wildly objectionable things. Look at Wagner. Look at Winston Churchill. Look at Thomas Jefferson. Look at T. S. Eliot. Eventually you keep whittling the field until you're left with Mitt Romney and the inventor of Melba toast.

Beautiful things can emerge from extremely ugly people. Likewise, people who are exceptionally excellent and possess all kinds of merit may not be great artists. Justin Bieber is the least objectionable boy on the planet -- and I'd rather lead apes in hell than trade in my Wagner for his floppy drivel.

By Alexandra Petri  | March 2, 2011; 2:52 PM ET
Categories:  Epic Failures, Petri  | Tags:  Galliano, art, oops  
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Next: What would Dr. Seuss say today?


I really don't think it's right that Galliano has to stand trial over this - that's not to say I don't think his slurs were objectionable - but they were made in private when he was drunk. I have covered this on my own blog - please take a look

Posted by: Jonesey83 | March 2, 2011 4:19 PM | Report abuse

There's a clear message that something is wrong with the Hollywood personalities,and I don't mean Gibson. So, tell us about their personalities, their real personalities, and we'll figure the rest.

Posted by: pattersonjane | March 2, 2011 8:06 PM | Report abuse

They that die old maids, must lead apes in hell? There's no chance of it!

From the "The Taming of the Shrew":

"What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see
She is your treasure, she must have a husband;
I must dance bare-foot on her wedding-day,
And for your love to her lead apes in hell.
Talk not to me; I will go sit and weep,
Till I can find occasion of revenge."

Posted by: jimward21 | March 3, 2011 9:40 AM | Report abuse

The greatest sin anyone can commit is to remind us of:

"The devil inside
The devil inside
Every single one of us
The devil inside!"

"I'm not defending anti-Semites, but," don't all of us have inner feelings that we are hiding? Isn't it really OK to be racist in your thoughts, choice of friends, employees, schools, where to live... as long as you don't talk about it?

Alcohol brings out "the devil inside," and sometimes he can't keep his mouth shut. All these racist rants seem to happen during drinking binges.

The one exception may be Charlie Sheen, who may actually have cured his addictions "with his mind," by assuming the character of his own "devil inside," without drugs or alcohol. Now, if only he could change his "devil inside" character into someone who can't speak!

The fault, dear Petri, is not in our drunken celebrities,
but in ourselves!

Posted by: divtune | March 3, 2011 6:41 PM | Report abuse

I see your point, but case in point, I won't watch or go to Tom Cruise movies any more because I think he's a nutjob (Mel Gibson, same thing). Also I was a fan of a certain NASCAR driver until I read a profile of him in a men's magazine and it became clear that he's a total misogynist and a real jerk. Is it wrong of me to dislike someone's art or root for them in sports because I think they are wackos or jerks? Maybe, but I can't help it - I think that's partially human nature.....

Posted by: indy474 | March 4, 2011 9:12 AM | Report abuse

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