This week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the upcoming 2023 Met Gala theme: ‘Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.’
As the name implies, the gala will celebrate the life and work of the late Karl Lagerfeld, who is widely recognized as a creative genius and revolutionary in the fashion industry. He’s also credited with transforming Chanel into the brand it is today, not an easy feat at the time.
But Karl Lagerfeld was also racist, Islamaphobic, fatphobic, and misogynistic.
It’s this dichotomy that has reopened old conversations about Karl and how — or rather, if — we should honor his legacy.
It’s a question we’ve asked time and time again, and not just when it comes to Karl Lagerfeld.
We’ve long struggled with our conflicting feelings about separating art from artist, especially in the wake of accountability culture (also known as “cancel culture,” a misnomer). We watch as artists we once loved, respected, and looked up to, say horrific things and commit terrible acts.
And yet, we struggle to sever ties and walk away. We want so desperately to hold on to the art that means so much to us. But is it possible for the work to stand alone, to emerge unscathed, when it’s been shrouded in darkness?
For so many people, Karl Lagerfeld’s art is much more than just a mere collection of clothing. They’ve attached memories to his designs — designs they wore at unforgettable moments in their lives: their first date, their first trip abroad, their best friend’s wedding. They treasure the pieces they coveted and saved up for years just to own. They hold dear the vintage pieces their grandmothers and mothers passed on to them. How can they shun Karl Lagerfeld and every rotten thing he stood for without also shunning all of the art that they’ve become so attached to?
And that doesn’t even begin to account for the impact he had on the fashion industry and those devoted to it. For countless designers, models, journalists, and more, Karl Lagerfeld was a mentor, a source of inspiration, and an incredible success story.
For those who consider fashion their art form, their means of expression, their emotional outlet, it’s hard to turn their back on someone who revolutionized the industry in ways that still affect all of us today.
Of course, for those who of us have no emotional connection to Karl Lagerfeld and could never afford Chanel, Fendi, or his own eponymous brand in a million years, it’s easy. We feel no obligation to him or his work and feel no need to celebrate his legacy. We see his Islamophobic hate, his fatphobia, his misogyny, and the decision is obvious. But it would be unrealistic to expect the same from others who were truly affected by Karl’s legacy, whether we agree with them or not.
The desire to separate art from artist is, of course, not limited to fashion. We’ve seen it time and time again. In the music industry, we watch as fans stand firm in their denial, unwilling to walk away from musicians like R. Kelly and Chris Brown. They assert the musicians’ innocence, despite the overwhelming evidence otherwise. In Hollywood, we watch as (“alleged”) sexual predators like Woody Allen enjoy successful careers and continue to make film after film. And why? Because we continue to go see them. Just like with Karl Lagerfeld’s clothing, we’ve formed emotional attachments to these artists’ works that aren’t always so easy to break.
It’s always going to be difficult for folks to separate art from the artist. While some are able to cut the chord as soon as they learn of any wrong-doings, others find it difficult to turn away from the artists who once stirred such powerful emotions in them and moved them in indescribable ways.
Perhaps Banksy has it right — with no identity to attach to their art, they allow it to exist in a nice neat little bubble, unaffected by reality. But is that really the way we want to enjoy and consume art? Is ignorance really bliss?
At the end of the day, context matters. Having the opportunity to connect with an artist on a deep, visceral level, matters. It’s the reason why an artist like Taylor Swift can garner such a massive fandom — people relate to her and her experiences as a human being. Would her music really resonate with so many people on that same level if it came from a nameless, faceless entity?
As much as we may so desperately want to separate the art from the artist so we can preserve that art that we hold so dear, we would have to be willfully ignorant to do so — certainly in cases like Karl Lagerfeld’s. We cannot and should not ignore the way his hateful, misogynistic views of women affect his legacy.
That’s not to say that we pretend as if Karl Lagerfeld and his influence never existed — the opposite is necessary, in fact. We don’t erase history, we learn from it. We grow from it. And hopefully, we do better next time.
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