There’s a strange sort of hypocrisy and insanity in America that has nothing to do with conservatives, liberals, shooting up Arabs or the resurgent mania concerning the educational benefits of intelligent design theories. (Apparently, the new millennium simply restarted us at the beginning of our last century.) No, turn to the Op/Ed page for that. This is pop culture.

Angela Cesere

And it’s in the realm of pop culture that we find the most peculiar phenomenon of artistic immunity. Because when Bill Clinton gets a blow job, he gets impeached. When Charlie Sheen gets a few hundred of them, he gets a new TV show. Drug aficionado Robert Downey Jr. still gets work, and I’d be surprised if anyone even remembers when Hugh Grant was caught on the roadside with a hot young hooker in his lap.

So while Grant continues to bring the stammeringly funny to a string of charming British comedies (“Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Love, Actually,” “About a Boy,” etc.), Republican Bob Livingston lost his gig as Speaker of the House to an extramarital affair in the wake of the Clinton impeachment furor. And yet there’s no logical answer as to why we as a society are so tolerant of misbehaving celebrities.

If the puritanical urge to snuff out indecency in every corner of our culture extends to the people who run our government, it should logically follow that the men and women who inform our nation’s youth – What’s hot in fashion? Just ask coke-queen Kate Moss – would be justifiably held to the same standards. Sure, we elect our officials, but our cinema-going, album-buying, HBO-subscribing dollars elect our celebrities.

Unfortunately for all the indiscreet senators of the world, politics still holds the mask of public representation – public service. But some time between Beethoven pounding out his first symphony and Laurence Olivier bleaching his hair to embody the Bard’s favorite psychopath, the artistic world got the idea that it’s important.

The idea is that art and the artiste are beyond the censure of ordinary men, toiling in their little mundane world of taxes and mortgages and salaried jobs – and maybe they’re right. Because art is important. And really great art is justification enough for sporadic drug use and a little adulterous romping every now and then.

But the recent scandal involving the alleged substance abuse of supermodel Kate Moss has once again thrown that scenario into the national spotlight. Shortly after photos emerged of the powder-snorting glamour girl, H&M dropped her from its ad campaigns. And because no one wants to head the company who stands by its coke fiend, shattered deals with Burberry and Chanel followed.

Artistic immunity dictates that Moss will spend a year in recovery before sobbing to Oprah about her dark days and making a triumphant return. But should she? Although high fashion houses clamor for Cocaine Kate, although she has the wide-eyed, pouty face and waifish figure that’s defined the world of modeling since the ’90s, there’s a limit to how far even the greatest supermodel can push her status as the oppressed artiste.

If she’s not the tortured genius that art justifiers were looking for, perhaps legendary director Roman Polanski is a better fit. The visionary behind “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” drew upon his tormented childhood to craft his explosively moving “The Pianist.” Once again, the director has returned to prominence, explaining how a tragic and lonely childhood influenced his rendering of the new “Oliver Twist.”

There’s only one problem with the story of Polanski’s fairy-tale rise to victorious, Oscar-winning hero: Namely, that he wasn’t at the ceremony to accept the Oscar. And that’s because he fled to France after being convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl. He hasn’t returned since.

If conservative morality dictates that you pick your moral and stand unwaveringly behind it, that all else is secondary to that moral, then artistic immunity is the opposite. Immunity contends that genius is first, and all morals are incidental. When celebrities go bad, the conflict is undeniable.

But luckily for average Americans – the ones with those taxes and those mortgages and those salaried jobs – neither theory is actually of much importance. Why do we allow celebrities to misbehave? It’s not that we’re liberal, and it’s not that we buy into the self-inflating importance of the artiste. It’s that we’re lazy.

Politicians do our moral compassing for us; when a congressman screws up, there’s a challenger waiting with a thousand smear ads. But when a star screws around, there’s a legion of sympathetic fellow celebs who’ve long since bought into the grand ideals of artistic immunity. Besides, entertainment is only entertaining and art is only escape. Laypeople won’t stand up for morals in their movie stars, and if Kate Moss had a political opponent trying to tear her down, they might not stand for her either.

 

-Andrade hopes she gets artistic immunity for this column. E-mail her at aandrade@umich.edu.

 

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