Why there are no winners in the squalid saga of Rolf Harris
We shouldn't remove the works of disgraced artists to show our disgust at their actions.
Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30
I didn't feel one bit sorry for Rolf Harris until I read an article by Simon Hattenstone reflecting on his interviews with three attention-seeking sexual predators who sold themselves as protectors of children: Harris, Max Clifford and Jimmy Savile. Both Clifford and Savile, he said "never appeared to question their essential goodness as men and altruists", but Harris hated himself. Hattenstone had been touched by his apparent humility when he castigated himself for his selfishness and uselessness as a husband and father, but "in retrospect, I think even here he was indulging himself - only this time, it was his guilt rather than his libido."
When I got to that bit, my last atom of sympathy evaporated.
I wouldn't be giving any more mental house-room to this squalid case had I not been fascinated by the public reaction. Some of it was even funny. Russell Brand - who these days sees himself as a sage rather than as a comedian famous for his voracious appetite for consenting adult lovelies - now has a YouTube channel on which he pronounces on the issues of the day. He was upset about Harris, he explained. The unmasking of such a popular entertainer from his childhood "contributes to the idea that nothing that we stand on is firm ground. There's a horror; an uncanniness to it." The case was "graffiti over our consciousness, our grasp of what is real."
I thought that deserved the prize for pretentious drivel until I read the comments of The Guardian's art critic, Jonathan Jones, who was reacting to reports that collectors were getting rid of their Harris paintings.
While he worried about the principle of censoring the work of the disgraced, he would be happy to see all Harris's "worthless" art destroyed, for it wasn't just "worthless cultural detritus", it was middlebrow, which "is inherently corrupt. What goes on in Tracey Emin's bed" (condoms, tampons, dirty knickers, cigarette butts and the rest) "is far more honest, far more decent, than what has gone on in the name of bland entertainment and mild art." Was he, he wondered, "overrinterpreting Harris's art to see the banality of evil in his determinedly inoffensive daubs?". Er, yes. He really, really, really was.
Meanwhile, moral panic over paedophilia is causing hysterics to attempt to erase Rolf Harris from history. I can understand why his home town in Western Australia has removed photographs and a portrait of him, but where is the sense in, for instance, removing a plaque he unveiled at Colchester Zoo in 1998 when he was presenting the TV programme Animal Hospital?
Then there are the galleries that have removed any reference to him on their websites and the City gent who intends to burn ceremonially his print of Harris's Uluru at Sunset. I can see why one might feel uncomfortable having a Harris picture of a naked girl on one's wall, but surely a picture of an inoffensive sandstone rock shouldn't start one reaching for the matches?
"Let's go out and gather up all the Rolf Harris paintings ever made," said a text from my irascible friend David after this news broke, "and BURN them. For ARTISTS must always be good. Whoever heard of an artist who did bad deeds!"
"Quite," I responded. " And then we'll take a sledge-hammer to the sculptures on Broadcasting House by that dirty old perv, Eric Gill."
A devout Catholic, Gill created drawings and sculptures of exceptional artistry and beauty. He died in 1940, 50 years before a biography revealed a series of depraved sexual relations, including those with underage victims and even with his dog. There were calls to have his work removed from all public areas, particularly the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral.
Years later, Cork-born George Stack (once administrator of the cathedral and now Archbishop of Cardiff), remembered. "There was no consideration given to taking these down. A work of art stands in its own right. Once it has been created it takes on a life of its own."
The Tate had less courage than the Catholic Church. When in 2013 that fine painter Graham Ovenden was convicted of sexual offences against children, the gallery removed his art from its website. They had collected his paintings (of clothed and naked children) in the first place because they admired them. Now, despite the backing of distinguished painters who believe the portraits have not a hint of pornography, they had decided to reject them as paedophile fantasies.
More robust than the Tate is James Daunt, who runs Waterstones bookshops. When he was asked if he would go on selling Harris's books, he said: "We'd be removing an awful lot of books if we passed judgement on authors on the basis of their personal behaviour, that's for sure…If the books are not offensive, we don't take them off the shelves."
David and I idled a few minutes away texting each other about other wicked artists (Caravaggio and his penchant for violence and sex with boys came first to both our minds), before discussing why people call for such destruction.
"I guess the burnings are part of our 'me too' approach to public events," he suggested. "By being ostentatiously indignant and offended we can ALL be part of the Evil Uncle Rolf thing." Mind you, there are some gallery owners who are hanging on to their Harris art in the confident belief that there are enough weirdos attracted by notoriety to push the prices up.
Just to prove I'm open-minded, I'm giving the last word to Russell Brand. "On one side of the story," he said lugubriously, "you've got the victims, which are obviously human and real. And then on the other side you've got Rolf and his family that are human and real."
Not very elegantly expressed, but I get his point. Alwen, Harris's wife of 56 years, stuck with him throughout the trial. With victims preparing to sue, she and their 50-year-old daughter now face financial ruin as well as public shame.
There are no winners here.
Ruth Dudley Edwards