A brisk debate is taking place in Australia as to what is to be done, if anything, with artworks associated with the convicted child molester and serial assaulter Rolf Harris, who as we write is facing a custodial sentencing hearing tonight. (Later: Harris was jailed for five years, to serve approximately three with good behaviour. Another 12 women are reputedly reporting alleged offences against him. The British Government’s legal officers are already considering a complaint that the sentence was inadequate.
In one town, Warrnambool, a rather attractive landscape mural painted by Harris on a loading dock has been covered up at the command of the town mayor while Councillors take the public pulse and work out whether it should be kept, covered up, or destroyed. A similar debate is occurring in the Queensland town of Bundaberg.
Meanwhile, The City of Perth says it is likely to tear up a footpath plaque in its central business district dedicated to Rolf Harris. “The boy from Bassendean” is among more than 150 notable West Australians celebrated with a plaque inlaid in the footpath of Perth’s St Georges Terrace.
What to do with the legacy of people that fall foul of the law is a vexed issue.
The calls for Rolf Harris to be expunged from art history is founded in the belief, which must be respected, that reminding victims of sexual abuse, whether children or adults, of his existence and role in society before his fall from grace, would be distressing and traumatic. This is a point of view that must be respected, coming as it does from people who are specifically experienced in the area, such as psychologists and victims of sexual assault organisations.
But at what point do we confront two awkward facts?
First, the elephant in the room is that the treatment of wrongdoers in the arts (and their output) varies enormously and for no apparent reason, and secondly the idea that the art from such people assumes a “life of its own” once it has left their mind, pen or brush, and becomes something which despite their crimes can still enrich or enliven society.
Let us tackle the first point first.
What about, for example, the case of politician and author Jeffrey Archer, whose books still sell in the millions worldwide? Should all his books be withdrawn from sale, or pulped, because he was clearly an adulterer, a perjurer who went to jail for his crime, and according to the internet allegedly involved in various other dubious matters?
Of course, it can be argued that Jeffrey Archer’s run-ins with the law were less contemptible than that of Rolf Harris, and so they may have been. Nevertheless, they seem to have put hardly a crimp in the veneer of his literary career.
And then what about the case of movie director Roman Polanski?
On March 10, 1977, Polanski, then aged 43, became embroiled in a scandal involving 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Samantha Geimer). A grand jury charged Polanski with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under fourteen, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, which ultimately led to Polanski’s guilty plea to the charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor as part of a plea deal agreed to by Polanski, the prosecutor, the judge, and the Gailey family.
According to Geimer’s testimony to the grand jury, Polanski had asked Geimer’s mother (a television actress and model) if he could photograph the girl as part of his work for the French edition of Vogue, which Polanski had been invited to guest-edit. Her mother allowed a private photo shoot.
Geimer testified that she felt uncomfortable during the first session, in which she posed topless at Polanski’s request, and initially did not wish to take part in a second, but nevertheless agreed to another shoot. This took place on 10 March 1977, at the home of actor Jack Nicholson in the Mulholland area of Los Angeles. At the time the crime was committed, Nicholson was on a ski-ing trip in Colorado, and his live-in girlfriend Anjelica Huston who was there, left, but later returned while Polanski and Geimer were there.
Geimer was quoted in a later article as saying that Huston became suspicious of what was going on behind the closed bedroom door and began banging on it, but left when Polanski insisted they were finishing up the photo shoot. “We did photos with me drinking champagne,” Geimer says. “Toward the end it got a little scary, and I realised he had other intentions and I knew I was not where I should be. I just didn’t quite know how to get myself out of there.”
In a 2003 interview, she recalled that she began to feel uncomfortable after he asked her to lie down on a bed, and described how she attempted to resist. “I said, ‘No, no. I don’t want to go in there. No, I don’t want to do this. No!’, and then I didn’t know what else to do,” she stated, adding: “We were alone and I didn’t know what else would happen if I made a scene. So I was just scared, and after giving some resistance, I figured well, I guess I’ll get to come home after this”.
Geimer testified that Polanski provided champagne that they shared as well as part of a quaalude, and despite her protests, he performed oral, vaginal, and anal sex acts upon her, each time after being told ‘no’ and being asked to stop. Although Geimer has insisted that the sex was non-consensual, Polanski has disputed this. Nevertheless, under California law, a person under 18 cannot legally consent to sexual intercourse with anyone who is not their spouse, and Polanski has since settled a civil case with Geimer in her favour and even written to her apologising for the effect he had on her life.
So let’s just get this clear.
Roman Polanski had anal sex with an entirely innocent and allegedly non-compliant 13 year old.
But have you seen and enjoyed any of his movies since? Tess? Frantic? Bitter Moon? The Ninth Gate? The Pianist? (For which he was awarded an Oscar which he could not receive because he would have been arrested.) The Ghost Writer? Carnage? Venus in Fur?
Polanski today is lauded throughout the world as a leading artist, and people regularly troop to the microphone to argue that he should be forgiven and his crime expunged.
Others will fulminate on the evil or otherwise of the people involved in these trials, but that is not the purpose of this article. It is not our place to condemn. And we are certainly not about to deny the role of forgiveness or the concept that people do bad things and then improve themselves. And it should also be said that the judge in Polanski’s original trial may well have unsatisfactorily reneged on a deal not to give him further jail time, and that Polanski therefore considered flight the only option rather than staying and facing the music. It may also be that being forced to live in Europe rather than America has caused him some hardship: inconvenience, at least.
Yet for all that he was a convicted sexual offender, at exactly the same time as many of those now being exposed in the United Kingdom and elsewhere were abusing children, and the subsequent treatment of Polanski’s art and the man himself has been markedly different to that meted out to Rolf Harris, TV personality Stuart Hall, and a number of others.
We stress that we make no judgement either way on any of these cases … we merely note the apparent double standard. Or, if you prefer, the lack of a standard.
The second issue is even more complex. To what extent does a work of art acquire a life of its own after it has left its creator? Should it not be allowed to exist, unencumbered by the travails of its creator, and judged entirely on its merits?
For example, Joe Shuster co-created Superman with Jerry Siegel, but then years later the world discovered that he was also the artist behind a range of extremely offensive Bondage/BDSM comics sold “under the counter” in America.
These comics were so nasty they were banned by the Supreme Court. Their publisher, a mobster turned porn peddler, was sentenced to prison because of them.
The only reason Shuster wasn’t arrested too is that no one knew who drew these books until recently, when they were accidentally discovered in a used bookstore by a comics historian.
But would anyone seriously argue that kids shouldn’t be allowed to watch Superman, or that the world would have been a better place if we’d never heard of the Man of Steel?
Moving on: Poet Lord Byron had at least two children out of wedlock, and one of them incestuously with his half-sister Augusta. He was also well-known as an enthusiastic adulterer.
Does that mean no jilted lover today should ever read his most exquisitely powerful words in When we two parted😕 That would surely be a shame.
In secret we met
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.
Famous authors F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, Victor Hugo, Goethe, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky all engaged in obsessive foot fetishes. Hardly illegal, but definitely peculiar.
For instance, when he wasn’t busy writing Faust, Goethe managed to find a woman named Christiane von Vulpis who shared his interest and would send him pairs of her “danced-out shoes,” which is like mailing a guy your dirty underwear, only much more unsettling on a deeper level.
Von Vulpis also nicknamed Goethe’s penis “Herr Schonfuss,” or “Mr. Nicefoot,” which we assume indicates that he either put toenail polish on his private parts and/or he habitually kept them bunched up in her wingtip loafers.
No, not illegal. But definitely strange. But should it affect our view of his lyric and epic poetry, his prose, his literary criticism, his learned works on botany, anatomy, and colour?
The list of artistic behavioural peculiarities rolls on, some mere peccadilloes, some extremely disturbing.
As the BBC reported, a victim of a paedophile teacher asked for his music textbooks for children to be banned. The BBC used the debate to ask, does the work, or the art, of someone who has committed such a crime have to be condemned as well?
To some within the music fraternity, there were two Brian Daveys. One a devious paedophile jailed for sexually abusing girls as young as four. The other was a respected music teacher who wrote books on the recorder that many tutors regard as among the best textbooks of their kind for children.
To his step-daughter Antoinette Lyons, now 33, the two are inseparable. She waived the anonymity accorded to victims of sexual abuse to call for his books to be withdrawn: “In my opinion they were written with one aim – to get to children.” This echoes an age-old conundrum from the world of art. Can you value work produced by someone whose private life and acts you find appalling? Do the proclivities of those responsible for artistic or intellectual works have to be taken into account in their appreciation?
It seems a shame that children should be denied access to excellent teaching materials because their author was a dangerous pervert.
As the BBC explained, similar stories keep popping up: for example, Fiona MacCarthy wrote a biography of the sculptor and typographer Eric Gill in 1989 that dropped a small bomb on the art world.
Gill was one of the most respected artists of the 20th Century. His statue Prospero and Ariel adorns the BBC’s Broadcasting House and the Creation of Adam is in the lobby of the Palais des Nations, now the European HQ of the United Nations in Geneva.
But MacCarthy’s book revealed that he regularly had sex with two of his daughters, his sisters and even the family dog. These encounters he recorded in his diary.
Once the allegations were known, for some of Gill’s fans, even looking at his work became impossible. Most problematically, he was a Catholic convert who created some of the most popular devotional art of his era, such as the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral, where worshippers pray at each panel depicting the suffering of Jesus.
But the Catholic Church would not budge an inch. The former Westminster Cathedral administrator, Bishop George Stack, retains an unequivocal view.
In 1998, spurred on by a cardinal’s praise for Gill, Margaret Kennedy, who campaigns for Ministers and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, called for the works to be removed.
“Survivors couldn’t pray at the Stations of the Cross. They were done by a paedophile. The very hands that carved the stations were the hands that abused. He abused his maids, his prostitutes, animals, he was having sex with everything that moved – a very deranged man sexually.”
But Stack commented: “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.”
Does it though? It might be easier to make this argument for the Stations of the Cross than for nude sketches of Gill’s teenage daughter. But should we therefore stop using the clean, neat typeface Gill Sans, created by Gill? That would make life exceptionally tricky for millions of people worldwide who rely on it as the core of their corporate style guide.
Popular Italian medieval composer Carlo Gesualdo
brutally murdered his unfaithful wife, her lover, his child, yet we still listen to his music enraptured. He is remembered for writing intensely expressive madrigals and sacred music that use a chromatic language not heard again until the late 19th century.
No one remembers him for slaughtering the lovers in a frenzied attack, swinging his infant son around until he died, and so forth. Perhaps the passage of time confers some form of forgetfulness, but nevertheless. One has to wonder.
At the Wellthisiswhatithink College of Ethics we do not propose that we know the answer to this conundrum.
If we had to express a view, it would probably be that we want the work preserved, just as we wish the names of such criminals expunged from consciousness. (Unless, perhaps, some extraordinary and meaningful act of contrition has been accepted by their victims.) Both cannot be achieved, of course.
We do have one small idea. Maybe a partial answer to Warrnambool’s problem is simply to grab a brush and paint over Harris’s signature. Over time, the genesis of the work will be forgotten, as will it’s thoroughly obnoxious and destructive author, and we will all be left with what it is now.
A nice painting.