Rolf Harris, Tessa Through the Blue Gums. Image: Courtney Fine Art
The 84-year-old entertainer and visual artist was convicted on Tuesday of 12 counts of indecent assault of girls as young as 13. He faces prison over the offences, which date back some 20 years.
The case is the third in as many weeks highlighting the ethical minefield we face when we bring the opinions or actions of artists to the way we encounter art. In a period when we are recognising and seeking to make reparations for the injustices of child abuse, sexism, racism and homophobia the arts are facing difficult questions about how much of the world beyond the proscenium arch or the picture frame should affect what we program.
Just last week Opera Australia terminated the contract of Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri after it became known that she had written a letter which described LGBT people as part of a ‘faecal mass’ and praised a violent mob’s attack on a gay pride march.
And the week before Opera Australia came under attack for reviving The King and I because of its representation of race.
The questions now being asked as to what should be done with Harris’s artworks complete a trifecta of race, sexual orientation and sexism, though there are important differences which should not be forgotten as we strive to find a considered and consistent moral position.
Harris’s offensive and illegal actions towards women and girls have now been established beyond reasonable doubt by a court and the way we judge him as a human being has been irreparably changed for the worse.
But what effect should that have on the way we look at his work? Harris’s long career has left a legacy of artistic artefact including recordings, paintings and compositions. The wobble board instrument that he created is an exhibit at the National Museum of Australia, his paintings are in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool and his recordings are anthologised on dozens of compilations. His portrait of the Queen, commissioned in 2005, was displayed at Buckingham Palace for two years before being exhibited at the Walker.
These are populist works that would hardly be regarded as classics of their time but that is neither here nor there. They were, until Harris’s indictment, regarded as worthy of preservation and in the case of Jake the Peg and the wobble board as symbols of a certain period of Australian culture.
With the entertainer’s conviction there are some who are no longer comfortable having these works around. It has been argued that they should be removed as a message that society will not tolerate child abuse.
The WA town of Bassendon, where Harris was born, has voted to remove all his art from public display.
The Guardian reports that Harris’s portrait of the Queen has mysteriously gone missing. Buckingham Palace, which displayed it in the Queen's Gallery until 2007, and the Walker Gallery, where it was on view until mid-2012, are each claiming the other is in possession of the work. The Walker gallery says it has returned the picture to Buckingham Palace, but Palace officials say it was never part of the Royal Collection and is not with them.
At the other end of the status scale a mural in a suburban hardware store cannot be quite so conveniently mislaid. The cartoon, really an advertisement invoking the entertainer’s now ironic ‘Trust British Paints, sure can’ advertising slogan, was painted by Harris at Penhalliurack’s in 1990 and the local paper reports the store owner Frank Penhalliurack may allow a child abuse victim to paint over it.
Personally – and certainly aesthetically – I would feel little distress if neither the portrait of the Queen nor that hardware store cartoon was ever seen again. But having argued passionately just two weeks ago that we should not discard artworks because they contain dated or offensive values I feel a need to consider whether we can justifiably discard work because the artist is guilty of offensive, or even criminal, behaviour.
There are a couple of key distinctions here. Rolf Harris is not just expressing problematic opinions, he is a convicted criminal, guilty of abusing young girls. In addition, Harris is a contemporary artist and we cannot be comforted by the knowledge that whatever he did was acceptable within the context of the times (although awareness of the degree of damage done by sexual predators has certainly increased in the past 20 years).
A small number of Harris’s artworks are portraits of young girls – occasionally nudes – and there is a strong argument to remove these works from public display because they could be viewed as endorsing his unacceptable behaviour towards young women.
Works that are displayed in a context which celebrate Harris the man - whether as an honoured citizen or a celebrity - also need to go - which probably includes anything in Bassendon public buildings and that kangaroo cartoon in the hardware store.
But the vast majority of Harris's work is in no way directly connected with his crimes. Most are landscapes, on public display or in the private market. They were presumably acquired for aesthetic and artistic reasons not because the artist was a decent human being - although it has to be said that in the case of a celebrity like Rolf Harris it can be difficult to untangle the reasons a work is valued.
Rolf Harris landscape. Image: Walker Gallery
Work does exist separately from the artist and there are umpteen examples of artists whose personal lives were (or are) unedifying to say the least. If we are prepared to discard Harris’s paintings because of his conviction should we not equally jettison the films of Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old back in 1977? What about the music of Carlo Gesualdo, who cut his wife's throat? Or the literature of convicted embezzler William Sydney Porter, better known as short story writer O. Henry?
Art has an important place in addressing the values of our society and it is certainly appropriate to program – in the mix – work that addresses the values of the age. Recent artwork by pseudonymous Middle Eastern artist Saint-Hoax using Disney princesses to illustrate the sexual abuse of minors is a case in point.
Saint Hoax, Princest Diaries
Cultural institutions can and should make their current values clear in their programming of new work and in the way in which they deal with the issues that inevitably arise. As Richard Watts argued last week on ArtsHub, Opera Australia missed the point when it cancelled Iveri’s contract but failed to make a clear public statement about her homophobia.
But existing artworks occupy a different space in our cultural landscape from newly created work and from their creators. No one is likely to commission Rolf Harris now to create a new artwork and we would not argue that they should. But that does not mean we need to destroy or remove all traces of the art of Rolf Harris.
We again caution against retrospective bowdlerizaton of cultural collections. The fight against child abuse will not be damaged if we retain the wobble board in the National Museum of Australia or a collection of Australian landscapes in a regional British gallery.
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