Rolf Harris: guilty man, guilty art?

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
July 01, 2014 /

Click here to view original /

I’ll leave speculation about sentencing and the appeals process to the legal scholars. I’m more interested in what becomes of Rolf Harris’s art.

A guilty verdict and galleries the world over will start questioning whether to keep hanging him. About whether the continued display of Harris’s art makes a moral statement.

Collectors equally will need to eyeball their own collection and question whether holding onto the pieces makes them bad people. About whether the pleasure reaped from looking at his works has somehow soured.

I often find myself thinking and writing about the art v artist conundrum. Seeing my favourite band, The National, perform last year for example, and watching the lead singer do the petulant Rock God thing and I’ll admit I absolutely dropped them off my rotation for a while. (All’s forgiven, however, after viewing the documentary Mistaken for strangers, but that’s a topic for another day).

So, while they may have suffered a short-lived hiatus, The National’s catalogue didn’t become less good because of that performance; no lyrics were altered, no chords changed. And here lies the basis of my argument that we need to separate artwork from production. It’s the work – and the work alone – that needs to be judged on its own merits and not whether or not we think the producer was cool/nice/politically sane/ethical.

Artists are real people. Flesh and blood people prone to the same foibles and idiosyncrasies and horribleness as their fans. They screw up. They do bad things. They, apparently, throw microphones at the flanneletted hipsters in their audience. Sometimes they even abuse children.

So what impact does this have on their art? What impact should it have?

Good in the context of art is, of course, highly subjective. I don’t particularly like Rolf Harris’s art, but equally I appreciate that there is – or at least was – an audience for it. The grounds for that appeal prior to his arrest, therefore remains unchanged: the paintings are exactly the same; they boast precisely the same elements of supposed delight.

These are of course, the very grounds that have me defend Roman Polanski. I thought Chinatown was a great film and it doesn’t become less great because Polanski isn’t a great guy. Equally, Woody Allen’s September and Whatever Works are up there with my favourite films: they don’t become less favourited because Allen might not be a dreamboat.

The very brilliant British-Jewish writer Howard Jacobson equally addressed the whole Wagner-being-a-Nazi thing in his anthology Whatever it is, I don’t like it, managing to both appreciate the music and find the anti-Semitism problematic.

There is, however, a sticking point. Artists are flesh and blood people and so too are their fans. And while in practice fans may completely understand that the work itself is unchanged, fans look at art and listen to music with the baggage of our humanity. It’s insufficient therefore, that the work hasn’t changed, we have changed by virtue of our new insights into the producer.

A more-histrionic-than-usual episode involves me throwing a very lovely vase down my building’s garbage chute. It kept reminding me of an ex at inconvenient junctures and that reminder become more gripping than the aesthetic pleasure. The vase wasn’t any less lovely; looking at it, however, became dramatically less so.

No, I don’t think galleries should rip the paintings from the walls, but equally I’d thoroughly understand a drop in prices and a market suddenly flooded with Harris pieces that no longer deliver the joys they once did.

Sure, we can keep telling ourselves the art is the same – and intellectually we might even believe it – but no amount of rhetoric will quell that cringe-factor.

© Lauren Rosewarne