Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Art, and Artists' Morals

I have to say, I liked Rolf Harris’s portrait of the Queen. Was it great art? No, I don't think so. But it showed a side to her that is sometimes hard to see in official depictions. A friendly side, a humorous side. Watching the documentary that accompanied the painting I was struck by how Rolf drew her out, how he seemed to reach the human in her, the real elderly lady with a family and loves and hates and ordinary everyday troubles. No, it wasn't Michaelangelo or Picasso or Hockney, but it was a good painting.

But of course, all that has changed.  One wonders if the Queen was just another woman to be sexualised. One wonders at a man who could present such a friendly and kind persona to the world while using his position to abuse and traumatise the women and girls that he came into contact with. Apparently both the BBC and the Royal Collection disavow any knowledge of the painting’s whereabouts. It has been dropped like a hot potato. The last thing either great institution want is to be associated with a scandal of the magnitude of the Rolf Harris scandal.

But if we put aside the horror of what Mr Harris was doing over all of these years, it leaves the question of how we view art in relation to the artist. What if Picasso were revealed to have been a serial rapist? What if Leonardo da Vinci were a paedophile? What if Frida Kahlo tortured animals? What if Constable beat his wife?

Allen Ginsberg (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
It seems to be established in various places that the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was a paedophile. I haven’t read any Ginsberg, but I would quite like to. But I feel awkward about this. Can I read and enjoy a man’s writing knowing that he has abused children in the most horrific way? Reading Lolita gave me a lot of conflicts (Should I enjoy the book? Should I attempt to understand the protagonist? Does it make it different now that I have my own children?), although it seems that Nabokov did not share the feelings of his protagonist in that novel. I know, as a writer, that it is quite possible to explore darker issues in writing without supporting the actions that you’re writing about. Often writing about them is an attempt to understand and process the fact that such things occur.

It is, I think, a far easier moral undergoing to read or view art about disturbing subjects than it is to view art streets away from such things but with the knowledge that the artist was a damaged and, more crucially, a damaging human being.

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
What would we do if Leonardo da Vinci were a paedophile? Would we destroy his works and denounce the biographies? Would we attempt to explain and understand merely so that we could go on enjoying his work? I suspect the latter. In the case of a mediocre artist like Rolf Harris it’s easier to push his work under the carpet because it has so much less value to his audience.

I’m still split on where we separate art and artist. I’m still convinced that a majority of people are willing to forgive sins if the time and distance from the artist and the value of the work is great. I’m still convinced that people are happier to denounce an artist’s work if the work never had that much value in the first place.

But is a painting an artist? Is a book an author? It’s something to think about over your morning coffee. Rolf Harris presented us with a human, smiling Queen, perhaps his one, small but positive, contribution to art. Art is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and that’s what it meant to me, even if others may not share this view. Should we now throw that away?


  1. Well-said. You have a lovely way of putting things, both straightforward and compassionate.