For almost two years, there has been a police investigation called Operation Yewtree running in the United Kingdom. It began when there were allegations of sexual abuse by once-lauded radio DJ and television personality, Jimmy Savile, who died in 2011.
This wide-sweeping operation has investigated several well-known men who worked in the entertainment industry in Britain during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Among them was Australian artist, musician and entertainer, Rolf Harris, who has lived in England since he was a young man, but was still considered by many to be one our more successful exports.
Earlier this year, Harris went on trial for several charges of indecent assault of minors, and was found guilty. He was sentenced to five years and nine months. Currently, he is seeking an appeal. Whether or not he succeeds in having his sentence overturned, many of the honours he received over the course of his career have been stripped from him, and the charges and the court case have raised the question of what to do with his art. Harris produced many paintings in a unique style—even painting a portrait of the Queen in 2005—and some of these hang in galleries, and local government and other public buildings, especially here in Western Australia, where he grew up.
What do we do with the creations of an artist who’s found to have committed a crime? In particular, a sexual offence? Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? Should we try?
This isn’t the first case where this has happened. Only a few months ago, Moira Greyland, daughter of Marion Zimmer Bradley, publicly stated that her mother had sexually abused her over several years. Bradley was a huge name in the science fiction genre and the news rocked the literary scifi community. Not only were people shocked that their hero may have been culpable in such serious and shocking offences, but they were also confused about what this meant for their previous love of the work.
One of the interesting concepts which was explored in the post-modernist movement was the idea of the ‘death of the author’. This was a shift away from associating the art with the artist. It was the idea that it shouldn’t matter so much what the artist did, what she believed in, or even who she was. The art should stand for itself.
This was nothing new to artists, of course. The concept of a nom de plume has been around for centuries. Miles Franklin and George Eliot are just two of the more famous names which spring to mind—both women recognised that in the environment where they wanted to be published, their work stood a better chance with publishers (and possibly, the public) if it appeared to be written by a man.
Some artists even go to great lengths to maintain their anonymity. Take, for example, the work of famous graffiti artist, Banksy. Nobody knows exactly who he is, and given the kind of art he creates, that’s important, because in many places, it is illegal. Would it make a difference to how we interpret his work, if we knew who he was? Would it make his work less or more intriguing? Would it make his social commentary less or more perceptive?
Many of us identify with art and literature on a very emotional level. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why the arts are so important. To create art is part of what makes us human, and when we experience that artwork, we feel a connection with the work, and often, we also feel or, even seek out, a connection with the creator of that work. The millions of followers which some musicians and authors have on Facebook and Twitter is testament to this desire of the public to have some kind of personal link with the artist.
So what happens with that relationship, when the artist is found to have done something we consider abhorrent? Does that really affect their work?
I believe this comes down to how we want to perceive people in general. I’m not sure we can boil someone down to ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Each person is capable of extremes, each one of us is part good, part evil. Nobody is completely so. Of course, it’s easier to imagine that people who commit heinous acts are nothing but bad, but people are more nuanced than that.
I do understand the desire to push away the works of artists who, in their private lives, have done terrible things. It leaves a bad taste in our mouths. We feel betrayed. Our connection to the artwork and even to the public persona of the artist leads us to feel as if we’ve been lied to by a friend. And yet, as much as we might embrace the art, we can’t ever know everything about the artist. It really is necessary to separate the two. This can be a truly difficult choice to make, because so often our consumption of art is interpreted as approval for the person who made it.
However, that doesn’t have to be the case. We can dislike what someone is, but like what they do. That’s possible for politicians, for comedians, even for colleagues. However, our gut reaction—to dismiss or even destroy artworks created by criminals—is hard to ignore. There are all sorts of reasons for a visceral reaction to appalling revelations such as sexual abuse, and those reactions are completely valid. But if we can look beyond the flawed individual who wrote that music, who penned that novel, who painted that picture, we can perhaps remove the pedestal upon which we’ve placed them, and realise that the capacity for the creation of art, like the capacity for good and evil, is part of our shared humanity.
Perhaps we can move to punish the people who do wrong, but at the same time, look at the art as an entity separate from the artist, and appreciate it on its own merits? Or perhaps this would be too much like a ‘hate-the-sin-but-love-the-sinner’ approach, which very rarely seems to succeed?