This isn’t a blog post about the sculptor Eric Gill, but it might as well be.
Gill was one of the great sculptors of the twentieth century. His work Prospero and Ariel currently adorns the front of Broadcasting House. It is a beautiful, inspiring piece of work.
I’m sure the current rumour that the BBC is going to take it down isn’t true, but the sound of the BBC cleansing itself from the Savile affair is now pretty deafening – so who knows. They have certainly been told to.
I told my informant that it could not possibly be so.
“But don’t you realise what he did?” he said.
The answer is I’m only too aware of what Eric Gill did. Gill fostered a number of strange political and spiritual opinions, some (but only some) of which, I must admit, I share. But his biographer Fiona MacCarthy revealed that his particular sexual obsessions were meted out, not just on his daughters, but on the family dog.
I’m not sure that this knowledge diminishes his sculpture, or undermines the power of Ariel. In fact, I don’t believe that art has to reflect the sins of the artist – though clearly it can do. Not only that, but when we start believing it does, we are on dangerous, potentially tyrannical territory. We are tackling evils symbolically.
It is an intolerant state of mind. As if the removal of art by sex abusers would somehow remove sex abuse. As if it was better for us not to see its symptoms than we should prevent it happening now.
Which brings me to Rolf Harris, a dangerous subject for a political blogger. And let me make clear, I’m not saying that he and Gill were really comparable. Or that I somehow discount the seriousness of the guilty verdict.
But I remember knowing the words for just two current songs during my childhood. The first was ‘She Loves You’ (not difficult, that one). The second was ‘Two Little Boys’.
It was a strange hit for the 1960s, given that it was a revived Edwardian song, but it became infused somehow with the spirit of the time. I can’t hear it now without being catapulted back to ancient sunlight in 1969, lying in the grass, repeating the words.
Rolf was a huge part of my childhood. I revered him for a whole range of things that remain quite hard to pin down. But in the end, it was my childhood, and I refuse to think differently about it because society deems that I should.
None of this condones sex with underage girls. Quite the reverse. But I refused to let this affair – which has been such a tragedy for all concerned – taint my own memories. I refuse to let it cast a shadow over my life in that period, because I am supposed to have conventional opinions, or because I am somehow sharing in a wider sense of victimhood.
The bottom line for me is this strong stench of witch-hunt, when pictures get removed from galleries and opinion-formers struggle to prove their distance from the man. It smacks of a mass re-writing of history. It implies a kind of intolerance and group-think which I find more than a little disturbing.
Yet there is a sense in which the Rolf Harris affair is symbolic. The truth about the 1960s and 70s is that large sections of our culture were dedicated to the sexualisation and manipulation of children, and underage girls in particular. Whole departments of the BBC were designed to foster a sense of dissatisfied consumerism among the young.
It would be better (wouldn't it?) to look fearlessly at our combined social history in those years. We might then learn something about ourselves - and we certainly won't learn it by taking down sculptures and flinging Rolf Harris’ art from galleries.
The Joy of Six 1092
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