Friday, 3 February 2017

When Heroes Go Bad

I've been sorting through my ridiculously large book collection recently. And a few days ago I came across several art books by Rolf Harris.

And I found myself in a quandary; do they stay or do they go?


Rolf Harris was one of my heroes. It's thanks to him, probably more than anyone else, that I engaged with art in the first place. From The Rolf Harris Show to Rolf's Cartoon Time and Rolf on Art to Star Portraits he made art accessible and inspired me to pick up almost anything and make art with it. So, of course, I bought his books on art and I bought the DVDs of his TV series and I learned from them.

But then Operation Yewtree revealed him to be a groper and child molester, I was devastated. Admiration quickly turned to loathing; there are few crimes more abhorrent that the ones he committed. Quite naturally, we are unlikely to ever see his TV shows again. Nor will we hear Two Little Boys or Tie Me Kangaroo Down or Jake the Peg on the radio. But do I ditch the books? And if I do, do I also have to excise all other evidence of Rolf Harris from my life? If I do, that's going to mean a clear-out of not only books and DVDs but also other references to him and other appearances. For example, he appears on two of Kate Bush's albums. So do I throw away my copies of The Dreaming and Aerial too? And do I chuck out my well-preserved 1970s Rolf Harris Stylophone and stop listening to Bowie's Space Oddity because the instrument features on it?

Of course, I ended up discussing this subject at the pub with my mates and I asked what they would do in my circumstances. About 25% said to throw the books out. 50% said keep them as they won't earn Harris any more money and at least it shows that there was something good about him. The other 25% were undecided, which led on to a further discussion about 'cut-off points'. As one of them said: 'If they now found out that Bowie was a kiddie fiddler, would people throw away his albums? Of course they wouldn't. They'd just listen in secret because they love him too much and the music outweighs the crimes.' Am I doing the same thing because I find joy in work like this (below), even though the painter is a monster?


A couple of years ago, we saw a worldwide outpouring of grief and celebration to mark what would have been John Lennon's 75th birthday. There is no doubt that Lennon was a great talent, beloved by millions. But, away from the microphones and guitars, the real Lennon was no saint. He was a pathological liar and a monstrous hypocrite who mocked disabled people, emotionally abused his son Julian and who had a long history of violence against women, As he himself admitted in one of his final interviews (with Playboy) in 1980:

'I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. That was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically - any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn't express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. I am not violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.'


Domestic violence is surely no less vile than groping or sexually assaulting women - all are forms of violence. But The Beatles still get played on the radio and no one is putting their copies of Sergeant Pepper in the bin. And even some journalists who suggest that we shouldn't be idolising Lennon seem to pull their punches. Here's Paul Tamburro writing in Crave:

'The 'point' is that it is important, at least in my mind, to not encourage generation after generation to kneel at the altar of a celebrity who was guilty of some horrible crimes and offences. Yes, I still consider myself a fan of Lennon’s creative output. I do own plenty of Beatles records on vinyl. But there is a lot of evidence, along with quotes from Lennon himself, to suggest to me that to continue to remember this man in such an exclusively positive light smacks of insincerity in the information age, where we can all quite easily look this shit up and, unless we’re choosing to keep our blinkers firmly fixed onto the sides of our heads, conclude that he may have co-written ‘A Day in the Life’ but in other aspects of his life, he was a bit of a dick.' 



I'd suggest that someone who regularly beats women and treats his son like a non-entity is more than just a 'bit of a dick'. But people don't want to give up their Beatles albums. Either the blinkers, as Tamburro says, are firmly fixed. Or they don't see violence against women and children as serious enough to boycott Lennon's work. Or, perhaps, they argue that they bought the records in good faith without knowing about what he did?

And, of course, it's not just Lennon. In recent years we've heard allegations of domestic violence against many other celebrities ... but their films and their music are still being played and bought. And how many people ditched their Judas Priest albums when drummer Dave Holland was convicted of child sex abuse? Do Lostprophets fans still listen to music featuring Ian Watkins, now serving 35 years for paedophile offences including the attempted rape of an 11 month old boy? How about msic by Jerry Lee Lewis who married his 13 year old cousin? And what about the output of producer Phil Spector, now a convicted murderer? Or Roman Polanski?

You can, perhaps, see my dilemma.

I'm not trying to find excuses to keep my Rolf Harris art books. But I am trying to resolve a moral dilemma. When does it become unacceptable to keep such things? Should there be a cut-off point at all? Should we get rid of everything produced by someone convicted of crimes of violence? Do I ditch the books but keep the Kate Bush albums? Is the fact that these things happened and can't be undone justification to keep things ... or is everything now tainted? Do I accept that, even though Harris is a shit of the first water and deserves to see out his days in a cell, some small bit of good has come from his life?

It's tricky isn't it? With utter monsters like Jimmy Savile, there's no argument that we should expunge him from the history books. But when your heroes turn to demons, where do you draw the line between 'He was a bastard but he produced some good stuff that we should keep' and 'He was a bastard and we should destroy everything that he produced'?

I'll admit that I don't know.

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