Why we Cannot Mix Art and Morality

(On Michaelangelo’s birthday)

A lion greets me every morning when I go down stairs. Not a real lion in the flesh, of course, but a warm and sensitive portrait of the big cat. His eyes are large and glowing within the glare of the sun, his rich mane highlighted with gold streaks. He is very handsome, as lions are, but he is caught in a peaceful and contemplative moment that belies his normal ferocity.

I love this picture very much. Every brushstroke evokes gladness in my heart. The artist knows and cares for animals; this is not just a technical display of a wild animal but an intimate portrait. It was bought as a gift for me by someone very dear to me who also understood this.

And here lies my dilemma.

The person who painted this was  found guilty of twelve charges of indecent assault on women and girls, on 30 June 2014. The artist, Rolf Harris, will be jailed. Many people are hurriedly selling their Harris collection below its true worth. Paintings are being taken down from public displays, offices and galleries. Harris has been stripped of his awards and honours. He has been dishonoured on a grand scale.

But what of my beautiful lion picture? It was a treasured gift, as I said, and not bought as an investment, so financially I have nothing to lose. The cat is still as composed as he always was. I will be heartbroken if I have to part with it. And yet it is linked and hence, tainted, with despicable crimes. Advice on what I should do is abundant. However, only I can make the decision whether I should ceremonially set it alight, quietly rip it to shreds or leave well alone. So, as ever, I turn to history in an attempt to come to a decision.

First, I look to great figures from the past. Were they all without sin? Many leaders, kings and queens have been guilty of murder and terrorism, including the recently departed Nelson Mandela. They have also been racist, misogynistic and committed horrendous acts of cruelty. There were many, many paedophiles, too. Marriages were arranged often when a child reached three or four years of age, some of which took place a few years later. The Islamic prophet, Mohammed, is said to have married his ‘favourite’ bride when she was six years old and the marriage was consummated when she was nine. His following has not been affected and Islam is currently the fastest growing faith in the world.

But things were different then. It was noble to kill your enemies or those who disagreed with you. A man used violence to keep his subjects, employees, wife and children in line and it was all perfectly respectable.  Slavery was part of life for the losers and the fallen. So how were artists and great people of status viewed who broke legal or moral laws?

Picasso, Victor Hugo, Arthur Rimbaud, Vincent van Gough, Oscar Wilde and  Leo Tolstoy were all said to have suffered from the sexually transmitted disease, syphilis.  A sign, possibly, of their promiscuous lifestyles.  Michelangelo found inspiration for his works in gay brothels and saunas, having a preference for young men, as reported in many sources, most recently in the biography by Elena Lazzarini: Nudity, art and decorum, aesthetic oscillations in 15th Century writings. None of these artists had commissions refused due to their lifestyles. Lord Byron is probably one of the most scandalous, with stories of his adultery, promiscuity and incest – yet his legacy is such that he is rated as one of the greatest English poets and his work is studied at schools across the country. No damage there then.

Is it that artists are tortured folk who need drama and suffering to release their creativity? For the great and the good, the artist and the leader, everyone seemed to turn a blind eye to their indiscretions in the past. It was the ‘good’ they focused on. Sometimes, I think, these moral quirks added to the allure.

My decision is that I will keep the picture. It came into my life for all the right reasons and will always remain separate from the artist. The artist in this instance may have suffered himself but it is the hurt he caused others that concerns me. However, it is the twenty-first century and we should not put such artist on an untouchable pedestal. Harris will go to prison. So I will focus on the good – this time.

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