Saturday, 5 July 2014


First, let's get the jokes out of the way.

Before: It took a while to bring Rolf Harris to justice. Police initially stated that Rolf Harris has an extra leg to stand on.

But later: Judge: Members of the Jury, have you reached your verdict?
Jury Foreman: Yes, your honour, we have. Can you guess what it is yet?

And afterwards: It's such a shame to hear about Rolf Harris being found guilty of sexual offences. He touched so many people in so many different ways.

At the Animal Hospital. "How long do you reckon, doc?" "Five years and nine months, half that if fortunate."

My pub-going friends being into football, unlike me, would tell me about listening to Stuart Hall's commentary and that it was brilliant and surreal with his literary asides. And then before the crown court case he pleaded guilty. Suddenly they had to revise their view of someone who was something of a hero to them.

(To me, Stuart Hall was a sociologist and multiculturalist. He died fairly recently. He was something of a hero too via the Open University.)

I've had to do similar revision regarding Rolf Harris, partly because I didn't like the sneers long directed at his artwork. Now his artwork is apparently at ten per cent of its former value, from originally tens of thousands of pounds per picture, and the existence of the 2005 picture of the Queen he painted is unknown. Well, it's still public money and someone ought to know where it has gone.

Rolf Harris never pleaded guilty, and so with the evidence against him thought his reputation and replies might win over a jury not to convict; but in that the evidence was delivered forensically they did convict and thus Harris has put his victims through the court forcing them to relive what he did. This surely adds to his sentence. His evidence was like a gamble of their word against his, and his word carried reputation - until Cambridge came along with a video undermining his 'never went to Cambridge' claim.

I remember being a witness at a court in a property dispute. When the verdict came, from the judge, the sense of winner takes all (on our side) and loser loses was incredible. The loser lost and there'd be no more bad behaviour from him. He lost. Verdicts are crushing and they really do deliver justice, when they do. Because a court carries absolute power - you must do what it determines - it acts as an alternative to violence and uncertainty. It allows decisions to be made and they are crushing to the loser.

The media that cannot say this and that suddenly has open season on the convicted. And so his work as an entertainer is being trashed.

The first thought must be to his victims. He clearly thought he could get away with momentary dives into young women's flesh in their most space-invading manner. It was far more than being touchy-feely and the wise person is not so-called touchy-feely. Far worse was the grooming and invasiveness that shattered the life of his daughter's friend, which was pure exploitation and taking advantage to someone trapped and made confused. Like with Stuart Hall, the past has caught up with him.

The court should give these people justice. When it comes to notions of forgivenness, the people to do the forgiving are his victims. Nevertheless, the rest of us should not be jumping all over him.

He was an oddball entertainer and carved a space out for himself. Nothing wrong in that. His big cartoons of course used television techniques of bright lights that left nothing to chance. But were his paintings that bad?

We've just had Traci Ermin's bed sell for £2.2 million. This is like someone having a joke. In so much modern art, the art is "exhausted by the description". Rolf Harris's art had some craft to it. But the question is whether it is good art.

We can't do objectively good art, because art is always going to be individual in preference. Rolf Harris's art might be equated with that of Jack Vettriano, who continues to be despised in serious art circles. I can see what is not liked in Vettriano's style and approach, but nevertheless his art has a kind of message and one that has populist connection. Rolf Harris's art does not have a message, and any one that comes is more by accident than design. His portrait of the Queen with her teethy smile suggests an ordinary grandmother type figure, but this is by accident not intention. He tried hard as possible to get a likeness and he ended up with that.

When I do a painting or drawing, the need to get a likeness forces the art into whatever direction it goes because of that - my art has a style but it is frustrated. Plus anyone can see that I struggle to get arms and hands right and often do not. But then I've looked at some photos and realised that if I painted those as seen they'd be unbelievable - too long, misshaped, hands too small/ big, fingers odd. I need to paint people several times to get the 'look' but it doesn't get the rest and additions to the figure are often in peril. A lot of my output is cartoonish and sexy; it does have a style. But while I was better than many in art classes I was within that limitation.

And that's how I'd view Rolf Harris. He was like a good adult education-level painter. He could, with preparation and several goes, tackle difficult subjects, and produce likenesses, but he never produced art that could transcend that level. He was good in terms of the ordinary.

None of this is altered by his conviction. What is altered by his conviction is insight into his choices, particularly his advice to children about not being touched in notions about your body being your own body and not someone else's. What was behind that? Well, that secretly he knew he was doing wrong, and his habit and opportunity overtook any caution or moral restraint, and of course by fronting such a campaign he deflected attention from himself as a possible doer of the same. Clever, but after a conviction, disturbing.

Some of my best pictures, where something starts to transcend the product, are quick ones, like Rev. Trevor Jones playing the violin, or silver goblets, or some landscapes. But most don't transcend the paint or computer colours arranged. They are limited to themselves. The best we do is learn and express, into a limited space of limited talent.

I'm saying then let's not trash a person for everything they did. There is a reason that people found Jimmy Saville creepy in a way Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris were not. Hall was football knowledgable and had a style. But these latter two were holding secrets, secrets that had affected others badly and would come back to them. Celebrity gave opportunity and power, and whereas others who might make a mistake of space-invasion and learn from it, they didn't and reckoned they could carry on largely as they did. What was for them gratifying left a trail of destruction for the others they involved, and the others have come back for justice, and justice they have. As the judge said, there's no one else to blame.

1 comment:

Jonathan Clatworthy said...

We're all mixtures of good and bad. People who are very bad at one thing can still be very good at another. His sexual activities don't make his art any better or worse. Last night I was listening to a description of Marie Stopes, who did so much valuable campaigning for birth control. She did it because she was a eugenicist and wanted the inferior classes to stop having children. The other thing is that I wonder why we get titillated by one sex abuse story after another, while the hungry are being driven to ever greater extremes of poverty.