Our newest national sport: the race to obliterate Rolf

The bicentennial heritage trail through the quiet Perth suburb of Bassendean is dotted with the names of local worthies, not all of whom, I have to admit, are well known to me, or known at all. In fact, of the various dignitaries, sportspeople and religious orders whose names are embossed in oxidised bronze and set into concrete paving slabs I have heard of only two or three. But there is one name everyone in Australia knows – and everyone in the UK knows as well – and which, in recognition of its fame, used to mark the start of this stroll along a beautiful north-south stretch of the Swan River. Now it’s gone – purloined in the night after Bassendean’s council voted to remove it and place it in indefinite storage. Whether it’s been vandalised, or sold to a collector, or is being held as a grim memento, nobody knows, or very much cares. Nor does the dirty square of pavement that is left in its stead seem inappropriate. Rolf Harris’s name, it would appear, is mud.

The question of what to do with the honours, inscriptions and other memorabilia associated with ‘the Boy from Bassendean’ is one that has been much on the minds of Australians in the days since the once-loved entertainer was convicted of having indecently assaulted four girls and young women over the course of eighteen years. As well as voting to remove his plaque, the Town of Bassendean has also resolved to strip him of his freeman status, while the City of Perth will convene in mid July to decide whether or not to accede to calls to remove a plaque in St George’s Terrace. (I think they are almost certain to do so.) No longer a member of the ARIA Hall of Fame, Harris is likely to lose his CBE and his Order of Australia award. One British university has withdrawn an honorary doctorate given to Harris in 2007, and another is set to follow suit. Everywhere one turns, gongs are being revoked, memberships cancelled and plaques unscrewed.

But the artist formerly known as ‘Rolf’ cannot be forgotten, or purged, so easily. For that to happen, the thousands of paintings, sculptures, murals and other graffiti he left in his wake must be expunged as well. Accordingly, his daubs have been removed from schools and cultural centres across Australia, while galleries that once stocked and sold his paintings and limited edition prints have removed them from sale, or at least from view. Meanwhile, eBay has ‘come under pressure’ to remove any items associated with Harris, whose artistic leavings are as apt to shrivel the ethical investor’s nostril as a gollywog or a set of Nazi china. Other collectors and beneficiaries of Harris’s art feel similarly uncomfortable. The children’s charity Variety, which owns the ‘Entertainers of the Century’ mural in Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, has hired an artist to paint over Harris and replace him with an alternative celebrity, while up the road, in the suburb of Caulfield, businessman Frank Penhalluriack has determined to ‘obliterate’ a Harris mural painted on a wall of his hardware store. ‘I have asked a victim to perform the obliteration using bright red paint,’ said Mr Penhalluriack, adding, ‘I invite any others who have been affected by immoral behaviour to join in painting the wall.’

The reasons given for this mass deletion, or cultural amputation, vary, though those who claim to be ‘sending a message’ are, necessarily, among the loudest voices. Bassendean’s mayor, John Gangell, is one such: ‘We thought it was important to send a clear message,’ Gangell told the ABC, ‘that no matter what status you have enjoyed … these horrendous crimes will not be tolerated.’ (Even before Harris was convicted of those crimes, the council had removed his photograph from its chambers. According to Gangell, it didn’t want to be accused of running a ‘protection racket’.) Writing on the ABC’s website The Drum, Sophie Love was even more forthright: ‘Every painting that is taken down, every record that is smashed, every honorific removed, sends a message to him and other perpetrators: “Toy with our children and we will revile you.”’

Meanwhile, and in the midst of such righteous anger, others are invited, or feel called upon, to rehearse the old arguments about the nature of art. For them, the conflation of art and artist is predicated on a category mistake – on a false idea of what art is. Many are the artists, they soberly declare, who have led less than exemplary private lives. From Caravaggio to Lewis Carroll, from Richard Wagner to Woody Allen – the artist with a ‘dark side’ is a fact of life (and even a recognisable type) and not to be dismissed as an artist on account of his failings as a human being. Do Roman Polanski’s transgressions, I’ve heard it asked on more than one occasion, detract from the greatness of Chinatown?

Obviously not, though Polanski’s mistake, or the mistake of his defenders, is to think that Chinatown in some sense absolves him of the crime of child rape. But at any rate, and in either case, the argument is irrelevant to Harris, who is, at best, an artistic mediocrity. Indeed, he is barely an artist at all; he is an entertainer whose daubs and doodles and clumsy pastiches are part of his brand. Was anyone under the impression that ‘Rolf’ – that angular maniac in the beatnik beard, dabbing his decorator’s brush and cackling and panting, ‘Do you know what it is yet?’ – was some kind of artistic genius? No: Rolf Harris was to art what Francis Bacon was to light entertainment. Such value as his paintings had was reducible to his celebrity, which was linked, in turn, to his benignity – to his goofiness and lachrymosity, to the fact that he was daft as a brush. And now that the benignity is revealed as a sham, now that the Boy from Bassendean is unmasked as a fondler of little girls … well, the ‘art’ has lost its appeal. It is, I suppose, a function of celebrity that many people felt they ‘knew’ Rolf Harris. It is only natural, knowing what they know now, that they should feel let down or even deceived.

But they – we – have not been ‘groomed’, as one commentator ridiculously put it; it is not us who have been violated, and there is something nauseating about the ostentation with which this purification is being performed. Before the Bassendean plaque was pilfered, someone saw fit to scrawl ‘Pedo’ across it, and try as I might I can’t quite see how Mr Penhalluriack’s proposed ‘obliteration’ is very much more high-minded than that. That we are suddenly squeamish about Harris’s creations and should want to remove them is understandable. But to make a show of destroying them – and to suggest that in doing so we are making a statement or showing solidarity with Harris’s victims – is ugly and impertinent. Contra councillor Gangell’s assertions, nobody needs, or should want, ‘a strong message’ that child molestation is unacceptable even when perpetrated by people of high ‘status’. This is the flimsiest of moral Aunt Sallies, and its effect is to turn a sickening crime into a talking point and a photo op.

In essence, the story of Harris’s conviction is not a story about art, or celebrity, or the death of an Australian icon. It’s about a man who forced himself on young girls, who scared them, who made them feel cheap and dirty, and who cast a shadow over the rest of their lives. That the man who darkened the lives in this instance happened to brighten so many others gives the story a poignancy – a confusing sadness – it might otherwise lack. But it is really no different – no different in kind – from the countless instances of child abuse that happen every year in Australia, many of them in institutions, which, since they can’t be obliterated, will have to be called to account and reformed. Not wanting to speak for the victims myself, I’m loath to say what will or won’t be helpful in their search for some kind of resolution. But my hunch is that a staged catharsis which threatens to turn the subject of paedophilia into a branch of celebrity journalism is not the most helpful way to go.

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First published at New Matilda.