Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A Whitewash

Eric Gill is a name you may not be familiar with, but if you've used a computer in the past 20 years, you'd certainly be familiar with one of his works. An artist, sculptor and designer, Gill designed the exceptionally British Gill Sans typeface, seen everywhere from the covers of Penguin paperbacks to the official communications of the British Government.

He was a celebrated and award-winning designer.

He was also a sex abuser.

Long after his death, his diaries revealed his assaults on his children, an incestuous relationship with his sister and canine bestiality. By any standard, then or now, these are horrific acts. But does Eric Gill the sexual deviant trump Eric Gill the artist? Should every designer and publisher with a conscience stop using Gill Sans? Should the art deco Midland Hotel in Morcambe destroy Gill's statues and bas-reliefs as a protest against his horrid behaviour?

In most cases (although not all) the answer is a resounding "no", it would be desecration of art. Somehow, the world found a way to separate Gill's oeuvre from his depraved moral character. Perhaps this is, in part, due to the fact that little was known publicly about Gill's abuse until four decades after his death, unlike another more recent offender...

Convicted of 12 cases of sexual abuse and likely perpetrator of many more, Rolf Harris is rightly persona non grata. He also leaves behind decades worth of artistic works, spanning both the frivolous and slightly-more serious.

Custodians of Harris's artworks have been falling over themselves to erase any trace of the offender from their possession. Whether it's cathartically painting over a Caulfield mural in red (above), removing Harris's portrait from a wall of celebrities or "tearing up" a plaque dedicated to him in his home town, Harris is slowly being erased from living memory. Archived hyperlinks to his former representative gallery profile redirect back to the gallery main page (although the Google's cache and the Wayback Machine have very long memories). He was thoroughly deserving of his punishment, if not a substantially longer sentence.

Still, there is something sinister about "removing" Harris from artistic and historical memory; something decidedly Morrisonian Stalinist about it all, as if Harris never existed. Forgetting the past; doomed to repeat etc. Still, it's easy to understand why it's occurring. The victims' feelings, of course, must be taken into consideration. And if you had a trite Rolf Harris mural outside your house, would you want it displayed it to the world?

The only comfort in this dilemma is that Harris was no Gill. I don't mean in the deranged, sickening individual sense, but in artistic output. Eric Gill gave the world PerpetuaProspero and Ariel and, of course, Gill Sans. Rolf Harris gave us the wobble board, decades of interminable British Paints commercials, irreparable damage to Australian cultural reputation and a much-criticised portrait of the Queen.

Still, in a few decades' time, the next generations might be asking who this "Harris" character was. What did he do? Why didn't anyone stop him? Surely we should be able to provide a more nuanced and detailed answer than "paedophile" and "things were different back then". The only way to do that is to keep some trace of Harris as he was. To keep a record and remember and, most importantly, not paint over history.

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