It will be tempting now to reappraise Rolf Harris’s putative virtues. To recast his famous conviviality as manipulation; his impish grin as a mask. Everything is spoilt. We will torch the works of this false idol. All will be razed.
It’s already happening. The local council of Harris’s boyhood suburb—Bassendean, in Perth—met last week to discuss the revocation of his freeman status, his paintings that adorn the council building, and an honorary plaque laid in a sidewalk. There was unanimity on his freeman title—councillors voted 6-0 to remove it—but some dissension on the matter of the plaque and paintings. “I wanted to distinguish,” the deputy mayor said, “between the crimes he committed and the artwork. [It] is a separate entity and it’s part of the fabric and history of Bassendean.” But removed they will be, sanctioned by a 4-2 vote.
This bonfire of history doesn’t require explanation. We understand the impulse: we were in thrall to a predatory creep, made worse for the decades of winking amiability, and we’re pissed. We have made a pyre for his respectability and our sympathy. Anything less would be tacit approval.
But well before the conviction, it was hard to view Harris’s work as representing anything other than obdurate self-regard. Harris skilfully produced his own celebrity, and little else. There are few artefacts of his touched by insight or tenderness. The work we are destroying was already dead. [It is bizarre to watch Andrew Denton, in his interview with Harris in 2005, reverently inquire about the creation of the wobbleboard. It was as if Denton were asking Jefferson about the moment he formulated the Declaration of Independence, rather than a man who vibrated a sheet of cardboard. Miraculously, the collective feeling for Harris transformed this cretinous technique into a cherished example of larrikin ingenuity.]
As much as I sympathise with the impulse to tear him down, the symbolic neatness of it gnaws me. There’s nothing neat here except for the mob logic which decrees dissent on this issue as ipso facto endorsement of Harris’s crimes. But there are multiple responses to the idea of erasing Rolf, as there are multiple responses to abuse itself.
For a start, it makes it all about Harris—a myopia allowed by our fascination with celebrity. Australian tabloids fixed Harris to their front-pages, accompanied by ostentatious condemnation, but tabloids have long shunned the scale and conditions of child abuse, unless it can be neatly reached by an “angle”—a cognitive handle—which is usually provided by celebrity. But it’s in our homes where the vast amount of abuse is occurring.
The removal of Rolf’s art and honours also helps cement the narrative about a solitary figure, an avatar of spectacular duplicity. It’s only subtly suggestive of this, perhaps, but it still draws the eye away from the necessary complicity—explicit or implied—that helped sustain decades of criminality. For a long time, Rolf was untouchable. He didn’t just become that way.
So let the statues stand. Let it be shit upon by seagulls; spat upon by children. Let it be ignored or reviled. Let it stand as a public reminder of betrayal, gullibility, predation, and the difficulties in prosecuting it. The weird instructive value of this extends to reminding us that our culture is not written on a whiteboard, it’s written on a palimpsest—something which we continuously write over, but on which previous scribblings are still faintly manifest and suggestive.
There was a literal example this week at a hardware store in Caulfield, Melbourne. Back in 1990, Rolf Harris visited the store as part of a promotion of British Paints, and hastily daubed a cartoon image of himself alongside the name of his employer. This week the owner Frank Penhalluriack offered abuse victims to come into his store and help paint over it. You can still go in there and privately do it. But at time of writing, washed over with red paint, the original image is still visible. It will require a few more layers, and a bit more time, to bury it.
Let’s not pretend that the removal of Harris’s art—as independently gaudy as it is—is about saving the children. It’s about us, and our need to express our anger. If we really wanted to save the children we’d be talking about the cultural fixture that really matters: the family.
The problem, of course, is the dread reminder to victims. As a framed photo of my abusive uncle caused pain to me, I think of Harris’s victims strolling through a park or gallery and glimpsing a work by—or for—the felon. It wouldn’t be hard to feel angry, nauseated, alone.