It has been reported that pressure groups representing the survivors of rape, sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse have called upon the BBC to remove a statue by the sculptor Eric Gill that adorns its London headquarters. The statue, from 1932, is a depiction of Prospero and Ariel, the latter depicted as a naked boy. This is not a new demand.
While the BBC has, entirely properly, refused this demand and pointed out that Gill, for all his sins, remains a major British artist whose work is widely regarded as of importance, this situation illustrates a phenomenon among the Left that is worth examining further.
Two insidious ideas are prevalent among the Left today. The first is that of political correctness. In this context, this means that groups that constitute a minority whose rights are privileged by the Left are granted the specious right not to be offended. This right is purely an invention of the Left to prosecute its Marxist agenda of the destruction of Western culture. It creates no-go areas of taboo and state protection that fundamentally attack the freedom of speech and force opposition to the Left out of the public arena. The second, related, idea is that a leading means of pursuing this Kulturkampf is to attack the past, whether in the form of its artefacts, in a revisionist approach to history, or indeed in the ancestor guilt that is often foisted upon the white population in the name of the remembrance of slavery, and that periodically results in the absurdity of “apologies” by the living for the actions of the dead.
This is not to suggest that the victims of abuse, along with many others, are not genuinely upset or offended by aspects of the life of Eric Gill, an enormously gifted man and devoted Catholic whose lifestyle extended beyond adultery to the practice of incest and bestiality. Gill did not try to reconcile his faith and his behaviour on an intellectual level, nor to excuse the latter. He seems to have regarded a state of permanent penance and self-reproach through a strict religious observance as the most that he could achieve in ameliorating his excesses. But as an artist, it is precisely this tension between the sacred and the secular, and between the devotional and the erotic, that renders his work important and of stature. As his biographer Fiona MacCarthy has said, “Gill is too good an artist, too ferocious and intrepid a controversialist, to be protected and glossed over. We need to see him whole.” If the process of seeing him whole takes us beyond the norm and into some of the darkest recesses of humanity, then there would be a strong argument that this is precisely the purpose of his art. If Gill can transcend his sins and present his broken morality as transfiguration through his creative ability, we are then left with some disturbing conclusions as to our own basis for judging him and the religious significance of what he has to say to us.
In the end, Gill’s profound flaws are what makes him such a fascinating and controversial figure, and that make the utter beauty of almost everything he produced so remarkable. I found Gill first through his typefaces, and I considered them to be so exceptional that I at once adopted the electronic versions of them wherever practicable. There is a simplicity of line, a boldness and a wildness in his art that is at once balanced by the limits of his essential Englishness and his Catholic understanding. Gill always points to something beyond himself, usually spiritual, and at the same time is utterly honest in the subjectivity of his approach; everything is seen through his own eyes and in the context of his own understanding.
The question of the extent to which one can separate artist from art is a matter for perpetual discussion. In 1935, the critic Ernest Newman published his book “The Man Liszt” which was a poorly-researched attack on its subject, who was both during his lifetime and today acknowledged as one of the most significant musical figures of the nineteenth-century. Newman writes little about Liszt’s work as a concert pianist, composer or advocate of other musicians. Instead, the book is devoted to lambasting its subject’s moral failings and social climbing. As scholarship it is nugatory, but the effect it had upon the musical world of the time both actively prevented Liszt’s music from being taken seriously and relegated those who performed him to the second rank of marketability for several decades. Some years ago, a similar online controversy arose in relation to the music and lifestyle of Benjamin Britten, with one writer in particular taking exception to any appreciation of Britten’s qualities as a composer because of his alleged pederasty and other moral failings. The comments pro and contra this viewpoint here are interesting to read. Similar debates concerning Wagner have raged for over a century, and his music cannot still be performed in Israel today, despite the fact that many prominent Jewish musicians, notably Daniel Barenboim, have performed and advocated his work while dissociating themselves from Wagner’s anti-Semitic views.
What can be concluded is that firstly, attempts to censor art on the grounds of contemporary morality are ultimately doomed to failure in the long run, and earn their proponents both ridicule and opprobrium. Many of our greatest artists have been prone to moral failings of one kind or another. But once a work of art is created, it takes on a life of its own, independent from that of its creator. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to suggest that, in the language of the Left, an artwork has rights.
Secondly, the past and the dead are vulnerable precisely because they can be the focus of subjective, and therefore politically-charged debate. This should be perceived for precisely what it is, and not confused with the practice or study of history in any true sense. The dead require the advocacy of the living; they have no means of arguing for themselves. In preserving the good in what they stood for, we therefore preserve our traditions and our humanity.