Entertainment & Arts

Rolf Harris art: Should owners feel guilty?

eBay screen grab Image copyright eBay
Image caption Artworks by Harris are still on sale on sites such as eBay

Following Rolf Harris's conviction for indecent assaults against four girls, the art world has begun to distance itself from the disgraced entertainer.

Galleries that once sold his works have removed Harris's limited-edition prints and sculptures from sale.

While auction site eBay is still listing private sales, it is coming under pressure to pull items associated with him - although it continues to sell items associated with other disgraced celebrities including Jimmy Savile and rock band Lostprophets - whose former singer Ian Watkins is serving 29 years for serious child sex offences.

Experts say that since Harris's name has been tainted, his art - which previously fetched hefty sums - has become worthless.

But can art ever be separated from the artist? And what about people who already possess a piece of the entertainer's work - should they feel guilty about owning and displaying it?

One woman, whose painting of Bonnie Tyler by Harris was estimated to be worth up to £50,000, has said she might burn it as it is "a horrific reminder".

Here are the views of an art critic, art philosopher and some owners of Harris's artwork.

The art critic

If people have bought Rolf Harris's art for the reason they like the work rather than the story behind it - i.e it's by a TV personality - then they should keep it.

There have been some artists in the history of 20th Century art whose behaviour has not been exemplary. For example, Eric Gill - the person who sculpted the facade of the BBC's Broadcasting House - was himself a child molester and one or two French artists had rather dodgy connections with the Nazis.

Before Gill's behaviour became public, he had died and he had entered the canon - and it's difficult to eliminate a name from the canon once it's been established.

There are a lot of people whose peccadilloes one is prepared to overlook, but in Rolf's case the headlines are so damning his art is not going to survive easily.

Rolf was an atrocious painter, but he could sell it for £60,000 - £70,000 per canvas simply based on the fact he was a celebrity.

With something which relies so heavily on the name of the painter, once the name is tainted the art is valueless.

Rolf's prices will undoubtedly go down because people won't be proud now to say to their friends when they come round for dinner: 'There's our painting by Rolf Harris'. So inevitably the market for his work is going to collapse.

As far as I'm concerned, as a decent turn to art they ought to withdraw all Rolf's prints because they're really dreadful things. I suppose if they're cheap enough some people might buy them, but at the moment his name is so badly tainted it would be difficult for him to survive with any kind of artistic reputation intact.

He painted once at Her Majesty's displeasure when he did that portrait of the Queen and now he's going to be painting at her pleasure.

David Lee - art critic and editor of Jackdaw

The art philosopher

You have to put this in perspective - the ethics of buying commodities in our globalised world is a very tense and fraught one and there are many difficult ethical issues. There are large corporations who employ people on minimal wages in South East Asia in difficult conditions and we are buying these goods all the time.

All of us in the West are probably, in one way or another, buying into commodities that have very problematic ethical issues attached to them but they're not flagged up, so I don't think we should be too naive about this.

I would not say all art is ultimately reducible to the person and the character or subjectivity of the author. It has to be judged on the nature of the art and the work that is made.

Like a dream, an artwork can separate off from the subject and from the individual. It might reveal some things they don't know about, it might reveal their hopes or wishes which are perhaps very different to the things they actually act upon in their own life.

People are generally willing to believe in the image they want to see of a person in their daily experience. Everybody to some extent is putting on an image where you want to present your best self and people want to believe it.

It's part of social customs and we find it very difficult to give up on that idea of people - whether it's scandals involving people we know or in the media and it can be a surprise or shock because we want to hang on to an image.

An art historian is interested in the ideas, the form and the representation these things are about - they don't always tally with the prejudices, social customs or moral positions of people about personal and social behaviour.

Art has a relationship to traditions, to the unconscious, to wishes and desires that simply cannot to reduced to your own biography.

Chris Kul-Want - course director, Masters of Research in art theory and philosophy, University of the Arts, London

The art owners

I have a limited edition print that was the last one in the country when my husband bought it about 10 years ago for £500. It was our first big purchase and it was quite a big deal.

It was an Australian scene of Ayers Rock and I grew up in Australia so it meant quite a lot to me that it was by Rolf Harris. Now I can't have it facing me in my house - it came down the second he got charged.

I totally understand the argument that, in the grand scheme of the art world, you could probably dig all sorts of things up on all sorts of people, but I'm not a serious art collector and I have three young children, so for me it's on a different level that I can't brush aside.

We have a lovely illustrated version of Tie Me Kangaroo Down sport which I also pulled off the shelf and is in the sin bin because it just feels wrong.

In a funny way, I feel more sad about the book because I grew up with it, so it feels awful to take it off my children's shelves. I don't really want to explain why as well, so I took it without them knowing and if they ever ask I'll just say we lost it.

I don't feel comfortable with it in my house so we're going to take it to the tip. It definitely doesn't feel right to give it to charity and we thought about selling it, but I'm not interested. It hadn't crossed my mind anyone else would want it, but I'm certainly not looking to get anything back from it.

Gillian, London

Image copyright Other
Image caption This picture's owner cannot separate the artist from the art

Back in the late 1990s, I went to see Rolf with my brother and really enjoyed his show. It became a family joke we were fans and one Christmas my parents bought us limited edition prints.

They're really nice paintings to be fair and it was a half-thoughtful gift and half-investment opportunity, but obviously they've probably plummeted in value.

Ironically, my brother sold his when he was short of cash a couple of years ago whereas mine is sitting ashamed in the back of a wardrobe. I don't want to have it on display and I don't think there's going to be a huge queue of people to buy it from me either.

I don't know what I'll do with it - I don't really see the point in a symbolic burning. I'll probably retain the frame and maybe put a different picture in there and get rid of the picture itself. I don't think I feel guilty, but there's an unsavoury undertone to it.

Any performer or artist who has gone through misdemeanours doesn't necessarily invalidate the quality of the work they've done in the past, but I don't particularly want a reminder and, albeit indirectly, funding somebody who has those kind of skeletons in their closet.

I don't think you can separate the artist from the art because it's got his name in the corner. It's a nice picture and I really like it, and I think he's a talented artist, but it's difficult to justify supporting that when you find out the kind of things he's been up to.

Alan, Hathern, Leicestershire

I have just moved house and have a print of his that I could possibly re-hang.

About five years ago, I bought a copy of his work entitled Arnhemland Girl. I think I paid about £180 for it. I realise there is a philosophical debate to be had about separating the artist from the art and whether the artwork should be judged and enjoyed on its own merit.

But I think it would now feel wrong to display the picture, as it will now have unwanted associations attached to it every time I, or others, looked at it. It would feel distasteful to his victims to enjoy the painting.

As I had to take it down for my house move, I was waiting for the trial to end before I decided whether or not to re-hang it. I definitely don't feel like doing so now - I'm not sure what to do with it at all.

A trivial dilemma I know, compared to the trauma and upset this man has caused to others.

Celia, Falmouth, Cornwall

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