The story goes that the great sculptor Eric Gill (1882–1940) was inclined—for reasons we will come to—to over-emphasize sexual organs in some of his work. When he was commissioned in 1932 to carve Prospero and Ariel on the London headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the result was supposedly inspected by the grizzled headmaster of one of the country’s leading boys’ boarding schools, a man presumed to have some knowledge of this sort of thing. He stared for a while at Ariel’s parts of manhood, and then pronounced, “I must say, the lad does seem to be remarkably, ah, well-hung.”
Gill was asked to fetch his chisel and tone things down a bit. And so he did. The result may be seen to this day, though the Londoners of this age are less troubled by such displays than they were 90 years ago. Yet, despite the undeniable quality of Gill’s work, there have been more recent expressions of alarm about the figure and its prominence on a building of national importance. The alarm is not about the public portrayal of private matters. It is about whether it is justified for good art by bad people to be on public display. Child abuse charities have suggested Ariel should be removed from the BBC headquarters, and have made similar suggestions about a rather lovely set of Stations of the Cross, also executed by Gill, in Westminster Cathedral. These campaigns have some force to them, and any serious person must at least listen to the point they make. The latest controversy about Gill followed the disclosure, in a 1989 biography, that the sculptor had incestuous relations with his daughters. This was by no means the only such crime he had committed. Even the family dog, apparently, was not safe from him. There seems to be little doubt about the truth of the charges, as the evidence comes from his own candid diaries. But so far, the works have remained in place. There has been no matching effort to prevent the use of Gill’s several graceful typefaces. For as well as being in widespread use, they are superb. They have the cool, fluent elegance and thoughtfulness of all his work. You will certainly have seen them in use.
And here is the problem. Eric Gill undoubtedly did many things which were deeply evil, and which, if detected, might well have put him in prison for a long time and led to the cancellation of commissions. He knew that what he was doing was wrong. He was, to all outward appearance, a serious Roman Catholic, though we now have to wonder what he understood by this.
And yet he also left enduring evidence of a talent far out of the ordinary, which enriched the world. If it were hidden or destroyed now, it would not hurt him or help his victims. Whatever are we to do? Should we tear down his sculptures and hide them in basements, or even break them up? Should we cease to use his typefaces? Should we chisel his name off his work and forget him? I dislike all these ideas, but I am still left with a feeling of uneasiness when I try to think about it. Does artistic merit cancel wickedness? Can the art be considered separately from the artist? Surely not. To appreciate the work of Rembrandt, for instance, is to see and to feel something of him, and in my case to feel a strong personal liking across the centuries. Gill was plainly capable of recognizing goodness, and was not its constant enemy, as his Stations of the Cross show. Even today some solitary pilgrim to Westminster Cathedral might be moved by them to pity, mercy, or repentance. Can artistic beauty do so much good that it simply bypasses the moral quality of the artist? Plenty of artists have lived less than saintly lives, to put it mildly. Yet at some point, their works have served the cause of goodness.
I ask all this because the problem faces us in our own time, in a slightly different form. Here it is. The film director Roman Polanski may not have waded quite as deep into the moral mire as Eric Gill did. I am not sure how you measure that. But he has done something terrible. He will never escape from his admission that he statutorily raped a 13-year-old girl, and the fact that in 1978 he fled the U.S. to avoid a prison sentence. The details of the case, so far as they are known, remain highly disturbing and distressing. Anybody who knows of them must feel disgust, and reckon that Polanski escaped proper punishment for what he did.
But he has continued to direct films, some of them obscure, nasty, and forgettable, others successful and acclaimed. The Pianist was well-reviewed and did well in theaters. I do not remember any suggestion, at the time, that it should be boycotted because of Polanski’s squalid, criminal past. I went without any special qualm to see his clever, enjoyable version of Robert Harris’s anti-Blair thriller The Ghost Writer. I confess that it did not cross my mind to boycott the film because of its director’s nasty past. I’m not even sure I realized that Polanski had directed it. But now I actually cannot see a second collaboration between Polanski and Harris, An Officer and a Spy, because it is not being released in the U.K.
This film, by most accounts, is a very good portrayal of the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army officer was wrongly imprisoned on false charges of spying, and France torn in half in the resulting uproar. There is a strong moral argument that it should be shown because it may make people better. For me, as for many journalists, Émile Zola’s use of his newspaper to fight for the exoneration of the unpopular and easily disliked Captain Alfred Dreyfus is a permanent example to learn from, almost a scripture. I think many journalists suspect, hope, and fear that one day they will be given a similar duty—to stand up for someone or something unpopular because it is right. Most of us will fail it, just as most of us fail other tests of courage, or fail to recognize them until it is too late. But it is not just an important story for journalists. All citizens of free countries also need to know this story, a warning of how guilt may be wrongly presumed and how the truth can be unpopular.
Some think that Polanski’s view of the film is that he is himself in some way a modern Captain Dreyfus, persecuted and misunderstood. “I must admit that I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me,” Polanski said in an interview included in the press pack for An Officer and a Spy. This might be taken as a reference to his years living in hiding from the Nazis in occupied Poland. But he went on to say, “I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case.” The context of these remarks suggests that he may be referring mainly to false and highly painful press speculation that he was involved in the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969, eventually shown beyond doubt to be the work of Charles Manson and his gang. But some have taken it also to be a reference to the sex case.
I have no idea if he actually thinks it is so. For his own sake, I very much hope not, since, apart from anything else, Polanski has admitted to his own guilt and it is not in doubt. He is not remotely like Dreyfus. Nor is he like Émile Zola, who had to flee France after championing him. The only person he resembles, is, well, Roman Polanski.
What we must now call “social media” has certainly taken a hostile view of the whole enterprise. I think perhaps this is because Polanski has sneered at the #MeToo movement (in which his crime is of course caught up) as “mass hysteria.” I hate to be on the same side as social media. But it is hard to disagree that Polanski would be better off keeping quiet about such things. He is the last person to dismiss concern about the sexual crimes of the powerful against the weak.
So let Mr. Polanski endure that. As far as I am concerned, I can see no reason why he should not return to face the court he fled from in 1978. The rule of law demands it. But what disturbs me is that, as a result, we in Britain cannot see his Dreyfus film. In Britain, there is no sign of it being released, and as far as I can find out, this is solely because of Polanski’s unrepented past, and because of the widespread loathing for what he did (which I share). Does this make any kind of sense, especially given that no similar boycott (for example) affected other post-crime films of his such as Bitter Moon, said to be an “erotic romance thriller” which (I have not seen it) sounds exceptionally unpleasant and which could be burned by the Public Hangman at Tyburn for all I care? Not to me. An Officer and a Spy may even be a bad film. The compliments heaped on it at festivals may be undeserved. But I still do not see what logic dictates that it should be kept off British screens because of the evil deeds of the man who made it. If, in return for seeing it, I was asked as a condition of entry to sign a petition urging Polanski to face justice, I would do it. I would be happy if the share of the takings contractually reserved for the director went instead to charities for the abused. Anyone can think of other conditions of this kind, which most reasonable people would be ready to accept.
But for it not to be shown? Who is punished by that? Where is the justice? What is the purpose? I used to be subjected to collective punishments at my 1950s boarding school. (I remember one occasion when we were all subjected to a terrible harangue, and then denied toast with our tea, after someone had failed to own up to some unspeakable crime. The just and the unjust suffered together. Nobody confessed.) I was unaware at the time that this was illegal under the Geneva Conventions, but I still feel, decades afterward, that it was plain silly. Eric Gill and Roman Polanski are both guilty of revolting crimes. If there is justice in the universe, they will face it. But should we be punished by being deprived of the results of their undeniable talent? And does the appearance in the same place of talent and evil not offer us a lesson in the limits of our own power to judge?
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.
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