FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Last British Empire Paedophile: Morality, Art and Donald Friend

Righteousness is never pretty, and it tends to often respond after the fact. The fallen hero, or at least the figure shrouded in mystery, is suddenly found to be a creature of ill repute, tarnished, and therefore, in need of emotional and psychic exile. Works, and the man, need to vanish.

Such a figure is Donald Friend, advertised on the chat show circuit in Australia as the country’s greatest paedophile artist. (He has been regarded as the finest of figurative draughtsmen.)  The title is, in a sense, a typical introduction to what is an old confusion: is the art of an immoral, criminal artist to be treated as its creator?

In 2006, Friend sealed his place in the pantheon of Australian ignominy and judgment with the publication of his fourth volume of diaries.  A note from February 1967 left the reader on his encounter with a 10 year old Balinese youth in little doubt doubt: “I hope life will continue forever to offer me delicious surprises like Dolog and that I will always be delighted and surprised, he goes about the act of love with a charmingly self-possessed grace, gaily, affectionately and enthusiastically and in these matters he is very sensitive and not at all sentimental.”

Since the publication of his diaries, Friend’s work has been subjected to a gradual, though unmistakable erasure. He is persona non grata in the art world, a true untouchable for the auctioneers, purchasers and galleries.

This is a debate that should have been long resolved. But puritanical and fundamentalist assessments of labour being the image of moral worth, the vision of a person in that product, tends to intrude.  It keeps company with the nonsense that there is such a thing as immoral art.  Art might be abysmal or well done, but it can never be moral.  The point is known even before Oscar Wilde took issue with the point that a book can never be moral or immoral, simply well written or badly written.

The Friend case is troublesome for its attempt to police the product of an artist, to censure, to hide, and to obliterate the fallen being’s work because of the creator’s character. This approach is hardly befitting any gallery, nor will it do that police have a say in such matters.  Punish the artist, yes, but what of the art?

The same righteous clans now baying for the removal of such artists would do to stop and think about what would be left in a gallery if an artist’s personal resume of conduct were to be considered.  One could start with removing the works of, say, murderers, a gruesomely apt example being that of Caravaggio. Yes, he may have murdered Ranuccio Tomassoni, be it over a tennis match, or, as it was subsequently suggested, a dispute over a prostitute by the name of Fillide Melandroni.

To then charge through the galleries to remove art of such astonishing atmosphere from a soul of such volcanic, ill-tempered violence would be no mere act of conventional philistinism but one of cultural stupidity.

A modern case in point is even more salient. Paul Gauguin’s postimpressionism remains masterful and plentiful, and even, on a certain level, mystical, a window to the animist soul. But here was a true monster, a dissolute exploiter, a colonial figure of his time, and a person who was bound to have had his way with under age subjects in his paintings.

As Adrian Searle would say, writing about the Tate’s Gauguin exhibition in 2010, the artist was “guilty as charged.” Post-colonial scholars and feminists were right to take issue with his exploits. “The criticism has been a necessary corrective to the unsustainable myth of the artist as protean genius beyond the mores of his time, place and society.”[1]  What he produced, however, is a different proposition.

Art, as opposed to the troubled artist, inhabits a space outside the law. The law remains blunt, crudely temporal, applicable to the human subject; but art resists that, has no knowledge of the principles etched in moral codes, a thing of itself. The only morality in such matters, if, indeed, it could be considered such, is the emphasis on an aesthetic, rules of design or perspective.

Rule makers and regulators tend to disagree.  Their job is to blur the artist with the art, to censor, to control taste, and to suggest that a person who views a work from the brush of a murderer, a paedophile or a thief is somehow diminished, perhaps even encouraged to pursue such a course of action.

Is looking at a canvass or sketch featuring the artist’s experience somehow an incitement to crime, a miraculous initiation into a dark world?  Moral fundamentalists and criminal code guardians would certainly think so. As do, it seems, auctioneers who seem to have placed Friend on the taboo list.  As with listening to Wagner, there is a presumed temptation that engaging a person’s work is bound to corrupt you as readily as the creator himself.

According to Frank Campbell, who got his hands on a copy of the 2006 published volume of diaries, Friend was “the last British Empire paedophile.”[2]  But for all that criminality, he remained prolific, his work that should be the subject of an assessment separate from his own unpunished acts.

Notes.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/sep/27/paul-gauguin-tate-modern-exhibition

[2] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/weekend-australian-magazine/should-we-boycott-donald-friends-art/news-story/1de2cbb07571f7b285139191c6e363d0

 

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
April 09, 2020
John Davis
Freedom Virus
Vincent Emanuele
The New Normal: Cascading and Multilayered Crises
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie’s Last Tape
John O'Kane
Remove the Boomer Virus and What Virus Remains?
Kevin Bixby – Daryl T. Smith
The Border Wall Risks Us All
Nick Pemberton
Could COVID-19 Count Fox News Among Its Victims?
Howard Lisnoff
American Exceptionalism in the Face of Covid-19
Charles Pierson
We Are Living (And Dying) in Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”
Sam Husseini
Sanders Suspends: What Happened? What Now?
Binoy Kampmark
Banal Terrors: Pandemics and the Ordinary Business of War
Ted Rall
Why We Need a New Progressive Party and How We Can Create It
Walden Bello
Martin Khor: the Making of a Global Activist
Ariel Dorfman
COVID-19 and the Lessons of Life in Exile
Merriam Ansara
John Lennon in Quarantine: a Letter From Havana
George Wuerthner
Politics and Corruption at Grand Canyon
Eugene Schulman
Lost in the Pandemic: the Forever Wars
Dean Baker
Basic Economics for Economic Columnists: a Depression is a Process, Not an Event
George Ochenski
The Dishonest Mr. Daines
Mike Ferner
Love in a Dangerous Time
Brian Horejsi
Beware Government Secrecy in Times of Pandemic
Sam Pizzigati
No Fennel in the Sausage, No $600 for the Jobless
Jason Christensen – John Carter
Conservation Groups Oppose the Nature Conservancy’s Cattle Grazing Development Project on the Border of Canyonlands National Park
April 08, 2020
Melvin Goodman
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Body Politic
Eve Ottenberg
Amid Plague, Sanctions are Genocide
Vijay Prashad, Du Xiaojun – Weiyan Zhu
How China Learned About SARS-CoV-2 in the Weeks Before the Global Pandemic
Bill Quigley
Seven Disturbing Facts About COVID-19 in Louisiana
Joyce Nelson
BlackRock Takes Command
Geoff Dutton
Coronavirus as Metaphor: It’s Not Peanuts
Richard Moser
From Strike Wave to General Strike
Gary Leupp
Could COVID-19 Kill Capitalism?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
Corona, Capital and Class in Germany
Tom Crofton
Aspirational vs Pragmatic: Why My Radicalness is Getting More Radical
Steve Kelly
Montana Ballot Access Decision Suppresses Green Party Voters
Jacob Hornberger
Muhammad Ali’s Fight Against the Pentagon
Phil Mattera
The Rap Sheets of the Big Ventilator Producers
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19?
Rick Baum
When “Moderate” Democrats Lead the Ticket and Win, Down-Ballot Candidates Soon Suffer Losses
Jake Johnston
Tens of Millions Will Be Pushed into Poverty Amid COVID-Induced Recession
Kim C. Domenico
Healthy and Unhealthy Fear in the Age of Coronavirus
John W. Whitehead
Draconian Lockdown Powers and Civil Liberties
Binoy Kampmark
University Bailouts, Funding and Coronavirus
Luke Ruediger
BLM Timber Sale Increases Fire Risk, Reduces Climate Resilience and Harms Recreation
John Kendall Hawkins
Slavoj Žižek’s Virulent Polemic Against Covid-19, and Stuff!
Nyla Ali Khan
Finding Meaning and Purpose in Adversity
April 07, 2020
Joel McCleary – Mark Medish
Paradigm Shift by Pandemic
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail