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13 January 2022

Eric Gill’s sculpture won’t be the last to fall in the name of moral purity

If you feel the urge to take a chisel in your hand and make your way to Broadcasting House, take a look in the mirror before you put your shoes on.

By Peter Hughes

Virtue loves a stage and there was no attempt to hide the crime: yesterday a man climbed up a ladder outside BBC’s Broadcasting House and spent two hours vandalising a statue of Prospero and Ariel. The object of his attack wasn’t the statue itself, but its sculptor Eric Gill, whose litany of sexual abuse extended from his two daughters to the family dog. 

Such behaviour as Gill’s must, of course, be condemned and punished. The assault on this monument, however, differs from others we have seen recently in that it was not a statue of Gill himself – such as with that of Edward Colston – but a statue by Gill. What does it mean when we destroy a work of art because of the moral flaws of the artist? 

In 1895, in a speech in An Ideal Husband written by Oscar Wilde, his character bemoaned “our modern mania for morality”, whereby “everyone has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues”. Wilde concluded that eventually we would “all go over like ninepins – one after the other”, and each be crushed by the scandals that follow.

The fate of the David Hume Tower at the University of Edinburgh is an exemplary case study of what happens when this “mania” takes hold of our reason. After the philosopher was condemned by students as a champion of “white supremacy”, Hume’s name was removed from the tower. Sadly, suggestions that the tower be renamed the Julius Nyerere Tower also fell foul of the morality police when it was alleged that Nyerere, a 20th-century anti-colonial activist from Tanzania, was “homophobic”. 

If the moral purity of the artist is to become a precondition for the public display of art then our streets, parks, squares and galleries will soon be empty of all images and icons – except, perhaps, the self-righteous faces of the accusers, celebrating the dawn of their Republic of Virtue. 

One of the ironies of the attack on Gill’s statue is the figure of Prospero himself in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. After being deposed as the Duke of Milan by his brother and stranded on an island, Prospero enslaves two beings, Ariel and Caliban, before using magic to shipwreck those who usurped him. He forces the shipwrecked survivors onto the island where he reclaims his dukedom and marries off his daughter to the future king. Both the victim of injustice and its perpetrator, Shakespeare’s Prospero embodies the moral ambiguity that defines us all.

In a moving letter to his wife, written from prison in 1982, the Czech dissident Václav Havel said that “responsibility cannot be preached but only borne, and that the only possible place to begin is with oneself”. In bearing that weight, Havel, who went on to became the president of Czech Republic, affirmed the unconditional value of the individual human being, regardless of race, class, creed or gender. Humble and compassionate, he urged us to look at ourselves before we cast judgement upon others. 

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There is cruelty in vice. But there is also cruelty in virtue. When we stand on a pedestal and naively affirm our self-righteousness, we are repeating the moral violence of those we oppose. When we see ourselves as flawed, stumbling through the dark as best as we are able, we become compassionate and capable of love. So, if you feel the urge to take a chisel in your hand and make your way to Broadcasting House, take a look in the mirror before you put your shoes on.

[See also: The sinister art of Victor Hugo]

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