Toby Lichtig considers when it is acceptable to destroy works of art:
For [Lost, Stolen or Shredded author Rick] Gekoski, there are no simple answers. He considers Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill, a commission by Churchill’s parliamentary colleagues on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, in 1954, which the British Prime Minister despised (“it makes me look half-witted, which I ain’t”) and which was later destroyed at the request of Churchill’s wife, Clementine. Gekoski notes that Lady Churchill had form in this area, having demolished portraits of her husband by Walter Sickert and Paul Maze, and argues, unconvincingly, that the Churchills had “ample justification” for their actions because the painting was commissioned “to honour [Churchill], and it didn’t”. One wonders how the public would now react if Prince Philip decided to feed Lucian Freud’s portrait of the Queen to the Windsor hearth.
It is for quite another reason that Gekoski finds it “hard to regret the destruction of [Philip] Larkin’s diaries”, by Larkin’s lover Monica Jones – and that is because they were never “meant” for public consumption in the first place. But the real explanation is that the contents were likely to be so distasteful. There are some things, it seems, Gekoski would rather not know (the revelations about the private life of Eric Gill have “ruined” Gill’s art for him). It is easy to disagree with him on this point – surely our understanding of an author better informs the work – but Gekoski is correct that our view of Larkin “is probably more sympathetic” as a consequence, and this undoubtedly helps us to focus on the poetry. And whereas we may mourn the “extra badness” lost to history in the untold stories of Lord Byron’s incinerated memoirs, “there is nothing attractive about the extremes of the Larkinian”.
Of course some works of art, such as the Kincaid seen above, are more expendable than others.
(Illustration by Anthony Freda)