The Covid pandemic has caused many personal and social problems, but one which has not received very much attention has been a shortage of garden gnomes. Travel restrictions, recently exacerbated by the Suez Canal blockage, have led to a shortage of materials. The shortage of gnomes has gone along with an increasing interest in gardening which seems also to require gnomes. A spokesman for gnomes told the BBC that there had been a massive upswing in sales during lockdown but lack of materials meant that they were now unable to meet demand. He went on to say: 'We haven't seen a gnome in six months now, unfortunately'.
A major supplier of gnomes seems to be China. I do not have a scholarly knowledge of the works of Marx, Lenin or Chairman Mao, so I cannot comment on their views on gnomes. But I suspect that gnomes may have a touch of the bourgeois about them, unless of course they are sold with concealed bugging devices. Before lockdown, I did see an advert in a newspaper from a firm offering to supply 'life-size gnomes'. What size would that be? How would it compare with the size of a Swiss gnome from Zurich?
I once heard a BBC interview with a sculptor who said that his sculptures had been rejected by the Arts Council and other grant-awarding bodies. They did not, he said, appreciate the artistic value of his work. It was too innovative and challenging for such conventional bodies. But he had to make a living so he had abandoned his artistic integrity and now intended to infest the south of England with garden gnomes.
The sculptor had come down on one side of a moral dilemma which can be faced in the arts and in politics and no doubt in other spheres. How far, if at all, is it morally permissible to sacrifice your integrity, artistic or political, in order to make a living in your field, whether that be in the arts or politics?
Years ago, I was on the board of governors of Glasgow School of Art. My spell was during the Thatcher years when the traditional governors were sacked and replaced by business men. I was kept on because GSA wanted to retain a link with Glasgow University. Board meetings sometimes had animated discussions between the artists elected to the board and the business men. The discussions were usually of detailed specific issues but behind them all was the problem posed by one business man: Do you want to maintain your integrity or do you want to sell your paintings?
It is important not to over-simplify this problem. The business men were not on the whole suggesting that GSA should devote itself to gnomes, life-size or garden size. sculpted or painted. Many were members of the Glasgow Art Club and had a great deal of sophistication, knowledge and taste in matters of art. But they often had a worldly practicality about their suggestions which could worry the artists. They would point out that a painting beyond a certain size is not going to fit into a suburban sitting room, and perhaps students should be reminded of the commercial aspects of their future careers.
The artists, perhaps correctly, wanted to be challenging or innovative, but it was pointed out that there are commercial limits. One artist I remember had a work which offered an exploration of the theme of personal identity. This had been achieved by daubing bits of cotton wool on damp areas of the body and then printing the results on receptive material. I suppose the DNA which could be obtained from these intimate daubings would be uniquely identifying and of interest at least to the police in the event of a murder. And there might well have been a murder if a business man had bought it and taken it home as an anniversary present. CertainIy I didn't order it for my sitting room.
The general point here is that artists may well wish their art to be challenging but it is also important to take the public along with you, or at least those in the public with an interest in the art in question. To an extent, some artists are cushioned from commercial realities by grants and commissions. But you take a risk if you commission a portrait of yourself. Graham Sutherland was commissioned to paint a portrait of Winston Churchill. Perhaps Sutherland's integrity required him to make the portrait challenging. Unfortunately, Churchill's wife, Clementine, thought that the portrait did not do justice to Churchill's integrity and had the portrait destroyed. A clash of integrities!
The easiest way to combine artistic integrity with making a living in music is to write music for films or TV. The integrity consists in enhancing the drama and the fee derives from that. With pure 'classical' music the challenge is greater. The fee will be paid for the first performance but it is not always easy to get a second performance.
It might be pointed out that Beethoven, for example, was a revolutionary composer. Yes, but there were hundreds at his funeral. He was able to educate his listeners and take them with him.
Shakespeare remains top of the range of playwrights and poets but he too was very successful commercially. He managed to combine challenging material with popular appeal. He maintained his integrity but still made a lot of money from his plays. Artists must create the taste by which they will be appreciated.
The dilemma of integrity versus popular appeal occurs also in politics. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, had many interesting ideas but he was unable to broaden his appeal to a wide section of the population. It was too easy for the Murdoch press to brand him as a socialist or Marxist.
The problem which may arise for someone occupying an important role, as in a large corporation or a government department, is that they may be expected to implement a policy, make a decision or agree a contract the content of which they morally disagree with. For example, they may be expected to draw up an arms deal with a dodgy regime, or agree a lucrative contract for materials they suspect are sub-standard. How, if at all, can individual moral responsibility be reconciled with the corporate role?
One answer is a simple one. The two claims cannot be reconciled; resign if you disagree. But there are problems with that simple solution. Someone else may take over and your resignation will make no difference. Indeed, you may have signed a gagging order or the Official Secrets Act so you cannot easily go public. Moreover, you may well have other important roles with their own duties, such as breadwinner.
Well, then, should you just ignore your own integrity? If you stay in the post, you may be able to mitigate its worst effects, or you may be able to persuade your manager or minister to abandon the project. But what about your conscience or your integrity? Is there some compromise position? You should not compromise your conscience, but perhaps there can be a conscientious compromise.
Sir Hugh Foot, a prominent civil servant in the 1960s, made some suggestions about this during a ministerial crisis. He suggested three tests officials should apply to themselves before contemplating resigning: Is the issue one of main principle rather than secondary matter; will he/she be directly involved in carrying out the decision; will the matter be a continuing problem in which he/she will be obliged to defend the decision. Only if the answer is 'yes' to all three should resignation be considered.
Sir Hugh's suggestions seem sensible as far as they go. But they depend on an assumption which no longer seems reliable: that politicians and civil servants have integrity in the first place. Nowadays, many seem not to notice when an ethical issue arises. We are familiar with the indignant defence: I haven't broken any (ministerial/civil service) rules. Perhaps not, but you might still have done something dishonest. Even a gnome could see that.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow