The exhibition of incarceration

Can museums present art created inside prisons without retrying offenders?

6 minute read
There’s a growing public appetite for art by people in prison, like this 2013 ink drawing by Jerome Washington, who is in a Pennsylvania state prison. (Image courtesy of the author.)
There’s a growing public appetite for art by people in prison, like this 2013 ink drawing by Jerome Washington, who is in a Pennsylvania state prison. (Image courtesy of the author.)

In recent years, many art museums have turned their focus toward incarceration. As volunteer art director of Prisoner Express (PE), an art program in prisons nationwide, I’ve been asked by museums to share art by people in prison. Recently, a California art museum contacted me, and with the artists’ permission, I sent works to the museum (I don’t sell their art or get paid to represent the artists). But things didn’t go as the artists or I would have liked.

Wanted: sensitivity

After the exhibition, I asked the museum for feedback to share with the artists. My repeated requests were ignored. This may seem minor, but when artists are given little access to their viewing public, they become vulnerable. Because of this, sensitivity should be part of any working relationship. However, sensitivity does not seem structurally inherent to the art world, despite many compassionate people who work in it.

The art world is a realm of competition with too few opportunities for the majority of artists, some of whom are obsessed with money and personal recognition. Now that incarceration is on art’s radar, I can’t help but wonder: should the art world really be a go-to place for criminal justice? As I say to my art students behind the walls, “If you survive prison, you might survive the art world.”

Viable choices?

Just as incarceration is trending for museums, it’s trending among artists eager to participate in those exhibitions. I’ve received emails from artists proposing projects not developed from working involvement with incarceration, but rather a distant observation; anyone can develop a moral opinion about incarceration. One artist wrote intending to develop a conceptual piece with the central question of what people convicted of crimes would do if they weren't in prison. In my experience, this becomes academic, a question posed from a middle-class background assuming everyone has lots of choices. Many people in prison never had multiple-choice opportunities.

But can museum exhibitions on this theme actually cause problems beyond structural insensitivity and middle-class assumptions? An art center in Toronto wanted to curate a prison exhibition and contacted me regarding PE artists. The artists were excited. But shortly before the center collected the art, organizers discovered one of the artists was a sex offender and eliminated him. And since the majority of the participating artists had also been convicted of sexual crimes, that ultimately affected most of the exhibition. Nothing in the art itself was objectionable. Instead, the decision to withdraw it was based on what the museum staff determined were acceptable and unacceptable crimes.

How do we not judge?

In phone conferences with the curators, I asked them who they thought were incarcerated: innocent people caught in the system? While there are innocent people in prisons, most are not. Overwhelmed with my questions, the curators suggested meeting with the director. I told the director that the museum was setting up an independent court far worse than prison itself. In barring the display of art by people who had committed certain crimes, she was giving a sort of life sentence to people whose crimes she and the staff deemed unacceptable. But the director could not get beyond the nature of the crimes, asking me how I worked with individuals who committed such violent acts.

‘I Love Mom,’ a still by an incarcerated artist from an animation titled ‘The Naked Mole Rat’s Journey.’ (Image courtesy of the author.)
‘I Love Mom,’ a still by an incarcerated artist from an animation titled ‘The Naked Mole Rat’s Journey.’ (Image courtesy of the author.)

The simple answer is that I received training as a social worker in suspending personal judgment, thanks to years of supervision and analysis of my work with clients. Suspending personal judgment is not easy—can a museum staff interested in incarceration be expected to do it? In turn, can the museum expect the public to suspend personal judgment? How significant the exhibition could be if these questions were part of the presentation, delving deeper than a superficial isn’t this nice, we’re showing prisoners’ art. But the Toronto director wasn’t buying it.

The more complicated answer to how I suspend moral judgment is long-time involvement and commitment. Before art school, I worked for Child Protective Services in Philadelphia. In this capacity, I worked with or on behalf of children abused, raped, or even murdered by someone close to them—usually a caretaker. It’s easy to imagine that those raped and abused toddlers, with no options for a positive future, are now incarcerated adults.

Changing stories

Art is not social work. Unlike social work, art has a history of active personal judgment. Immanuel Kant’s 1790 treatise on art, aptly titled Critique of Judgment, is an early touchstone. Although Kant has been turned upside-down, both personal and moral judgment remain central to the art experience. Art tells our stories—of love, of pain, and of social and identity concerns (such as the marginalization of LGBTQ folks or people of color). As these stories change and expand understanding, museums ride the tide, developing exhibitions that depend upon the personal judgment of museum staff, curators, or artists assessing those changes.

While incarceration is now a popular theme in museums, sexual offenders are apparently not. Consider the national newspaper that, shortly after the abandoned exhibition in Toronto, hoped to write a magazine edition on prison art, including some of the same incarcerated artists that I had worked with (now working with a nonprofit colleague of mine). When the editors discovered sex offenders were among the artists, the newspaper wanted to pull the offenders from the article. Ultimately, the newspaper agreed to include the sex offenders, but insisted their crimes be exposed, using “transparency” as a defense for doing so. I learned through years of exhibiting prison art that it’s difficult for the public (who has not been acclimated to the changing stories) to see beyond the crime.

‘I Love Mom,’ a still by an incarcerated artist from an animation titled ‘The Naked Mole Rat’s Journey.’ (Image courtesy of the author.)
‘I Love Mom,’ a still by an incarcerated artist from an animation titled ‘The Naked Mole Rat’s Journey.’ (Image courtesy of the author.)

“Monsters” and bias

It’s strange that art by people in prison is judged acceptable to cultural institutions, but art of a sex offender is not; particularly when you consider the percentage of the prison population that represents sex-crime convictions in the US. University of Pennsylvania political science professor Marie Gottschalk, in an interview about her book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, notes that "people charged with sex offenses are the most rapidly increasing segment of the US prison population.”

I have observed this increase in PE artists. I received a timely letter from Daniel, a Midwest state prisoner who actually had no knowledge of these ongoing censorship issues. He said, “a group of us guys just wanted to let you know we understand if you don’t want to show our art because of our particular crimes. We’re hated and we don’t want to contaminate your project.”

I find that the most frequent public and individual description of sex offenders is “monster.” It is ironic that the person identifying offenders as monsters will also applaud my prison art project. I wonder what they’re applauding—giving individuals, “monsters” like Larry Nassar, creative voices? Identifying violent offenders as horrible doesn’t tell the whole story. When I understand that offenders are not just in a society, but of a society, I understand offenders as messengers of a violent, racist, sexist society. While individual accountability is crucial for free will, killing off those messengers, or hiding the art they create, does not eliminate the inherent violence of our society. As a society, we are capable of creating different messengers.

Can art museums develop constructive exhibitions under the biases of their fears? Or are these exhibitions merely a feel-good outing for Saturday afternooners who believe they are taking a stand against incarceration?

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