First Person: The Art of Incarceration
By Patrick Dennis
I am an artist and I’ve been thinking…
What if you had a serious skeleton in your closet that had nothing to do with your family, friends or your art but would have a major impact on your ability to maintain those things if it ever came to light since you’d most likely be facing incarcerated time? How would you proceed in life with that black cloud hanging over your head year after year, wondering if and when it would come out and smash to bits everything you have worked to achieve? Certainly your personal relationships would be affected, but how would your art change? Is it possible that it could have a positive impact on your creativity since it would push your skills in a direction that indirectly addresses the fears you face or the guilt you carry from worry? It is conceivable in fact, that this is not even an unusual scenario since the phrase “tortured artist” was coined to cover this exact phenomenon. But is it ethical for an artist to manipulate their circumstances to maximize the viewers’ experience of your craft? Or it is just another oddity, like someone who uses deformity to shock the viewer?
This is a tangled knot of dilemma for me, but not because I’m afraid to open my own closet. There’s nothing in there but coats. But, I have a friend in this very circumstance and I’ve been thinking about it a lot because he’s inclined to use this episode of his life to advance his art. Let’s differentiate an artist’ death from incarceration first. When an artist dies of natural (or exotic) causes, frequently the value of their work escalates based upon that discovery. But art by incarcerated artists? That’s a very different story of marginalized potential.
For myself, I’m wondering if I should promote this artist considering the circumstances. That’s because I’d like to help out his family while he’s “away.” But would it turn into a gimmick if I use the feature of his life that is most painful to do so? That turns the issue right back to me and my dilemma. Of course, the “devil’s in the details” in this case, but still it begs the question: can one be at fault for turning a private and painful event in an artist’s life into a marketing tool to promote their skill and value? Believe me, I’ve seen it done and it’s very tricky but often successful. Did you know that there is an exhibition of incarcerated artists from Rikers Island hosted by The People’s Art in New York? Or that there is a group called Prison Creative Arts Project that has put on an exhibition of art by Michigan prisoners for 15 years at the University of Michigan? Clearly there is a strong dynamic emerging from the connection between the artist and incarceration, and possibly pre-incarceration that is influenced by these circumstances and it’s worth exploring. In Atlanta, Emory University’s Cultural Odyssey held a performance art exhibition addressing this theme just last year.
So my question is simply this: does it help to shine a bright light on these subjects or does it exploit them? From my point of view, it can help both the artist’s journey through healing as well as those who wish to have a front row seat of the transformation, hopefully with non-prurient intentions.
Life does not always bring us happy news. Artists’ lives often take dramatic turns. But by no means do I wish to trivialize these things. I just want to do what’s best for art and artists I care about.
Patrick Dennis is an artist, gallery owner and President of the Atlanta Foundation for Public Spaces. He lives in Atlanta. Email him at Patrick@affps.com.