“When people see our work, for a few moments they forget that it was done by a felon. They understand that it was done by another human being – one with the same thoughts, emotions and inspirations they have. And for that one moment, a major social and political barrier is shattered.”
– An artist featured in the Prison Creative Arts Project exhibition, as quoted in Art Show Magazine.
The titles of some pieces at the Prison Creative Arts Project exhibition are undeniably suggestive of the artists’ situations: “Troubled Man,” “Product of Society.” But like the artist mentioned above (who is also a convicted criminal) hopes, the suggestiveness of the art gallery will not go much further than that. And all viewers will be able to see the pieces simply as art and forget the extenuating circumstances of the exhibition.
Unfortunately, this hope is not exactly reality at the Duderstadt Center Gallery, where the work is currently on display. For some viewers, the work can be seen as nothing more than felons’ artwork. As I browsed the gallery last week, the statements I overheard portrayed other visitors’ diluted expectations. Many seemed completely taken aback by the quality of the work.
This year’s exhibition features 347 pieces of art – paintings, pencil drawings, landscapes, portraits, abstracts and more – created by prisoners from all around Michigan. The work featured in the exhibition is selected from thousands of other pieces by members of PCAP, a campus group created in 1990 with the intent of providing incarcerated people around the state a means to communicate their feelings to people outside the prison walls. The annual show (now in its 12th year) serves to present the public with a taste of all the hard work put in by prisoners with the aid and encouragement of PCAP members.
As its website states, the exhibition is essentially an embodiment of PCAP’s mission – to break down stereotypes and encourage dialogue between people in prison and those outside. In effect, it aims to achieve what the quoted artist hopes: to have the art viewed as the work of human beings, not felons.
But based on the comments I heard at the exhibit, as well as a review of the exhibition last week in The Michigan Daily (Prison art exhibit enters 12th year running strong, 03/29/2007), the aspirations of PCAP and the artist are far from being fulfilled. The review of the opening reception of the show, which featured statements by artists who are no longer imprisoned, read: “If walking through a gallery of art made by criminals and former criminals is unnerving, then so might the knowledge that some of the artists could be standing next to you.” This perception of the show shatters its purpose of facilitating dialogue and relieving tensions between the public and the prison communities.
It would be incorrect to ask gallery attendees to ignore the circumstances of the artists entirely. Ad hominem judging of artwork is done all the time at art museums and institutes. Being awed by what someone can create while living in an eight-by-eight cell is also appropriate. But dismissing the possibility that the work is actually fine artwork and not just something done by prisoners is antithetic to PCAP’s mission.
The featured artists deserve to be treated as the talented people they are. They are human beings who should be respected for their abilities and not make you feel unnerved.
So who is to blame for viewers’ weak expectations and perceptions of the exhibition? Is it the legal system instilling a sense of fear in us about prisoners? Or is it society in general thinking that these are “bad people” who need to stay locked up? The answer is hard to find, but whatever it is, the more than 2.2 million people currently imprisoned in this country will probably never be able to escape the labels that society puts on them.
Felon. Convict. These people are going to spend the rest of their lives being defined by the one worst act they committed in their lives. They will be disrespected and underappreciated in society, struggle to earn a sustainable living, or worse, spend the rest of their lives in confinement.
So don’t go to the PCAP display (which will be presented through April 11) for the shock value of seeing the brush strokes of convicted murderers or rapists first hand. Go to the gallery because you want to respect fine artwork. Then spend some time reflecting on how some of the artists lives may have been drastically different if someone had recognized their talents or introduced them to a paint set a little earlier in their lives.
Theresa Kennelly is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.