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Art and a Dubious Milestone: 1% of U.S. Population in Prison

April 14, 2008

At the end of February the Washington Post, and other newspapers, noted a statistical milestone in U.S. history: more than 1 in 100 adults in the U.S. are in prison. I was shocked to learn that this is far more than China, which boggles the mind considering it is many times our population and a totalitarian, communistic regime that curtails basic natural rights. Proportionally, spending on prisons has also increased, the Post notes, “[with] five states. . . spending as much or more on corrections as on higher education.” With state and federal budgets pushed to and beyond their limits the government should begin the long overdue process of investigating sentencing reforms.

This statistic got me thinking, who are the artists that are criticizing the prison-industrial complex in the U.S.? I have been thinking about this for several weeks and have come up with one person, Peter Halley. Coming to prominence in the eighties, and associated with movements such as “Neo-Geo” and the so-called “Bad Painting,” Halley paints in intensely bright colors, occasionally with unusual types of paint like Roll-a-Tex or Day-Glo. To be quite honest, I have never been a fan of Halley’s paintings until I began investigating their use of the prison. A square with stripes is both a geometric abstraction in Halley’s work and a prison window, his stripes and squares are both abstractions and a kind of flow-chart for the prison-industrial complex. However what clinched it for me are the paintings that are in the collection of Eli Broad (the foundation has a great website). In particular, the reliefs Cell with Smoke Stack and Conduit and Cinder Block Prison (both 1990) lay out explicitly what the other paintings allude to. In the first, we see a gray, factory-like building, fed by an underground pipe and an ominous “smoke stack.” Even through the small image on the web the work speaks powerfully of a system constantly fed by underground desires, from which the only escape maybe death. It also alludes to the gray of the concentration camps and their smokestacks, raising a serious criticism of the racism inherent in the U.S. legal system.

So now while I don’t like all of Halley’s canvases, I can at least respect that he is taking on a serious subject, one that warrants more artistic consideration.

I’m sure that there are more artists creating work around this subject so please add some names, or exhibits, under the comments.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 25, 2009 12:53 pm

    I have also often thought along these lines. Have you ever seen Goya’s drawings on what some of those US lawyers call “harsh techniques of interrogation”? But then I did not have the heart to make it a post. Basically I feel sorry for the way things went wrong in the US. The Americans that I know are all decent people, and yet they get sour if you mention Guantánamo.

    Prisons beyond the reach of the law!
    Jeez. And the decent people won’t want to hear about it.

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