Serial killer art is the ultimate outsider art. Traditional outsider art has an established place in the market, but what about more unconventional types? The infamous serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Richard Ramirez, for example, both made forays into art. Is there a moral imperative in place that prohibits displaying or selling their work? The regulation and censorship surrounding these outsider artists are misguided, and enacting laws against their artwork halts free speech instead of protecting victims. This is true of the laws discussed in a recent New York Times article, “The ‘Murderabilia’ Market,” as well as the controversy over the upcoming exhibition of artwork by serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
MULTIPLES: The Artwork of John Wayne Gacy will open in September at the Sin City Gallery, located inside the Arts Factory complex in Las Vegas. The name Gacy is a four-letter word, and rightly so, because the state executed Gacy by lethal injection in 1994 for the rape and murder of 33 teenagers. The exhibition of 70 works, priced from $2,000 to $15,000, includes skull and clown paintings as well as portraits of Jesus, Hitler, Charles Manson, John Dillinger, and Elvis. (Click here to read an article from ARTINFO.com. More images of Gacy’s work are available via Museum Syndicate and at the Miami New Times.)
The gallery claimed that a portion of the show’s proceeds would go to the National Center for Victims of Crime, but the center refused to accept any money and, further, stated they were never contacted by the gallery in the first place. In an interview with the Las Vegas Sun, spokesperson Mary Rappaport said, “Out of respect for the victims’ families, we have not agreed and would not agree to accept any contribution that comes from the sale of John Wayne Gacy’s work, which he did while in prison for torturing and murdering young boys and men. We believe that the idea of benefiting from an activity relating to such egregious and violent crimes would be in poor taste to the extreme.”
There has always been a market for serial killers’ letters, art, and belongings, and the advent of the Internet has made finding these items much easier. Son of Sam laws, which prohibit criminals from profiting from their crimes, have been applied to new forms of “murderabilia.” Last year, Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced the “Stop the Sale of Murderabilia to Protect the Dignity of Crime Victims Act of 2010,” a bill attempting to crack down on the problem. (Click here for the story from Aol News.) Not everyone was in favor of the legislation, and, ultimately, the bill did not proceed to a vote.
“[Serial killers are] a factual part of history,” said Eric Gein, the owner of Serial Killers Ink, a murderabilia website. “The selling of these artifacts is the same as selling items tied to World War II, visiting establishments such as the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast, or paying to see the Ted Bundy Volkswagen at the Washington, D.C., crime museum.”
The artist’s reputation invites visceral reactions, of course, but the intent of the Sin City Gallery exhibition was not entirely macabre. As stated on the exhibit’s website, the Arts Factory “is raising important questions here, questions that make artists, gallery owners, and viewers examine themselves and their feelings about the artist …. Is the gallery a temple in which only those deemed worthy should be displayed, or is it, rather, a courtroom, a place all artists are equally qualified to be judged?”
This raises several interesting questions. Should an art gallery be a place to withdraw from the world? Matisse felt the need to create art “similar to a comfortable armchair which provides rest from physical expectation.” Should all art be this way? Or is the gallery one of the few spaces where difficult conversations can be had? How important is it to keep a dialogue open on matters of life and death, or sanity and insanity?
While I won’t argue that concerns about victims’ feelings are irrelevant, I do think the calls for censorship are made in vain. The art invokes vile memories of gruesome torture and mutilation, but just as much as any news report—in fact, less so, because the art is not a visual representation of the crimes, while news reports, documentaries, and made-for-TV movies recreate the crimes in detail.
Gacy’s art can be looked at aesthetically. Some of the paintings might be formally attractive, and others may not. Some of the work might evoke Jean Dubuffet’s art-brut rawness. Dubuffet was, in fact, the first to make art inspired by that of mental patients. Some may have the tense, nightmarish quality of the cloth heads by Clare Shenstone which were revered by Francis Bacon.
The art’s source material forces a narrative and an explanation, but it isn’t enough, for example, to simply say that Gacy’s Patches the Clown is a painting about a clown. Gacy worked as a clown for children’s parties, so viewers should consider his motivations for this line of work, and what it means as part of his horrible legacy. Also, where does the near-universal fear of clowns come from? These are interesting questions worthy of examining further.
Gacy began painting while in prison. From a prison warden’s point of view, it’s better for prisoners to engage in art-making as an outlet, rather than occupy their time strangling other prisoners or guards.
As for the economics side of the equation, the ideal situation is one of maximum consumer liberty. Transactions should be up to the buyer and seller alone, not subject to regulation or condemnation. Those who don’t think a particular work of art has any merit, as many people unfortunately feel about most modern art after Picasso, can still impart their opinions. But what makes them entitled to squelch a transaction?
Murderers living within prison walls are restricted in what they can do, purchase, and sell. Those who profit from the sale of their art or memorabilia may act through a middle-man in order to sell their art, but they cannot use the money they earn however they want. They are still subject to the regulations of the prison. If the killer is deceased, a portion of the profit may go to his or her family or next of kin. It is not fair to halt payment to family members who were not responsible for the crimes their loved one committed, and who have probably suffered enough as a result. Perhaps these family members would like to donate the money to a victims’ advocacy group or directly to the families of the victims, but forcing them is a faux charity made with counterfeit generosity. Garnished wages or profits are not enough to bring back a loved one or soothe a loss, and cutting them a check certainly cannot erase a memory. To think it can is somewhat perverse.
The stigma that serial killer art carries is largely imagined. The fact remains that a painting can’t kill or maim; art doesn’t murder. Art is an event, a representation, an idea, or a myth, but not a free or troubled agent acting in the world. You might argue that the pages of Mein Kampf are soaked with blood, but, even though the horrors of Nazi Germany remain in our memories, there aren’t any prohibitions on the sale of the book. There can be poetry after Auschwitz. And, like poetry, art has the power to shine light and open a dialogue on delicate issues.