‘Insider Art’: The Work of Artists in Prison

Matthew Meadows’ book entitled ‘Insider Art’ looks at the rise in art made by prisoners and how this work has come to take a prominent place within the contemporary art world. Grayson Perry writes the foreword for the book, in which he notes that in this ‘Insider Art’ he sees “the basic human desire to make something tangible out of thoughts and feelings.” [1] These works remind Perry of where he came from and are a sobering reminder that perhaps at one point in his life he could have taken a “darker turn” but instead he chose art; much as many of these prisoners who create this ‘Insider Art’ have done, but perhaps a little later than Perry did.

I’m an artist, and it’s a passion which burns with me to the point that it hurts. I am self-taught through books and many a long night and a short pencil. [2]

This statement highlighted by Meadows in his first chapter is written by an inmate at HMP Wealstun. In the UK in 2009, 90,000 men and women were in custody, on remand sentenced or detained; 3,000 of which were young people. But why is ‘Insider Art’ so popular?

Meadows argues that the “risk taking and rule breaking” appear within some of these works and that we “respond to its conviction, originality and often compelling content.” [3] In recent years, we have seen the establishment of prison arts charities; one of the most predominant being The Koestler Trust which was founded in 1962 by Arthur Koestler. In the USA, ‘Insider Art’ has established a market for itself both online and within galleries and in Holland, plans are in place to open a permanent collection of prison art from Europe in an unused prison building.

Meadows also broaches the subject of victim responses to the exhibition and promotion of work created by those incarcerated in prisons across the world. Kelly Flyn of Victim Support claims that there is no unanimous thought held by victims:

Victims’ views are extremely diverse and range from lifelong anger to total disinterest and feelings are likely to change over time. Therefore it’s just not possible to be able to say what victims might or might not think of prisoners’ art – there would be those who’d think it outrageous that prisons provide art courses, those who have no view one way or another, and those who’d say it’s a good idea. [4]

It is a very sensitive subject. When the artist of a very well-known piece of art hanging in the Royal Festival Hall was revealed to be a child murderer and sex offender serving a life sentence, many were outraged that he was able to exhibit his work and even earn money from it. After much protestation, his work was removed from the gallery and the Royal Festival Hall issued a formal apology to the families of his victims.

It can be difficult for people in society to see the possible benefit that might come out of exhibiting ‘Insider Art’. An article written for the Guardian in 2007 entitled ‘Arts in Prison Can Bring Hope to Broken Lives’ claims that whilst there is no excuse for committing crime or causing harm, “it’s usually the case that those who do behave badly towards others lack any real sense of self-worth or self-respect. And people who do not feel good about themselves are hardly likely to feel empathy or consideration for others.” [5] Creative activity in itself considerably aids personal development and it can bring hope or meaning to “broken, dysfunctional lives.” [6] A lot of people who begin creating art, or undertaking any creative activity, in the prison environment often have not had any experience of it beforehand. The opportunity for them to try such things can have spectacular results.

Stretch, like The Koestler Trust, is another charity that aims to bring art into prisons. Recognising that art galleries and museums were out of bounds to prisoners, Stretch established a way to take the museum to the prisoners. They created virtual tours of museums such as the V&A, as well as asking artists to go into the prisons and share their ideas and head workshops with the prisoners. The workshops have even led to prisons gaining work placements on their release.

Erwin James, author of the Guardian article, closes with:

Engaging with art can restore confidence and self-worth; it can improve sociability and generate aspiration. Art and creative activity can be the perfect vehicle for revealing the complexities of the human condition. Prisons should open their doors wide to anyone who wants to promote it, and the government should recognise its value as an effective deterrent to re-offending.

Afterall, “prisoner lives enhanced bring enhancement to the wider community.” [7]

References:

[1] Matthew Meadows, Insider Art, (A & C, 2010) p 8

[2] Meadows, Insider Art, p 11

[3] Meadows, Insider Art, p 11

[4] Meadows, Insider Art, p 12

[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/artblog/2007/jul/19/artsinprisoncanbringhope

[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/artblog/2007/jul/19/artsinprisoncanbringhope

[7] http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/artblog/2007/jul/19/artsinprisoncanbringhope

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