Monday, October 29, 2018

On the relationship between mass incarceration and museum proliferation: Houston museum exhibit tackles the justice system

Your correspondent was in Houston over the weekend and stopped in at an exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum dubbed "Walls Turned Sideways: Artists confront the Justice System."

Grits thinks about these topics near continuously, so perhaps more representative of the typical viewer was an expat friend visiting from Germany with whom my wife and I took in the exhibit. It impacted her viscerally, leaving her somewhat emotionally shaken and disturbed by the experience. (Of course, corrections policy takes a very different form in Germany.)

Grits got a kick out of a graphic which charted the rise of mass incarceration alongside a "world art index," changes in wealth disparity, and the number of museums. Although the notion that museums and prisons increased at the same time brings to mind the phrase "correlation is not causation," it's a humorously thought provoking take. In the artist's mind, and it's an interesting idea, the rise of prisons is correlated with the rise in income disparity between the super-wealthy and the rest of us. Museums increasingly are warehouses of surplus wealth, the thinking goes, while prisons warehouse excess labor:

I also enjoyed some faux "wanted" posters. Photos showed how the artist, advocates, or somebody had gone around New York City getting businesses to put them in their windows. Really funny, if you're into dark humor. (In the #cjreform movement, dark humor comes with the territory.)

My expat friend was particularly affected by a large photo of the last effects of an executed death-row inmate, David Lee Powell, all boxed up with a detailed index of the boxes' contents printed out 15-feet high on the wall. Another piece strung together photos of an incarcerated man and his family taken during visitation days over many years as his children grew up while he was inside. His wife and kids change a lot over time, while his face and orange jump suit remain constant throughout. Hard hitting stuff.

Another artist, frustrated with glowing media descriptions of police officers who'd been cleared of dubious deaths in police custody, commissioned awards trophies for Indianapolis police officers who killed someone on the job, ironically commemorating their role with participation awards. Simple, but the effect was quite jolting.

One minor quibble. One of the most prominent exhibits, placed immediately past the ticket counter, was a video re-enactment of a panel on "Prisons and Psychiatry" on which Michel Foucalt participated in 1975 with Howie the Harp (Howie Geld), who founded the Insane Liberation Front after experiencing institutionalization for mental illness as a teenager. The discussion's commentary regarding mental illness touted quite a bit of since-disproven nonsense at which, today, anyone in the medical community would scoff. Schizophrenia is not simply a function of psychiatry defining "normal" and creating a cadre of outcasts. We had a guy on death row in Texas pull out his own eyeballs and eat them, and he didn't do it because of some psychiatrist's definition. Schizophrenia is a medical condition that's now much better understood than in the '70s. Harp's critiques of institutionalization were valid; but his 22-year-old's mid-70s understanding of mental illness and the best ways to deal with it were, to be generous, preliminary and inchoate. Uttered today, I'd call them "dangerously ignorant." I'd hate for viewers of the exhibit who aren't better versed in the nuances of mental-health care to come away thinking those were valid points, and one might. They were compellingly persuasive, if one didn't know any better, which is why the art was so prominently displayed.

There was a lot there, more than I could ably describe in a brief blog post. If you're in H-Town, or visiting before the exhibit closes in January, go check it out.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The increase in museums and prisons reminds me of Mark Flood's recent exhibit at the CAMH. Flood performed as Perry Webb with his band Culturcide, recording a song/rant entitled "Consider Museums as Concentration Camps."