Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Serial Killer Art. Julian Hobbs, "Collectors" (2000)

Because I have interests in both stories of true crime and outsider art, it's natural that I would seek a way to merge the two. It's not difficult to find the connection, as artwork by incarcerated criminals has certainly found its market niche over the last twenty or so years. This shouldn't be too surprising, as "cults of personality" have grown up around the most prominent of society's lawbreakers. A truly heinous class of "evildoer" has been comprehensively studied since the 70's- that of the serial killer. Around these extreme men (for they are mostly male) have gathered "groupies", as if they were rock stars instead of murderers. These fanatics try to establish correspondence with their heroes, and many of them have persuaded their favorites to create and send them poems and artwork.

Truth be told, much of the artistic product of serial killers is outright garbage. One might make the mistake of assuming that such personalities would have vivid imaginations capable of depicting dark fantasies characterized by gore and fright. The reality is much more mundane. John Wayne Gacy (who tortured, murdered, and buried 33 young men in the basement of his home) liked to draw Disney's Seven Dwarfs. Elmer Wayne Henley, who was involved with crimes that inspired Gacy, has focused his moderate gifts on sunflowers and landscapes. Richard Ramirez (the "Night Stalker") may have been responsible for some intricately grisly crime scenes, but his drawings consist of little more than juvenile scribblings.

Some of the art produced by serial killers is genuinely inspired. If you think about it, it makes sense- many are on death row, locked in their cells for 23 hours per day. There's not a whole lot for them to do. That's likely why it's so easy to convince them to begin making art. No doubt there are a few killers who would engage in such activities regardless of whether or not anyone cared about the product. Add in the prospect of raising a few dollars for luxuries like candy and soda, and it becomes a no-brainer. Gacy, a successful entrepreneur in his everyday life, was probably among the first famous criminals to realize the potential of artistic enterprise. If nothing else, Gacy had good luck with his timing. As I noted in a previous post, his inclinations coincided with a growing fascination with "outsider art".

While the artwork of serial killers is often less than compelling, the motivations of the collectors of such memorabilia are complex. Why would someone want a piece of art of questionable quality, just because it was created by a man who has taken multiple lives? I understand the acute curiosity that is stimulated by extreme behavior, but insights are not often found in the amateurish articulation of the inane subjects chosen by the typical "prison artist". Would perpetrating intensely destructive acts lead to some deeply mysterious and refined artistic aesthetic? The amount of proportional talent within this self-selecting subgroup probably mirrors that of society in general. Why would we expect to find more value in the paintings, sculptures and drawings of killers? Why would the association between the object and the man's deeds be meaningful at all?

For a worthy study of the topic, I suggest tracking down Julian's Hobbs' obscure documentary "Collectors". The director focuses on the activities of two of the more notable serial killer art aficionados. Rick Staton is a mortician from Louisiana, and a recognized expert within this little world. He has encouraged numerous serial killers to create art by organizing exhibitions of their work. Hobbs followed Staton and his partner Tobias Allen on several of their quests to gather materials from actual crime sites. Along the way, the pair ruminated on their motivations for their peculiar predilection. It could be seen as a hobby like anything else, or a quixotic search for totemic symbols of life and death. But Hobbs has taken pains to present a balanced portrayal.

Staton and Allen have been accused of exploitation, and contributing to a perversion of justice in the promotion of their obsessions. They have become lightning rods for controversy. Victims' rights organizations have decried the insensitivity they perceive in the veneration of serial killer artists. Without the voices of the family members of serial killer victims, the viewer could easily characterize these collectors as harmless (if eccentric) ghouls. But the overall picture is more complicated than anyone could summarize in the space of five paragraphs. Collectors brings up a lot of questions about our society, and it even attempts a few answers. However Hobbs has ultimately provided plenty of space for the viewer to come to his/her own conclusions.

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Blogger ThanksDrinking said...

Here is a link to a related video.

10:43 PM  

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