top of page
  • Rob Will

What Does Art Mean in Prison?

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

"The mystic artist guides us to an oasis of spiritual truth and clarity within the postmodern desert of false and shrill media information saturating our consciousness."

Alex Gray, The Mission of Art

Art has played a major role in the evolution of society in many powerful and profound ways. Art history is filled with examples of this, but only rarely does one hear of the power of revolutionary artistic creation in relation to a place like this. What does art mean in prison? What can art mean to those trapped in cages? How can that meaning evolve and reach out into other realms?

I think it could be said that I kind of came backwards into the sphere of academic art theory and multi-dimensional conceptual art practice. What I mean is this: Before I ever read about things like The Systems and Dialectics of Art, I had studied the Socratic dialectical method, Dialectical Materialism and such things, reflecting on how dialectical analysis can apply to all areas of life. I studied Jung and Nietzsche way before I started studying the work of (and writings on) artists greatly inspired by them (of which there are many).

Before studying Allan Kaprow and Joseph Beuys, Art Happenings and Social Sculpture, I was working with similar ideas based on esoteric rituals and experiences and seeing art as a psychosociopolitical vehicle for positive social change. All of this was done in interaction with others here. Does such "art talk" seem pretentious and perhaps a bit silly?


When I first met Cee he was a young gangbanger and the vast majority of his conversations revolved around gangster street shit. Listening to him talk sounded a lot like one long never-ending recitation of gangster rap lyrics. One day he was in the dayroom rec cage and my upstairs neighbor slid him a book to slide to me. Before Cee could do this though the guards came back to put him back in his cell. He took my book with him and that night we went on lockdown.

Two weeks later we were off lockdown and Cee came back to my section’s dayroom cage and slid the book to my door so I could fish it in. I asked him if he checked it out at all and he replied with: "I looked at it a little since I didn't have shit else to read during lockdown. Read some of the stuff you underlined and looked at some of the art stuff. I don't waste much of my time with shit like that though. What's it gonna do for me?

My neighbor who heard us talking promptly slid a "gangster pimp book" out to Cee. He grabbed it and said “This is what I'm talking about right here!" Over the years Cee and I would be on the same pod at various times. I slowly saw him learning, growing and evolving. About 10 years after first meeting Cee he and I were moved to cells on the same run, only a few cages away from each other.

I was shocked! Cee was a very different person. He told me that he came to a point where he started to realize that everything he previously believed in was all lies — lies that were bad for him and others. Falsehoods and stupidity that led him to destroy his own life and hurt his family and others. Cee had a stack of self-help type books and he was diligently studying them and anything else educational that he could get his hands on.

Cee had just started being interested in art as a therapeutic practice and asked if I still had the book that he held during lockdown years back. I did and sent it to him… And Cee straight up strongarm jacked me for my book! Ha! Really, he kept it for like two months and just about every day we would discuss what he was reading. This book helped him solidify his commitment to walk a righteous path and make the creation of art an integral part of this. He became an artist. Street gangsterism no longer held any appeal to Cee because of his identity as an artist made such things seem contemptible and ridiculous.

Think of that from the perspective of Criminal Justice Reform, social justice, and community organizing. I still have that book, Man and his Symbols, which is a collection of brilliant essays by Carl Jung and his associates. I have also gained much from the work of Jung (and his progeny). Jungian writings are something that I always periodically go back to. Cee and I spent a lot of time of time discussing the following lines from the essay Symbolism in the Visual Arts by Aniela Jaffe (in Man and His Symbols).

"Fascination arises when the unconscious has been moved. The effect produced by works of modern art cannot be explained entirely by their visible form… It is the aim of the modern artist to give expression to his inner vision of man, to the spiritual background of life and the world. The modern work of art has abandoned not only the realm of the concrete "natural”, sensuous world, but also that of the individual. It has become highly collective and therefore (even in the abbreviation of the pictorial hieroglyph) touches not only the few but the many. What remains individual is the manner of representation, the style and quality of the modern work of art…

What really matters, of course, is (and always has been) the direct encounter of the work of art. Yet for the psychologist who is concerned with the symbolic content of modern art, the study of these writings [of artist] is most instructive."

Earlier, I reference the above lines in a letter I wrote to a colleague and friend, discussing a collaborative art project. This reminded me of the story about Cee. The person I wrote earlier is a pretty well known — and absolutely brilliant — working conceptual artist with impressive University and Art School degrees. It could certainly be said that she is an “art world person”. I felt compelled to relay these thoughts about Cee — a little insight into the power and potentiality of art and education in prison. Sitting around having fancy art conversations with fancy art people and not doing so would just seem indecent!

Note: This is really quite ridiculous. I added a note to the last thing that I wrote (The Beautiful Experience That is the Book Revolution of the Soul by Seane Corn) because a self-mutilation suicide had just occurred on the building. Just as I was about to put this in an envelope to go out, I had to stop to go see why the hell the Warden, Major, Captain and everyone else was storming over to a cell 10 cages away from mine. Now I am sitting here with a towel wrapped around my nose and mouth because they just fired off a canister of tear gas into the guy’s cell. Chaos and insanity. Non-stop. It is ridiculous that this is the norm in this wretchedly Orwellian-Huxleyian-Kafkaesque environment.

Rob Will

76 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Nov 21, 2020

Rob, thank you for another fascinating read. I agree that art is a privileged way to transcend boundaries and "prisons" of all kinds. You are living proof of this.

bottom of page