Art of Death Row

My “day job” is working for one of the world’s leading artistic centres and concert halls – I work in the marketing and PR department. I’ve been working there since 2008, and have seen experienced a lot of art in various media. This year as part of the visual arts exhibit that complements the music festival that is currently underway, we have some paintings that I walk past every day. These paintings make me uncomfortable.

The subject of these works is the last meal of various prisoners on death row before their execution in the USA. It is an extremely intimate glimpse into the person behind the prisoner. It shows their humanity, their desires, their need for nourishment and what makes them happy in that context. The fact that it is on public display, however, and for sale, makes me uncomfortable. Why?

On the one hand, if it wasn’t on public display I would never have seen them. On the other hand, I didn’t need to see them in order to have compassion for these human beings. I am completely against capital punishment. The fact that it might make people think about what is happening in so-called First World countries regarding life and death is probably a good thing. And I realise that artists need to eat to, hence the fact that they are for sale. But for every person that doesn’t “get it”, that laughs at the absurd combinations these people have chosen without knowing why: does this trivialise, as well as capitalise the suffering and deaths of human beings? Does it de-sensitise us even further? Or does it raise an awareness of the de-sensitisation that we are experiencing in modern society?

I don’t have any answers. All I know is that every time I walk past them, I feel an ache in my heart and an unease, as well as a wellspring of compassion for all humanity who are in this together.

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2 thoughts on “Art of Death Row

  1. Death is the final act of our lives. Even those who commit heinous deeds, deserve some respect during their last hours of life. Perhaps though, through the recording in art of their last moments, others may draw back from baying for blood and revenge and seek alternatives to the death penalty. Life is sacrosanct and we don’t have the right to end another’s life. I found this article disturbing…which is good! x

  2. Nearly 40 years ago when living in San Diego I saw a photographic exhibit on the lives of the prostitutes of Calcutta. I wrote a poem about it I titled ‘Baring of the Body, Barring of the Soul’. Not sure where it is, but I remember it was the only way I could process the images, to move them to a place in my psyche where they did not sear my awareness any so viscerally. I still remember them, but I had to find a way to release their hold. I am not one of the de-sensitised ones and that makes so many things I hear and see so very hard to deal with. I am glad you raised this issue and shared your feelings about seeing this art.

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