Prison Art + Aesthetics Project

PAAP is a collaborative criminal justice project with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (New York City), The Confined Arts, the Transdisciplinary Aesthetics Foundation, and community partners and individuals. PAAP is an art-centric 18-month project committed to working collectively to imagine a justice system that is not centered on incarceration and punishment. To this end, PAAP organizes art-related events to understand and transform the criminal justice system with the active engagement of people most impacted by incarceration. (see details below)

October 2019–Spring 2022 (including planning phase October 2019-August 2020)

Michael Kelly, Philosophy, UNC Charlotte; & President, Transdisciplinary Aesthetics Foundation
Annabel Manning, Social-Practice Artist & Educator
Lisa Schubert, VP, Programming and External Affairs, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
Isaac Scott, Pastor, Artist & Human Rights Activist; Founder and Artistic Director, The Confined Arts & Isaac’s Quarterly

Lead Organizations
Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine; The Confined Arts; Transdisciplinary Aesthetics Foundation

Broadway Advocacy Coalition; Center for Justice, Columbia University
The Prison Art + Aesthetics Project (PAAP) is an 18-month series of symposia, art exhibitions, poetry readings, plays, concerts, and other art events focused on the transdisciplinary aesthetics of prison art in the U.S. and elsewhere. Prison art encompasses four overlapping areas:

       Artbefore prison (e.g., education, social support, employment)
       Artduring prison (e.g., art programs, independent art activities, educational
       Artafter prison (e.g., reentry/reintegration, parole, voting)
       Artbeyond prison (e.g., alternatives to incarceration, restorative models of justice,

To appreciate the importance of prison art, we need only remember Frederick Douglass’s philosophy of art, where he speaks about the role of art in the slave abolition movement: “All wishes, all aspirations, all hopes, all doubts, all determinations grow stronger and stronger precisely in proportion as they get themselves expressed in words, forms, colours, and actions.” “Poets, prophets, and reformers…see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.” From the start, prison art is activism.

The importance of aesthetics to prison art and activism starts from the derivation of the Greek word “aisthēsis” from a word meaning “to breathe,” suggesting that Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe” is also a demand for aesthetics. Aesthetics also means “sensation/perception,” including the type of sensation inhumanely restricted in prisons and in the lives of the incarcerated before and after prison. Angela Davis captures the contemporary aesthetics/prison link: “The prison is one of the most important features of our image environment.” So, the first task of prison art and aesthetics is to critique public perceptions and narratives of prisons while countering them with art created by those who were or still are incarcerated. And, Davis continues, the second task is to create, as “a great feat of the imagination,” “new terrains of justice, where the prison is no longer an option.” The two tasks are thus critiquing the narratives about prison and then transforming the narratives from the perspectives of people currently, formerly, and even at risk of being incarcerated.

PAAP’s concrete goals are (1) to identify, showcase, and sustain the artistic capabilities of people presently or formerly in the criminal justice system or at risk of being ensnared by it; (2) to cultivate, through the arts, “engaged responsibility” among all of us for transforming the criminal justice system, primarily in the U.S.; and (3) to develop new forms of community-university collaborative research for individuals committed to these two goals. Throughout, our purpose is to impact public perception and policy about the criminal justice system, insisting that “dignity for all” be a guiding spiritual principle as we critique and transform the system.

PAAP is distinctive because (a) it is an 18-month commitment to understanding the complexity of the criminal justice system and to working collectively to correct it; (b) it is art-centric with the active engagement of people most impacted by the system; (c) it is community focused, starting with St. John’s Cathedral as a central spiritual community leader; (d) it involves aesthetics—critical making, imagining, and thinking about prisons—to create language to mediate among all the stakeholders in the criminal justice system; and (e) it is transdisciplinary, aiming to engage all relevant disciplines and practices—such as architecture, art, criminal justice, feminism, law, media, philosophy, public policy, queer theory, race theory, and social justice—needed to understand, transform, and abolish prisons.

PROPOSED EVENTS & PROVISIONAL TIMELINE (other than the opening/closing symposia, events are not in any particular order at this time, and they will be addressing questions related to those framing the opening symposium)

Fall 2020: Questioning Aesthetics Symposium: Prison Art & Aesthetics. Questions to address:

What is the best way to speak about prison art & aesthetics?
If art is about freedom, how is prison art possible under conditions of unfreedom?
Prison is dehumanizing, so is art the limit of dehumanization and the strengthening of
How is prison art most effective? When it’s understood as art? As therapy? As___?
How does prison art contribute to change?
Does art have an evidentiary role in exposing and combating the injustice of the
criminal justice complex?
What resources are available and/or denied to people in prison and to their art
Who is the typical audience of prison art and who should or could its audience be?

Music Concerts: For example, Limnos Quartet (Barcelona). They have composed music inspired by Joan Miro’s painting, Hope of the Condemned Man, inspired by the incarceration of a Catalan anarchist opposing General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Other concerts with different kinds of music, including music created by formerly incarcerated musicians.

Poetry Readings: Poets will be scheduled at regular intervals throughout the 12-18-month period in conjunction with the “Poet’s Corner” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Incarcerated poets have been sending their poetry to the Muriel Rukeyser Poetry Project at the Cathedral for years. We will invite contemporary poets, some formerly incarcerated, to read their own work and/or the work of incarcerated poets who have sent poems to the Cathedral.

Art Exhibitions: For example, “Remembrance Project” (Ghana) “The Fair Justice Initiative”—Exhibit photos of women on death row and organize a panel discussion. Work from the Jail Arts Initiative, Charlotte. In addition, we will invite currently or formerly incarcerated artists to show their work.

Prison Project Exhibits: “Malefatte—Pensieri Project” (Venice, Italy)—Exhibit products (design bags, soap, etc.) created by incarcerated individuals and organize a panel discussion about their prison program of employing incarcerated men and women in creative projects during and after prison. And baristas in Rykers.

Theatre performances: For example, “Spoken Pen: Staged Reading” written by LaTavious Johnson, Kenneth Reams, Justin Anderson, and Kenneth William, a four-person play of incarcerated writers on death row in Arkansas. Also, work by Kaneza Schaal, a NYC theater artist whose play, JACK &, about Cornell Nate Alston’s prison experience, was performed in fall 2018 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Film Screenings: For example, Michelle Angela Ortiz’s “Familias Separadas”; and Alex
Rivera & Cristina Ibarra’s, The Infiltrators.. 

Incarceration & Immigration Art Projects: Detention centers around the country, some private facilities, are housing an increasing number of immigrants detained at the border or in the U.S. There are a number of art projects around the country related to these issues, such as “Arte de Lágrimas” (Texas).

Spring 2022: Two-day Prison Art & Aesthetics Symposium.