Saying the Unsayable: Peter Moskos and Laurie Jo Reynolds

Laurie Jo Reynolds works in what she calls The Legislative Arts. She’s a filmmaker and artist who, after making art about the inmates at Tamms Supermax Prison in Illinois, decided both that she needed to become an activist, and that her background as an artist uniquely qualified her for that role. I’m not sure how I feel about that as a blanket statement, but I will say that Reynolds happens to be very good at what she does-that it’s often good art as well as good activism. It’s hard as an artist to deliver on your theoretical schtick. She does so, not merely by doing activism as an artist, but by bringing visual thinking, creativity, an existential imperative and the rigor of art history to her lobbying and activism.

Laurie Jo Reynolds at the Creative Time Summit 2

It would be interesting to sit down with Reynolds and Peter Moskos, whose new book, In Defense of Flogging is a thought experiment that takes many of Reynolds’ basic drives and handles them very differently. Reynolds and Moskos are both faculty at good schools and they are both very interested in the practical, moral and existential problems of prison. They both believe that solitary confinement is torture, and that the way we punish is thoughtless. They both see clearly the way prison ends the lives of inmates. But Moskos is a criminologist whose PhD dissertation was about his stint as a cop in East Baltimore. He’s focused more clearly on the existential and social need for people who do bad things to be punished. So in his book he asks the reader to pretend that they’ve been arrested, and are facing either five years or five lashes with a whip or a cane, and to choose between the two punishments.

In Defense of Flogging is much more than A Modest Proposal about prisons, mostly because it’s really hard not to choose the five lashes. This choosing, which the reader is asked to do repeatedly as the history and effects of prison and realities of caning are laid out, provides an existential and empathic armature to the book that is similar to the strong core that allows Reynolds’ work to be complex and strong, much more than sloganeering. Both Moskos and Reynolds are asking us to empathize with the humans we incarcerate. Moskos, in a way I have not seen Reynolds commit to, is also asking us to empathize with and accept our own and our culture’s need for punishment.

Both Moskos and Reynolds are touching a subject that’s damn near impossible to see or hear clearly because the prison system assaults our basic sense of compassion and our need to punish criminals at the same time. I’m sensitive and liberal, so part of loving Reynolds’ work is wrestling with the way it offends me-the softness I find in it. And part of finding Moskos’ work important is dealing with the way it makes me take responsibility for the fact that I do, personally, need people to be punished. Does this flip-flop for a conservative thinker? Probably.

This is what art can do. Art has a long track record of casting light on the things we can’t make ourselves see. The problem is that it usually takes a long time to turn the awareness art created into concrete social change. It’s good that Laurie Jo Reynolds has a practice that accommodates both, but that doesn’t mean artists need to master or or are inherently good at the Legislative Arts.

Artists and professionals might want to team up more often.

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