Updated: Apr 20
Serial killers are spooky aren’t they? But why are we all so interested in them? Personally, I think it’s because the acts done by serial killers are so unfathomably evil that we want to try and understand it. It’s easy to watch a horror movie and pass it off as fake or get that the supernatural slasher could never exist, but the idea that a real human could enjoy ending people’s lives is a hard one to grasp even though people really seem to want to. But I’m no psychologist, and I’m not claiming to be, I just understand that people are fascinated by true crime and nothing justifies fascination like material. Nothing materializes crazy like art and that material excites viewers and buyers when it’s made by someone we already recognize. I’ve been thinking about how and why serial killer art, or art by any popularized figure, seems to be so popular and I think I’ve used the serial killer example to make a pretty solid equation.
Art by serial killers is the quintessential outsider art, serial killers are the furthest outside after all (well literally they’re the furthest inside I guess, but furthest outside mentally). The term outsider art was coined in the 1970’s and it was meant to be used interchangeably with art brut, or “raw art.” Outsider art has, in a modern sense, been defined as art by the self taught artist but its origins are in people’s interest in the art of insane asylum patients in the 1910’s and 20’s. This fascination carried further and people started to display it, give it a forum. Then Jean Buffet characterized art brut in the late 40’s as, “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses.” Modern outsider art is more of a marketing tactic for making wacky shit, but serial killer art really fits into that late 40’s art brut definition and I think that’s what draws people to it. It’s an image created by thought process that the normal person could never fathom but wants so desperately to.
It makes sense why serial killers create art too. Think about it, you live a life doing basically whatever you want, acting on the ultimate “don’t do that” impulse and now not only is that taken away, but literally everything is taken away. Now your mind which has been allowed to wander so freely is trapped in a box, but you need to get something out, you’d probably fire off some drawings or paintings too.
It’s no secret that art is therapeutic and people draw, paint, sculpt, write, etc. to express themselves all the time but they don’t often gain notoriety for it, and if they do it’s based on the merit of the art. But serial killers seem to be exempt from that merit in their work because no matter how horrible it is, people will still take a glance at it. In a typical artist’s rising, art comes first, then when it gets noticed (typically based on merit) the artists personality becomes apparent, and then they start to gain notoriety.
Art + Merit + Personality= Notoriety
But with someone who already has notoriety and an interesting personality, especially for things we don’t understand, their art doesn’t need merit, we just want to see it. Think about all of the actors and musicians that start painting, or whatever, and we look at their work just because of who they are. The same principle applies to serial killers. Henry Lee Lucas (the Highway Stalker), Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker), Ottis Toole, Arthur Shawcross (the Genesee River Killer), and many more turned to art while in prison and people want to see it just because of who it was made by. They wanted to see what the twisted thoughts of a murderer could create, good or bad, it’s just a spectacle.
Personality + Notoriety= Art (+or- Merit)
One of the most famous serial killers to turn to art was John Wayne Gacy. Once apprehended and convicted Gacy became somewhat of a celebrity, spending his days responding to letters and painting haunting images of himself as Pogo the clown and sexual deviance. With most of the characters previously mentioned their art was just something that they did and people wanted to see it when it was discovered, it was just a mild fascination and not a huge deal for the viewer or artist. But Gacy was a showman, he really started to show off his work and people ate it right up. His work began being shown, being sold, people wanted a piece of this sadistic maniac’s mind. Not everyone was thrilled, the guy murdered 33 people after all, but controversy just makes fascinating things even more fascinating. Gacy created a hot commodity out of his actions and personality, some paintings selling for thousands of dollars. Gacy unintentionally laid the groundwork for popular figures to create art and have it be shown or sold strictly because they were popular figures.
That’s pretty crazy to think about, a serial killer’s paintings selling for thousands of dollars, people hanging these works up in their homes or offices or anywhere for that matter. It’s especially crazy to think about when you see the paintings because… well, they’re shit. But that just goes to show that sometimes personality and notoriety add up to more popular art than art rooted in actual talent. If anyone else had done these paintings, they’d be lucky to get a pat on the back for trying but since this dude committed heinous crimes against humanity, people want it. We, as people, just gobble up the macabre and we feed off of the controversy around it.
Notoriety + Object= Buyer
Object + Buyer= Money
Money= Good (right? That can’t be right)
This equation and application of fame to promote art, good or bad, extends far beyond serial killers. Musicians, actors, etc. do it all the time, but serial killers having their art seen by millions just because of who they are is the most extreme example that really shows just how strange the idea is.
This has certainly been a strange article about an even stranger topic but I wanted to shout out some art brut that I actually like. Although not a serial killer, his crimes have led him to celebrity status as “the most violent prisoner in Britain.” Charles Arthur Salvador, formerly Charles Ali Ahmed, born Michael Gordon Peterson, but best known as Charles Bronson (portrayed by Tom Hardy in the film Bronson, which I highly recommend) is a criminal known for loving violence and spending most of his time in solitary confinement. But from that confinement has come some pretty awesome illustrations. They’re loose of course, but they’re like Ralph Steadman meets a comic strip meets a late night cartoon and I just had to give this work an honorable mention because it’s obviously being seen mostly because of who the artist is, but there’s some merit in it for sure.