Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Art, Therapy With a Profit Motive

The Meaning of Art

Some people collect the artifacts of murderers to understand the criminal mind. A story in the Eagle Tribune describes the efforts of John Olszewski, of Salem, Massachusetts, to develop correspondences with dozens of serial killers and collect their artwork. He says that he is writing a thesis on the subject of what these artifacts reveal about the person and his offense for his master's program in psychology.  Lana Wachniak, a sociology professor at Kansas State University, was featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for her efforts to compare the art of killers to their crime scenes. She's looking for some insight into their minds that both types of behavior might reveal. Specifically, she's looking for what kinds of impressions they are trying to convey, and speculated that the more normal the artwork, the more orderly the crime scene would be.

Arthur Shawcross
Arthur Shawcross

Yet she does not address the fact that some killers, such as Arthur Shawcross, may draw a range of subjects, from gruesome death's heads to pretty images of Princess Diana. Gacy painted clowns, birds, and dwarves, but he also drew scenes of torture. It's likely that, like the FBI, with its dichotomy of "organized" and "disorganized," Wachniak will find out that most killers are a mix of several elements. Gacy may have buried victims neatly under his house, but he also tossed five into the river. Killers may be no more classifiable in this manner than other artists are.

Although neither scholar reveals to reporters what they make of the artwork, it's not difficult to offer some educated guesses from what's available online and in books. For those offenders who engage in this activity, art can serve many purposes, such as:

  • an expression of anger
  • a need to relive the violence
  • a continued attack on society
  • a way to relieve or externalize inner conflicts
  • a way to explore feelings that can't be easily verbalize
  • a joke against society—making money off the same victims that they enjoyed killing
  • shock value
  • exploration of other forms of personal expression
  • enjoyment or the easing of boredom
  • redemption/spiritual exercise

Human, All Too Human
Human, All Too Human

Lustmord, a book about the writings of lust killers, begins with a quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to the effect that while people may find poems and short stories by murderers reprehensible, especially if those expressions are self-serving excuses or just a way to keep the violence alive, one ought not to limit what may be regarded as art.

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche says, "One is limiting art much too severely when one demands that only the composed soul, suspended in moral balance, may express itself there. ...there is in music and poetry the art of the ugly soul...and in achieving art's mightiest efforts—breaking souls, moving stones, and humanizing animals—perhaps that very art has been most successful."

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