The Art of Punishment?

ONCE RADICAL EVIL SHRINKS TO PSYCHOLOGICAL PROPORTIONS, society’s ability to inflict hardship—including the psychological pain of deep remorse—diminishes. Restitution and rehabilitation become one and the same thing.  That pulls the rug out from under an artist’s capacity to conceive anything close to the grand hellscapes, sublime in their gravity, that came freely to Hieronymous Bosch. When intuitions of the demonic are disarmed and superceded by a therapeutic culture, what images are left to draw upon?

Bosch lived in age that made this plausible:

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Contemporary Norway appears to have progressed to, even surpassed, this:

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What brought Bosch to mind—more precisely, the contemporary impossibility of his hellscapes—is the post that appeared on the blog of Foreign Policy: The Not-So-Terrible Fate of Norway’s Alleged Killer.Writer Robert Zeliger explains:

If you’re going to go on a maniacal murder rampage and then not have the decency to include yourself in the body count — Norway is the place to do it.

Norway takes the mantra of rehabilitation to an extreme. Not only are there no death sentences, there aren’t life sentences. The maximum Breivik can face is 21 years (not per murder, but in total). Yes, there is a caveat that says a prisoner deemed to still be a threat can have his sentence expanded in five year blocks — but in a very real sense, that means he will come up for parole every five years for the rest of his life — or until he is no longer seen as a threat. Few killers in Norway serve more than 14 years.

The Norwegian prison system takes seriously the philosophy that inmates should be treated as humanely as possible and that jail sentences should be seen less as punishment than as an opportunity to reintegrate troubled people back into society.

In Zeliger’s telling, Norwegian prisons—outfitted with rock-climbing walls, mini-fridges, hi-definition TV, sofas and commissioned artwork—sound more like sleep-away camps. Troubled people. A telling phrase, that. My mind’s eye has a pretty clear picture of the kind of art ordered up for the troubled. But for rapists, cold-blooded murderers, and mass slaughterers? The prison could start with this:


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Or this:

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The Damned in Torment (early 14th C.)

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The Middle Ages knew the difference between troubled and malevolent and gauged retribution accordingly. This might strike modern tastes a bit harsh for thievery.  Nevertheless, as cautionary art for prison living rooms (Yes, Norwegian prisoners have kitchens and living rooms.) it has merit:

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Jean Gerson, 15th C. manuscript illustration of thieves in hell

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Dieric Bouts the Elder took a sober and realistic attitude toward the utopian anodynes that appeal to us today. His art is immune to the seductive myth of progress, according to which the Golden Age is, with a few adjustments, at hand. His art spoke to a culture that understood the unbridgeable chasm between rehabilitation and redemption:

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© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey