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John Wayne Gacy (March 17, 1942 – May 10, 1994) was an American serial killer who raped, tortured and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978 in Cook County, Illinois, Chicago. Gacy’s known murders were committed inside his Norwood Park ranch house. His victims were typically induced to his address by force or deception, and all except one of his victims were murdered by either asphyxiation or strangulation with a makeshift garrotte, as his first victim was stabbed to death. Gacy buried 26 of his victims in the crawl space of his home. Three other victims were buried elsewhere on his property, while the bodies of his last four known victims were discarded in the Des Plaines River. Gacy became known as the ‘Killer Clown’ because of his charitable services at fund-raising events, parades, and children’s parties where he would dress as ‘Pogo the Clown’ or ‘Patches the Clown’, characters that he had created.
Gacy was later tried, placed on death row and executed by lethal injection. It was during this period that Gacy embraced his newfound infamy and began creating work that has raised questions about our perception of morality and aestheticism, how we should evaluate his work aesthetically and to what extent do we consider Gacy’s immoral crimes to have impacted our view of the work when evaluating it. How do we approach the artwork of a murderer, someone deemed to have immoral values and takes considerably immoral actions?
‘Aesthetic moralism’ is the view that the aesthetic value of an artwork is determined by its moral value. The most extreme version of this position reduces all aesthetic value to moral value. With this view it could be said that Gacy’s work is wholly affected by his own views on morality and that viewing his work as pieces of art with strong aesthetic points collapses due its darker undercurrents of malicious intent. Looking at its aesthetic qualities and technique, Gacy’s array of work would most closely be associated with pop art; his application of primary colours and cultural symbols are prominent components (Gurian, 2016). Gacy was considered an upstanding member of his community and frequently entertained children by dressing up as “Pogo the clown”. Unaware to the public at the time Gacy was using this alter ego as an enticement to help befriend his victims. This alias is a common theme in Gacy’s paintings and knowing the underlining reason for the costume and make up it is difficult to not feel unsettled. This feel of unease and tension about the work can be supported by Gacy’s confession to the murders and how he thought that ‘A clown can get away with murder’ so to believe it to be aesthetically displeasing to look at and make us question the value and worth of Gacy’s work in a positive light and deem it art is difficult without the morality of it taking an affect. Conversely “aesthetic autonomism” is the belief that ‘morality is disconnected from art’ (Luca, 2008), that art gets a free pass when it comes to morality and that it should be evaluated by aesthetic value alone. Although Gacy’s acts have been deemed objectively immoral by our society and judicial system it cannot be said that his work will ultimately inspire similar immoral motives. Art is widely subjective and open to the viewer to decide what challenges, inspires and evokes emotion in them. It is the supported belief of Aristotle that ‘art merely holds the properties of human ideas, it itself is not alive and instead a personification’ (Anderson, 1998). So that if the viewer projects and interprets morality based on one’s own perceptions then Plato’s argument for aesthetic moralism; that ‘a work of art created out of immoral ideas, then the art itself is inherently immoral’ cannot be true. And that Gacy’s own perception of morality doesn’t need to affect the patrons own aesthetic opinion of Gacy’s work.
The varying levels of morality are evident in Gacy’s work and give an insight into his intentions and emotions behind the artworks. Over his 13 years on death row he depicted a variety of subjects from self-portraits and portraits of other well-known figures, e.g. convicted murderer and cult leader Charles Manson and the religious prophet Jesus Christ to whimsical fairy-tale scenes. After initially confessing to the crimes charged against him and revelling in his newfound fame, our perception of the morality of his work changes with him later refuting any involvement in said crimes. This progression and the understanding of the morality of his work is surely reflected throughout. Gacy’s early work including paintings of convicted murderer and cult leader Charles Manson convey a strong sense of immorality as a whole. The acts of Charles Manson have been condemned by most so to depict such a prolific and infamous character speaks to Gacy’s morals, influences and intentions at the time of the painting and the morality of the painting profusely as ‘it cannot be denied works of art are often influenced by artists’ mindsets, their value systems, and their ideas of what justifies creating a novel or a poem or a painting.’ (Carrol, 2004). It is easy to see these painting as examples of today’s socially unacceptable views on morality. In Gacy’s “Heigh Ho” series depicting Walt Disney’s whimsical seven dwarfs how moral or immoral the paintings are remains unclear. Traditionally the fairy tale depiction of the dwarfs going to work displays examples of teamwork, friendship, kindness and perseverance therefore depicting the Gacy’s series as moral however, over longer inspection our perspective of Gacy’s rendition can change. After he ‘embraced his outlet in murder and sodomy calling death during a 1980’s interview “the ultimate thrill”’ the series comes across as darker and menacing as it is a reminder of the playful and whimsical stories he told young boys at parties as ‘Pogo’ and stories he told young men of job opportunities at his home and with his contracting business and thus depicting the series as having deeper immoral truths. In a televised interview 13 years after his confession and conviction Gacy denied murdering the young men. He claimed others had murdered those he had just been trying to save from desperate lives of male prostitution and later spoke of his self-portraits as ‘Pogo the Clown’ and how their intention was ‘to bring joy to people’s lives’ (Gurian, 2016) and how he ‘had nothing but love for his children and didn’t believe in hitting them’. This appears highly contradictory to the man whose use of this clown persona was to originally lure his victims into his home where would later brutally murder, torture and rape before hiding the bodies in the crawl space beneath the house. Gacy’s intentions for his self-portraits and his intentions as dressed as ‘Pogo’ appear extreme opposites and put into question how the viewer should feel morally about them. Despite Gacy’s criminal actions his intentions for the paintings themselves were supposedly good so are the paintings morally good? Or does his lack of remorse and later denial of his actions discredit his morals and thus the moral values he claims his work portrays? While the moral values of his work are evident in the work itself, morality itself is a human quality and our attributes are merely personified by the way Gacy’s work is viewed by the audience
Individuals often create from what they know, their experiences and the information that surrounds them. It is then the choices and consequences, that are often influenced by their morals and the morals of others that shape this environment into which they enter. So it can be said that Gacy’s views on his relationships with young boys, his acknowledgement of influential people with power and control, and so-called charming, friendly neighbour personality would influence him to create work that aesthetically appears quite striking, in strong, stark colours that are difficult to ignore. ‘Art is considered in some way an interpretation of the human condition’ (Tolstoy, 1897) and contains the artist both consciously and subconsciously woven into the work. Consequently, the morality and reasoning of the work must be considered in the aesthetic evaluation of the work but only to a limited extent. In his essay “Death of an Author” French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes argues that ‘writing and the creator are unrelated’ and that to ‘give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text’ (Barthes, 1967). Using this to suggest that a writer can only provide information and not necessarily produce an entirely intelligent book, logically it is suggested that neither can an artist produce an entirely immoral piece of work despite any immoral actions. Such as in this case John Wayne Gacy and the distressing affection he had for young boys that may have influenced his creations.
Ultimately finding a middle ground between moderate autonomism and moderate aestheticism is up to the individual. Our perception of Gacy’s work is skewed by our own subjective interpretations and societies standards of what has aesthetical and/or moral value and so it makes sense that his work cannot be solely evaluated on aesthetic or moral relevance alone. Morals are considered to be objective and to place this reasoning on art removes are our own unique perceptions of what is considered art. Equally under the pretence that art is subjective then morality is also subjective and all ideas collapse leading to the understanding that moral and aesthetic values are inextricably linked.
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