Artwork created by Guantanamo inmates needs more meaning in relation to political context

The Department of Defense has recently released a statement saying that art created by Guantanamo inmates is government property, and thus is also prohibited from leaving the prison.

This announcement came just after an exhibit and auction of some of the art produced by Guantanamo inmates at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. While some argue that the artwork provided these students with greater insight into the minds of the imprisoned, others believe that it allows accused terrorists to profit from their wrongdoings.

The artwork was all evaluated during a rigorous security check with a review process that took weeks to complete by the United States military before they were released. Erin Thompson, the assistant professor of art crime from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told CBS News that “most of the works don't directly express the pain of imprisonment." 

In fact, the pieces do not depict life in captivity at all, instead capturing seascapes painted by the detainees who would have not seen the ocean during their imprisonment. Supporters of the exhibit argue that the artwork serves as a harmless method of expressing inmates’ creativity. 

Nevertheless, it is understandable that many are concerned. One person compared the art exhibits to the hypothetical scenario of Charles Manson’s music recordings being sold on iTunes. A Fire Department of New York lieutenant whose brother-in-law died during the attacks of Sept. 11 told the New York Post that the exhibit felt like a “slap in the face” and expressed interest for the art to be displayed at Guantanamo instead.

It is problematic for people to profit from their crimes. The remaining detainees all have disconcerting connections to terrorism, so the concern about presenting their work is reasonable.

Furthermore, 26 of the remaining 41 prisoners have yet to be charged with anything, but they are still being held indefinitely, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This has been the subject of controversy for many years, and yet the exhibit does not address this.

The issue is not whether the public should have access to the works of Guantanamo detainees, but the context in which the art is shown. The college in question wanted students to see the pieces that symbolized the artistic freedom of detainees. The prompt itself was bound to elicit controversy. It should not be overlooked that the inmates were detained for a reason: their ties to terrorism. 

If the exhibit had been created to shed light on contentious issues surrounding Guantanamo, perhaps it would have been a more valuable experience. The gallery caused an uprising by featuring the artwork of the detainees, without any worthwhile reasons for its inception.u