David Gussak, a professor at Florida State University, former chair of the arts education department and currently project coordinator for the prison art therapy program, is a beloved presence at the university. .

He is affable, funny, approachable and dedicated to using art as a way to enter the “inner spaces” of those who create art, where the energies that propel actions of all kinds can be examined – even actions that may be reprehensible. – even deadly.

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Drawing on experience gained over nearly 30 years of working in art therapy with psychiatric and incarcerated patients, Gussak believes that providing them with the opportunity to create art and interpret the artistic production of these people has the potential to change them. It can also allow us to better understand the components of what motivates their actions.

Stepping back and taking a long and comprehensive look at what he understands of a lifetime of interaction with often violent prisoners and their art, as well as famous works of art depicting violence or art created at a time of social upheaval and violence, Gussak wrote what he calls his “last book”.

Consider an “aggressive drive”

“In the frenetic dance of art and violence”, I said everything I had to say, he laughs. But what a panorama it covers.

Still as readable as a historical novel, the book is part psychiatric description, part history, part art criticism, backed by a dozen compelling biographies of famous artists in trouble, innocent people trapped in horrific times, as well as than depraved and mentally ill serial killers. , all of whom have created many works of art.

Yet the book is not just a chronicle of paintings of atrocious things or people. Indeed, Gussak seeks to demonstrate to the reader the dynamic relationship between art and violence. Why he, and other experts, believe that at the heart of any creative process is aggression and sometimes worse.

In “The Frenzied Dance of Art and Violence, Gussak posits that to be truly creative, one must have an “aggressive will” to break out of tradition.

Cataloging of artists

He cites Freud, Jung, and especially Ellen Dissanayake as believing that the impulse to violence is the same as the impulse to create – and that from such energy can arise great art, or art whose subject is the violence itself. And yes, it can also reveal narcissism, grandiosity and even psychopathy.

To understand and illustrate examples of how art and violence seem to be woven into an eternal dance that is both fascinating, sublimating, inspiring and mutually explaining, Gussak has divided the artists he talks about into six groups:

First, those who are narcissistic and grandiose, like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Caravaggio and Cellini. A second group includes the mentally ill or those with substance abuse issues, such as Modigliani and Pollock.

Another group are those who reacted to the conflict and violence around them, such as DaVinci, Goya, Traylor, and even Norman Rockwell when he painted the subjugation of African Americans during Jim Crow.

A fourth group includes the victims and perpetrators of violence, such as that of the Holocaust, and Hitler himself – a man who always considered himself a painter.

Disturbing look at psychopaths

The fifth and most disturbing group that Gussak has compiled consists of psychopaths, serial killers with nicknames like: Night Stalker, Gainesville Ripper, Cross Country Killer, and finally, John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson. The final examination of art and artist is that of murderer Charles Bronson, who illustrates how art can also act as catharsis and sublimation of violent energies within.

Gussak acknowledges that the section on serial killers was difficult to write. “Between us and one of them, there may be some degree of separation,” he says. “And yes, I experienced anxiety and nightmares while writing this chapter.”

He says that during his work, when he has attended art therapy sessions with people who have committed terrible acts, he is hypervigilant, hyperaware of his surroundings, aware of what is “behind the curtain” and what these people are capable of.

And yet, he says, “they all need our attention, whether they deserve it or not.” Gussak says that “art offers these people a kind of escape, a refuge, the ability to be themselves and to channel aggressive energies in a safe way”.

“Meurterabilia” and hope

Finally, Gussak writes about a little-known phenomenon called “murderabilia” collecting, the purchase of artifacts and art by those who have produced artistic works after committing heinous crimes.

Yet for Gussak, whose desk is filled with artworks made by incarcerated people, “The Frantic Dance of Art and Violence” is more than just a review and critique of artworks. art made by people who are disturbed or whose acts of violence have injured others.

Rather, it seems to be a treatise of hope. Hopefully, while recognizing that aggression, vanity, sociopathy, and even murderous urges can exist, there are ways in which these urges can be sublimated and controlled.

Having spent a lifetime examining the output of professional artists and those of disturbed people, David Gussak seems to believe that the complex dance of violence and art is one that can lead to humanization and perhaps even the peace.

Contact Marina Brown at [email protected]

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