Mastodon An interview with art therapist David Gussak. - J. Boyett - Sensitive Skin Magazine

An interview with art therapist David Gussak.

A few weeks ago, I had some fun here dishing the John Wayne Gacy show in Las Vegas. Then someone calling him/herself LL posted a comment pointing me toward a website with lots of information about the show and I figured that, now that I’d publicly bashed the thing, I might as well actually research it. The link included a Q&A ( ) with Dr. David Gussak, an art therapist and professor (Chair Person and Associate Professor, Department of Art Education, and Clinical Coordinator for the Art Therapy Program at Florida State University). I emailed Dr. Gussak, and he was kind enough to provide me with the following interview.

Of course, when I decided to interview Dr. Gussak it had only been a couple of days since I’d written the Gacy piece, and here it is well over a month later. Well, what can I say. Things have been busy.

Do you often go to museums and galleries?

Yes. As often as I can; and whenever I’m in a new city, which is often, I will check out the local museums and interesting galleries.

Who’s your favorite artist?

A late 20th-century printmaker, sculptor and painter (mostly watercolors), Leonard Baskin. His work is simultaneously sublime and beautiful, horrific and delicate. I’ve been collecting him for over ten years, and have been collecting his books for more than twenty. I had the opportunity to meet him on a number of occasions. He was an acerbic old man by then, gruff and direct, but extremely witty and interesting. I remember asking him in a lecture once how he was able to create such delicate watercolors of flowers, birds and animals while also creating such sublime, horrific images such as Hanged Man, Love me love my Dog and his Dead Man series, and he said something like “That’s a stupid question—life is both delicate and horrific, beautiful and sublime, both pretty and ugly—that’s what I create—life. Next question, please.”

I am also fond of Rico Lebrun, Ben Shahn and Michael O’Mara, who was a close personal friend—unfortunately, he never hit the big time, but I have a number of pieces on my wall at home.

Obviously the Gacy show at Sin City is controversial. Can you give us your take on it? Displaying and studying Gacy’s art is one thing, but do you think there’s an ethical problem (or potentially an ethical problem) with selling his art for a lot of money?

First off, I want to clear up a semantic issue, one that needs to be addressed (of course, I run the risk of getting on an academic soapbox, but this is important); this question makes the common mistake of confusing ethics with morals. Simply put, ethics are the principles or standards built on moral principles and used to guide a group, organization or profession. My profession has ethical standards to guide my appropriate behavior as a therapist. In some cases, ethical guidelines may run counter to another’s ethical guidelines, or in the rare cases, one’s moral standards or principles, which are an individual’s ability to differentiate right from wrong and which guide one’s conduct.

Now, if looking at it from this perspective, I do not think there were any ethical issues violated. I do not know if galleries abide by such policies, with the exception of those that guide businesses. What is more, as an art therapist, I certainly did not violate any such standard. If Gacy did these paintings in a therapy session, then perhaps such questions may be raised about my ability to get behind this show. However, he did not. Now, I did have to wrestle with my own moral conundrums. But, as I said in the presentation, and more significantly in the Q&A after, the fact that this show is being used to further academic and scholarly knowledge, while simultaneously providing restitution in some manner, this is something I can support.

Of course, as I indicated in the lecture: “Here’s the dilemma—I am an art therapist; I try to work with people to help them, to help them heal, to allow them to adjust to whatever difficulties they may have and whatever environment they may be in. A person like this murderer runs counter to that very notion.”

And yet, I do believe that such a show can help others. As I also indicated in the lecture, look, the art is being sold out there whether we like it or not. Murderabilia is big, and many people are buying the art on the black market. Why not, instead, bring it out into the open, and take advantage of this situation by allowing the proceeds to go towards restitution? Many victims out there receive restitution from those that wronged them; one major difference here is that restitution is still a possibility long after Gacy is dead.

I understand the reasons for studying Gacy’s art. But can you speculate on some of the reasons for collecting it? What do you think are some of the motives for paying $15,000 for one of his paintings?

This is a very difficult question, and one I speculated on in the Q&A, and I don’t think I’ll be able to do this question justice now, especially since this is addressed in most of what I said. I’ll try. Let’s begin by pointing out the paintings are not worth it, if they were just paintings without any clear tie to someone so notorious. No one is buying it for the beauty of the image; one reason they’re buying it is akin to virtual rubbernecking. As I indicated in the presentation:

“You know, one thing I found fascinating in all the years that I have been working is that a person may look at a piece of art work and say, ‘oh that’s nice, or, huh, or well, I’ve seen better,’ but then they find out that it was completed by someone in prison, someone who harmed someone else, someone who killed someone, and then they are riveted—they are fascinated, they look at the image with awe, with disgust, with undue attention, they intently examine the piece. . . . The art of murderers seems to have attracted less of a systematic evaluative process, and more of a compulsive, morbid curiosity. What are they looking for? What are they examining it for? What messages do they hope to get from it? What is unclear is why others are fascinated by the art of murderers. Are they looking for the morbidity within the art? Are they looking for the lack of humanity? Or, conversely, are they looking for the human element that exists within a person who committed what was seemingly an inhumane act? In discussing this with others, some people have demonstrated wonderment with how such creative and sometimes beautiful pieces can emerge from such an ugly psyche. The humanizing aspect of the creative form from someone who is considered inhuman fascinates some people. Others may view the art as more of a warning that while we like to think there is a clear separation between the common, average person, and the infamous, callous, antisocial murderer, the art may reflect more of a bridge between these two types of people than we would like to realize.”

I also discussed the notion of our own shadow, as described by Jung, the part of us that may be darker or even considered more negative, the part of us that we stuff down to prevent it from emerging because we are so afraid of it. And yet, such work gives us an opportunity get a glimpse or even address our own fears, our own base elements, our own instincts, and dare I say it, get a glimpse of our shadow, to give it an opportunity to come out. Here is evidence of someone whose shadow reigned supreme, without control or balance, and it scares us. We can look at the piece, and realize that as it was done by the hands of a human similar in make up to us, but perhaps even a bit of “there but by the grace of God go I. . . .” The same reason some of us enjoy going to scary movies, doing scary things—we enjoy being scared—this is very much the same thing. Anyway, I think I said this much better in the Q&A. . . .

Lots of “mainstream” art features disturbing content and form—for instance, I was just at New York’s MoMA, looking at Otto Dix’s prints on WWI, a series filled with rotting skulls, monstrously disfigured veterans, prostitutes, and general caustic black humor. Speaking as an art therapist, how do the images of madness and violence created by the Weimar Expressionists (for example) compare with images created by people who actually are mad and violent? Is this question complicated by the fact that some of these guys, like Max Beckmann, really had been through hell and had at least temporarily been rendered mentally unstable by their experiences? If someone handed you a collection of Beckmann’s images of torture, and you didn’t know anything about the artist, how would you analyze them? (Like The Night, for example: )

Let’s start by pointing out that I am a true fan of Beckmann, Otto Dix, etc. And, to be fair, it would take way too long to answer this question, and I don’t know if I can ever do it justice. And, let’s also be clear—I do not analyze art. Art therapists assess art, looking at various formal elements (how they constructed the compositions) as well as symbolic content. I think this question may go back to some of the things I was saying earlier about the shadow. Some people’s shadow may be more available than others, and it may come through their work. However, I think any art therapist can look at any body of work and begin to understand perhaps, to a certain extent (and I don’t know how many other ways I can qualify this statement), an idea of the person’s thinking or emotional/mental state at the time it was painted. However, what is more important is that these artists had to be in a clear enough state of mind to know what would speak to their audience. We’re attracted to these pieces because these artists know we will be. So perhaps they can be assessed, but what is just as interesting (or perhaps more) is why are we attracted or horrified by them.

Is there any fundamental difference between the art made by people like your patients and clients, and that made by Renoir, Picasso, Michelangelo, etc.? Is it purely a matter of greater or lesser talent, and of artists being more or less sophisticated in the ways they
sublimate their urges into art?

Perhaps. Picasso was a misogynist, Michelangelo was an angry control freak, Cezanne was depressed, Kollwitz was depressed and horrified by her surroundings, El Greco may have had vision issues and Van Gogh had hearing difficulties among other issues—all sublimated their primitive impulses into the art; they just had different opportunities, talent and support that allowed them to become successful. A colleague and friend of mine, Evelyn Virshup (who was also co-editor for my first book), edited a book with her husband and colleagues called Creativity and Madness, which addresses this question, and does a good job at looking at the work of artists who suffered from their own issues and how this was sublimated into their work. I recommend you read it. I’ve had extremely talented and creative inmate clients whose work may never see the light of day. Of course, I could also argue that there are some artists in the mainstream that do not belong there. Don’t ask me who as my opinions my draw even more ire than I have already. This question requires a thesis. Good luck.

As an art therapist, have you ever studied the work of a patient or client who was also a great artist, or a very very good one? Alternately, can you name any canonical artists that you believe to have been insane, and to have exhibited insanity in their art?

Yes and yes.

What is art therapy’s relationship to the mainstream art world?

Many art therapists still do and exhibit their own work; many art therapists show in galleries, and many are worthy of such. Many belong to the mainstream art world and many belong on the fringes.

What drew you to art therapy?

Pun intended? This is a long answer, usually discussed over beer, but suffice it to say, in high school, around 81 years ago, my art teacher and I thought we made up the term; I enjoyed doing art, but was cynical of the art world (yes, I was an annoying little adolescent), and did not think I belonged in it, but I enjoyed working with people. My painting teacher in high school, Jay Palefsky, said to me during one of our many conversations, “Why don’t you combine the two—use art to help people? I don’t know, something like art therapy.” This sounded extremely interesting, even though neither one of us, at the time, knew if this was such a field. You have to understand I was a way below average high school student, and art was the only thing I was good at. However, when I hit college, I began to excel, finding what I really wanted to do. And it was my first semester that I found out that art therapy was a real field, and I knew it was for me. Despite a number of unusual jobs, I knew eventually I would end up in grad school for it. Any more information would require that beer.

Can you briefly describe the working day of an art therapist, either in a prison or in another therapeutic setting? What are some differences between working as an art therapist in a prison, and working in other therapeutic settings?

Lots of differences between prison and general populations. Rather than write a whole treatise on this, I recommend that you look at some of my articles on, especially some of my early theoretical articles, as I spend a lot of time differentiating the differences.

In terms of daily work, this is too broad a question, as I actually wrote my entire doctoral dissertation on the work of the art therapist. If you are interested at all in this, you can probably find the document online. It’s called The work of the art therapist: An Interactionist Perspective. Enjoy.


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1 thought on “An interview with art therapist David Gussak.

  1. Nice to read the responses of an art therapist who’s a fan of Otto Dix and other German expressionists (you sound as if you were looking at Dix’s triptych), can speak insightfully and specifically about the artwork of mass murderers and their audience, is sensitive to the Gordian nuances of language, which he engages, and actually knows the difference between ethics and morality — which very few people do.

    Thanks for that!

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