[First paragraphs: This essay takes its practical orientation from my experiences as a member of a philosophy reading group on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Penitentiary in Nashville, Tennessee. Its theoretical orientation comes from W. E. B. Du Bois’ lecture-turned-essay, “Criteria of Negro Art,” which argues that the realm of aesthetics is vitally important in the war against racial discrimination in the United States. And since, according to Michele Alexander’s critically-acclaimed The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the prison system should be the primary front today in this war, my essay’s ultimate aim is t/o articulate a new criterion of the present-day “Negro” art being created by a prison population that is still overwhelmingly constituted by persons of color.
In my first section, I will show how Du Bois’ insights in “Criteria of Negro Art” remain relevant today, especially in the prison context, and argue that it is thus appropriate for my new criterion to be shaped by his distinctive conception of “propaganda.” In my second section, through a close reading of two texts by Michel Foucault (the pivotal thinker of modern imprisonment), I will flesh out this new criterion, “self-torsion,” defined as the effect of prisoners’ attempts at self-care within a prison system that distorts those attempts into further exploitation of both prisoners and the outside world that imprisons them. And my final section, in an attempt to illustrate this new criterion’s efficacy as a form of propagandistic resistance to contemporary racism, will deploy self-torsion as a critique of two artworks created by imprisoned members of my reading group at Riverbend penitentiary.