Truly great creative work is about pushing boundaries. Those boundaries sometimes stretch beyond what is considered legal. Some of the world’s most significant ideas and works of art were created by people who were seen by the law as criminals.

Creativity can be a form of revolution and certainly very disruptive. After all, it’s a curious and questioning mind that cultivates brilliant creative work. Curiosity combined with disruption, and disregard for authority, can inevitably land artists in hot water.

Here are some of the spaces in which creativity and criminality often intersect, and a few of the great minds who dared to dream outside the box – only to find themselves under arrest.

The Mind of the Creative (Mad) Genius

“Creativity is a divine madness…a gift from the gods.” – Plato

The concept of creating something novel requires functioning outside of the norm.

It sometimes involves perceiving and expanding on existing philosophies or ideas. Creativity can also, at times, lean on the (intentional) absence of objective reasoning in order to see things in a new light.

In a courtroom, proving that someone committed a crime due to an obscured perception of the truth or cognitive diversity is the ‘insanity defense’. Often the mind of the breakthrough creative genius sees the world so differently than the average person that they are prone to bending written laws.

Creatives like Picasso, Galileo, NWA, Banksy, Oscar Wilde, and George Carlin have all acted in commitment to their creative works despite knowing it could get them in trouble. Almost as if they were driven by an “irresistible impulse” to create.

When Creativity is a Crime

When creatives are jailed (or worse), it highlights society’s discomfort with what is new, different, or challenging to existing norms.

Creative people time and time again land themselves in trouble when others find their non-conformist views offensive.

For even the most imaginative minds, creativity doesn’t always come naturally. It’s often the product of a spontaneous and adventurous lifestyle – which can itself be labeled criminal.

For some creators, their best work is inspired by contempt for unreasonable leadership or unjust laws.

Ideas Are a Crime: The Galileo Affair

Going all the way back to the 1600s, astronomer Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Catholic church for his unorthodox views.

The scientist believed (and proved) that Earth revolved around the sun. But more than that, he challenged the accepted theological and philosophical ideas of the time.

When Galileo published his telescope findings in the treatise Sidereus Nuncius – or “Starry Messenger”, the Roman Inquisition charged him with heresy for his heliocentric views. As a result, Galileo’s work was banned. Galileo was put on house arrest in 1633 until he died in 1642.

His books remained banned by the church until 1835, and it was only in 1992 that Pope John Paul II officially expressed regret on how the whole affair was handled.

Society Evader: Henry David Thoreau vs Taxes

A poet and philosopher with critiques of society? Who would have guessed?

Henry David Thoreau was a well-known writer, gaining fame in the mid-1800s for his reflections on time spent away from the hustle and bustle of society. He promoted the idea of living more naturally and being in touch with nature.

Unfortunately, his lifestyle and anti-urban philosophies didn’t sit well with some. Particularly, the government. In 1946, Thoreau was temporarily arrested and imprisoned for evading taxes. After one night behind bars, someone anonymously paid his fines and he was released.

Thoreau’s naturalist philosophies live on today, despite the authorities’ attempts to quiet his ideas.

Crime as Muse: Picasso the Thief

Is stealing okay when it’s used as a means of inspiration for a great work? Picasso kept two stolen Iberian statues hidden in his studio cupboards. He used the pieces as study models for his drawings and paintings.

And if there was any question about the statues’ origins, authorities only had to look at the stamp on the bottom reading, “PROPERTY OF THE MUSÉE DU LOUVRE”.

It’s also worth noting that Picasso stood trial in 1911 when the Mona Lisa famously went missing from the Louvre. The accusations against the painter were later dismissed.

picasso painting

Art as Vandalism: Banksy’s Stolen Space

Being frustrated with the government as much as he was with the confines of a canvas and studio, Banksy took to the streets.

His (or their) works used public places and urban environments to make pointed commentaries. Banksy’s works question everything from politics to environmentalism.

However, his street art paintings were considered by many to be illegal vandalism.

Banksy managed to evade jail time by keeping his identity hidden. And after some time, communities were proud to have a piece of (illegal) street art by the infamous artist. In some cases, they went to great lengths to protect the works formerly viewed as illicit graffiti.

Shepard Fairey, the artist behind Obama’s Hope poster, wasn’t so lucky. He ended up in a Boston court, having to pay a fine and discontinue tagging in Boston. Though highly unlikely, he could’ve ended up serving 87 years in jail.

banksy street art

Arresting Words: Carlin’s Seven

In 1972, thirty-five-year-old stand-up comedian George Carlin was arrested at the Milwaukee Summerfest. The police hauled him away from the venue after his performance of the now-infamous act, “Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV”.

Although the charges of disorderly conduct were eventually dismissed, Carlin gained notoriety and popularity for his bravery in voicing his criticisms of censorship, consumerism, and war.

Oscar Wilde’s Crimes Against Public Decency

Despite his important contributions to the history of literature, Oscar Wilde spent a couple years in jail.

The writer known for The Picture of Dorian Gray and other great works was tried and sentenced to two years of hard labor between 1895 and 1897. His crime? A lifestyle charge then referred to as “crimes against public decency”.

In the end, Wilde’s time in prison inspired some of his later-in-life works, including the epic poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The poem is about the monotonous order of life and the brutality he experienced while imprisoned.

(Almost) Arresting Words: The NWA

Rappers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy E, and their crew were thirty seconds into the song “F*** the Police” when authorities shut them down, during a live performance in Detroit. While on stage, the group heard gunshots and ran offstage, only to run right into a line of waiting cops.

During the height of their fame, the NWA were heroes for people tired of racial prejudice and oppression.

That night in Detroit, the group members didn’t get arrested but were slapped with a hefty fine. The charge was for supposedly inciting a riot via their anti-establishment anthem.

It was never revealed who actually set off the mid-show panic, but some speculate it was the cops themselves lighting fireworks.

Objectively Criminal and Creative: Caravaggio’s Mighty Sword

While alive, the 17th-century artist was known more for his thug-like antics than his mastery of chiaroscuro. The baroque-style painter was on trial at least 11 times during his life. It wasn’t all for his gruesome paintings of death scenes and lewd poetry, though.

He once threw a plate of artichokes at a waiter! Another time, he was arrested for throwing stones at a police officer. During his time living in Rome, he became known for excessive drinking, gambling, and fighting.

But it got much darker. Caravaggio was also notorious for carrying his sword in the streets without a permit and using it when someone got on his nerves.

Eventually being convicted of murder, Caravaggio fled from Rome to avoid his death sentence.

Embracing Creativity as Disruptive

It’s natural to fear what is new and different. That may be the reason that so many creative geniuses throughout history have found themselves at the wrong end of the law. It’s become a common trope to condemn creative individuals for both innovation and their lifestyles.

When it comes to creating, these artists proved that it’s often a challenge to present creative ideas and projects that are outside the current norms of society.

More often than not, creating something new is worth the risk.

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