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Aestheticization of violence

Parents: aestheticization - violence

By medium: violent film

Related: cathartic effect - Futurism (Italian art movement)

"Do it beautifully," says the heroine of Ibsen's 1890 play Hedda Gabler to Eilert Loevborg as she commands him to take his life.

"One ought to learn anew about cruelty," said Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil, 229), "and open one's eyes. Almost everything that we call 'higher culture' is based upon the spiritualizing and intensifying of cruelty...."

Essays: art horror - Daniel Rothbart - Clockwork Orange and the Aestheticization of Violence () - Alexander J. Cohen


Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of beauty and the moral value of art, so the aestheticization of violence is the process of making the act and the product of violence appear more attractive than it may actually be.

It is a fact that high culture has the capacity to aestheticize violence into a form of autonomous art.

"If any human act evokes the aesthetic experience of the sublime, certainly it is the act of murder. And if murder can be experienced aesthetically, the murderer can in turn be regarded as a kind of artist — a performance artist or anti-artist whose specialty is not creation but destruction." Joel Black (1991: 14).

An example might be the character Hannibal Lecter, a fictional cannibal and aesthete created by Thomas Harris and then portrayed by Anthony Hopkins on screen. In the film Hannibal (2000), director Ridley Scott intentionally generates excitement and anticipation when Lecter is about to kill (and eat) a victim. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aestheticization_of_violence [Aug 2005]

The comments that Damien Hirst and Stockhausen made in the wake of 9/11 are not mentioned.

See also: murder - aesthetics - violence - philosophy


Carnography (from latin "carnis" meaning "meat" and Greek grafi "writing") is a neologism for writing, films, images, or other material that contains gratuitous amounts of bloodshed, violence and/or weaponry. It is named by analogy to pornography (although it is often mistaken for a portmanteau of "carnage" and "pornography", this is not strictly the case), and is sometimes referred to as "violence porn".

The mere depiction of violent acts, or of their results, does not necessarily qualify a film as carnography, just as the mere depiction of sex acts does not necessarily qualify a film as pornography. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnography [Nov 2006]

See also: exploitative - sensationalism - violence - aestheticization of violence - representation - depiction

The perverse esthetecization of violence

The perverse esthetecization of violence, however, is Bourdin's most distinctive calling card. He's known for depicting women tied up, compromised—or dead. A black limousine with tinted windows is parked on a city street, the door ajar. A woman's leg dangles out. Mysterious fluid, possibly bodily, is on the sidewalk. Another photo shows a well-coifed woman in profile. A stream of shiny red fluid, obviously alluding to blood, spills from her mouth. It's graphically compelling. But that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Bourdin was clearly familiar with the adrenaline rush that comes the wicked, and also knows that the impulse to gawk at a disaster scene is a little kinky. We shouldn't look, but can't help yearn to. He gives us an image of little girls siting in a bed, their hair crimped, tricked out in Jon Benet Ramsey-style make up, providing a peephole to a world we want to see. It's not that his work condones violence and pedophilia. Rather, he exploits the fact that these things move us. He recognized that the things that turn us on are not always puritanical and politically correct. The niche Bourdin carved out for himself was truly on the cutting edge—exhilaratingly inappropriate and transgressive. Bourdin learned from the Surrealists, who inspired him: the bizarre fascinates us. -- Sara Valdez, http://www.lookonline.com/guybourdin.html [Aug 2004]

Clockwork Orange and the Aestheticization of Violence [...]

Aesthetics of power

Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power - Lutz Koepnick [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

"Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power explores Walter Benjamin's seminal writings on the relationship between mass culture and fascism. The book offers a nuanced reading of Benjamin's widely influential critique of aesthetic politics, while it contributes to current debates about the cultural projects of Nazi Germany, the changing role of popular culture in the twentieth century, and the way in which Nazi aesthetics have persisted into the present."--Card catalog description

John Armitage: But what about the cultural dimensions of chronostrategy? For instance, although modernist artists such as Marinetti suggested to us that 'war is the highest form of modern art', Walter Benjamin warned us against the 'aestheticization' of war in his famous essay in Illuminations (1968) on 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. Additionally, in your The Aesthetics of Disappearance (1991 [1980]), you make several references to the relationship between war and aesthetics. To what extent do you think that the Kosovo War can or should be perceived in cultural or aesthetic terms?

Paul Virilio: First of all, if I have spoken of a link between war and aesthetics, it is because there is something I am very interested in and that is what Sun Tzu in his ancient Chinese text calls The Art of War. This is because, for me, war consists of the organisation of the field of perception. But war is also, as the Japanese call it, 'the art of embellishing death'. And, in this sense, the relationship between war and aesthetics is a matter of very serious concern. Conversely, one could say that religion — in the broadest sense of the word — is 'the art of embellishing life'. Thus, anything that strives to aestheticise death is profoundly tragic. But, nowadays, the tragedy of war is mediated through technology. It is no longer mediated through a human being with moral responsibilities. It is mediated through the destructive power of the atomic bomb, as in Stanley Kubrick's film, Dr Strangelove.

Now, if we turn to the war in Kosovo, what do we find? We find the manipulation of the audience's emotions by the mass media. Today, the media handle information as if it was a religious artefact. In this way, the media is more concerned with what we feel about the refugees and so on rather than what we think about them. Indeed, the truth, the reality of the Kosovo War, was actually hidden behind all the 'humanitarian' faces. This is a very different situation from the one faced by General Patton and the American army when they first encountered the concentration camps at the end of the Second World War. Then, it was a total and absolute surprise to find out that what was inside the concentration camps was a sea of skeletons. What is clear to me, therefore, is that while the tragedy of war grinds on, the contemporary aesthetics of the tragedy seem not only confused but, in some way, suspicious. --http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=132 [Aug 2004]

Crimes of Art + Terror (2003) - Frank Lentricchia, Jody McAuliffe

Crimes of Art + Terror (2003) - Frank Lentricchia, Jody McAuliffe [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Do killers, artists, and terrorists need one another? In "Crimes of Art and Terror, Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe explore the disturbing adjacency of literary creativity to violence and even political terror. Lentricchia and McAuliffe begin by anchoring their penetrating discussions in the events of 9/11 and the scandal provoked by composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's reference to the destruction of the World Trade Center as a great work of art, and they go on to show how political extremism and avant-garde artistic movements have fed upon each other for at least two centuries.

"Crimes of Art and Terror reveals how the desire beneath many romantic literary visions is that of a terrifying awakening that would undo the West's economic and cultural order. This is also the desire, of course, of what is called terrorism. As the authority of writers and artists recedes, it is criminals and terrorists, Lentricchia and McAuliffe suggest, who inherit this romantic, destructive tradition. Moving freely between the realms of high and popular culture, and fictional and actual criminals, the authors describe a web of impulses that catches an unnerving spirit.

Lentricchia and McAuliffe's unorthodox approach pairs Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment with Martin Scorsese's "King of Comedy" and connects the real-life Unabomber to the surrealist Joseph Cornell and to the hero of Bret Easton Ellis's bestselling novel "American Psycho. They evoke a desperate culture of art through thematic dialogues among authors and filmmakers as varied as Don DeLillo, Joseph Conrad, Francis Ford Coppola, Jean Genet, Frederick Douglass, Hermann Melville, and J. M. Synge, among others. And they conclude provocatively with an imagined conversation between Heinrich von Kleist and Mohamed Atta. The result is a brilliant and unflinching reckoning with the perilous proximity of the impulse to create transgressive art and the impulse to commit violence. --from the cover

Aestheticization of 9/11

In the aftermath of September 11, Damien Hirst gave an interview with the BBC in which he discussed what it would mean to view the WTC attack as a work of art. As much as I bristle at the idea of turning to Damien Hirst for political commentary, his ideas are of particular interest to me, as a resident of Washington, DC, where the landscape increasingly resembles a surrealist art installation. Here are some of his almost aphoristic statements, taken from the BBC transcript:

I think there's something pretty surreal about taking a mode of transport like an aeroplane and crashing into a building and turning it into a weapon is something which is kind of out there - on the level of an artwork.

The thing about 9/11 is that it's kind of like an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually. David Hockney said that it was the "most wicked piece of artwork" - a lot of people have compared it to a work of art.

Of course, it's visually stunning and you've got to hand it to them on some level because they've achieved something which nobody would have ever have thought possible - especially to a country as big as America. So on one level they kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing.

I think the idea of looking at the 11 September attacks as an artwork is a very difficult thing to do. But I don't think artists look at it in a different way.

There's a visual language that exists that changes all the time - if you put a jar of Vaseline and a cucumber is somebody's trolley in a supermarket then they're going to deny it's theirs at the checkpoint because those items have got sexual references.

I think our visual language has been changed by what happen on 11 September - an aeroplane becomes a weapon after 11 September and if they fly close to buildings people start panicking. Our visual language is constantly changing in this way and I think as an artist you're constantly on the lookout for things like that.

Hirst's point that 9/11 changed our visual language is particularly true for most of us on the planet, who were neither injured in the attack nor knew any of the victims, and whose relationship to the event was consequently mediated by television. For us, the visual elements of the attack are in some ways the most familiar to us. And Hirst is right: who does not "see" skyscrapers, airplanes, or the New York skyline differently? All of these things have stood as icons of the modern West, icons which Bin Laden successfully subverted with one masterful stroke. Moreover, like a great deal of contemporary art, the attack would have been nothing if it were not for the gaze of the spectator - us - a gaze that provided the art with its meaning by reading into the icons the cultural and personal meanings that they hold for us. And yet I can't help but wonder if Hirst's aestheticization of 9/11 isn't a dodge - a way to live with the unbearable. I wonder this because I do it myself. -- Michael Shurkin ,http://www.zeek.net/art_0301.htm [Aug 2004]

Art of murder

The idea of the Art of Murder is an expression of the modern notion that art, except for pure esthetics, is amoral, that murders may be dull, mundane and ordinary, or that they may be interesting and beautiful.

One early appreciation of the Art of Murder came from Thomas de Quincey in his essay "On Murder as One of the Fine Arts" (1827). He remarks, cynically and ironically:

If once a man indulges in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.

De Quincey does not object to the apprehension, prosecution, and punishment of murderers, but argues that once the demands of morality have been met, the connoisseur may pause to consider degrees of brutality or finesse in the commission of the crime, just as with any other instance of individual expression.

This idea has inspired at least one actual murder, Leopold and Loeb's killing of Bobby Franks, as well as any number of books and films, including Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope and Meyer Levin's novel and film Compulsion --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_of_murder [Jan 2005]

The Aesthetics of Murder : A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture (1991) by Joel Black

The Aesthetics of Murder : A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture (1991) by Joel Black [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

"Do it beautifully," says the heroine of Ibsen's 1890 play Hedda Gabler to Eilert Loevborg as she commands him to take his life..." (first sentence)

Book Description
What connects the Romantic essays of Thomas De Quincey and the violent cinema of Brian De Palma? Or the "beautiful" suicides of Hedda Gabler and Yukio Mishima? Or the shootings of John Lennon and Ronald Reagan? In The Aesthetics of Murder, Joel Black explores the sometimes gruesome interplay between life and art, between actual violence and images of violence in a variety of literary texts, paintings, and films.

Rather than exclude murder from critical consideration by dismissing it as a crime, Black urges us to ponder the killer's artistic role -- and our own experience as audience, witness, or voyeur. Black examines murder as a recurring, obsessive theme in the Romantic tradition, approaching the subject from an aesthetic rather than a moral, psychological, or philosophical perspective. And he brings into his discussion contemporary instances of sensational murders and assassinations, treating these as mimetic or cathartic activities in their own right.

Combining historical documentation with theoretical insights, Black shows that the possibilities of representing violence -- and of experiencing it -- as art were recognized early in the nineteenth century as logical extensions of Romantic theories of the sublime. Since then, both traditional art forms and the modern mass media have contributed to the growing aestheticization of violence.

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