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Monday, 7 February 2011

Old Post #2 - Aesthetic Appreciation of Murder

[Originally written for and published on the old version of this blog]

In art we are able to appreciate the presentation of matters that we would otherwise find horrific or morally objectionable if they were encountered in real-life. We might say of the brutal death of a character in a film, play, or novel that it was particularly realistic or moving. What is it that finds enjoyment in these situations, are either of these descriptions why we come to call the depiction of murder or torture beautiful?

Mercutio's Death in Zeffirelli's Film

It doesn't appear that realism is a quality that we can have a substantial claim to, at least not for the basis of appreciation of violent fiction. If we take the death of Mercutio as a famous death in fiction as our example, it is not the realism of the depiction that we take pleasure in. If the actor is terrible we might find our enjoyment of the play hindered, but what right do we have to make this claim? From a large audience perhaps it is imaginable that several people might have seen someone stabbed and die in a similar way to Mercutio, but we do not need first-hand experience of any given event to appreciate it aesthetically. Indeed, too much realism may have a similar effect that too little has. Realism here does not have to directly correspond with nature, rather it is whether it is imaginable as the sort of thing that would happen in the narrative we are observing. So, while realism, of a sort, is partially what we look for, it is only ever as a secondary quality (one that, in its absence or abundance, becomes more apparent).

If realism is not the cause of our appreciation then perhaps it is emotional effect of the event. However, the emotional reaction we take from the fictional depiction of murder is distinct to that of a murder in real-life. We don't call the police to arrest Tybalt for example. Is this then the pleasure we experience, that we are able to vicariously experience another's suffering without moral comeback? That the kind of 'cultivated' emotion we experience with the viewing of art, in contradistinction to real-life events and situations, is an opportunity to purify ourselves of these emotions of 'fear and pity' what Aristotle calls Katharsis. Some might argue for this, but I believe this to be too simplistic a theory, we are seeking for the cause of artistic pleasure not some kind of juvenile emotional thrill (whether it is purified or not). Although this too can accompany the experience of viewing art, indeed, I do not wish to deny the emotional pull of witnessing great artistic depictions of death, but that greater still is the 'need' to experience art.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio

We call these artistic depictions of death beautiful, but unless we were a sociopath we would never say the same about the death of a proximally close person to us. (I feel that I have to add the proviso of proximal closeness, as the constant media coverage of the deaths of soldiers, celebrities, and various victims have distanced our engagement with these otherwise real events.) Unless confused by context one can grasp these images of death as a purely artistic creation, but one that must 'fit' within our already accepted structures. However, art is also about pushing both creative boundaries and our boundaries as an audience, that is, the very social norms they must operate within to be intelligible or acceptable. Can an image of a gruesome murder (e.g. Judith Beheading Holofernes) be considered art? We consider Caravaggio's painting as art precisely because it is not only emotive, realistic or technical. All these form part of the construction of a contextual frame which sets the work in the scale of value we might impose on it, but greatest of these is aesthetic experience, for if this is lacking then the work is merely a depiction without merit. A work that depicts a subject as strong as murder without artistic merit is one that immediately falls into a form of moral bankruptcy, in that it sensationalises a subject for cheap returns. Whether it is its 'realism', 'technicality', or 'shock'.

Just to be clear, what I've been discussing is the artistic depiction of what would otherwise be considered a 'morally' shocking event. The further elaboration of a real-life event being treated as art is not worth considering as it falls into the realm of the sociopath again (although we can imagine a situation were the audience believes the actor's performance unaware that he has suffered a fatal heart attack, for example, but this is only due to a context failure). My claim then is that we are not 'duped' by art, willingly or not, into reacting in some quasi-psychological manner (as has been suggested by some philosophers) but that our reactions are very 'real'. However, it is the status of the 'realness' that is being questioned, I consider it a real experience of art, but it is not a real experience of murder.