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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.

9 comments:

natetin said...

Slightly off topic, however the title of this blog entry reminded me of Thomas De Quincey's satirical essay "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts" whose dark humour is surprising contemporaneous; reminds me of Hunter S Thompson at his very best. Slightly more on topic, I recently saw a screen adaptation of Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" - it's a while since I read the book but, in many ways, I found the book more disturbing. Indeed, the book, does not attempt to portray events from the disinterest perspective of the third-person, nor the "omniscient" author, rather its "realism" lies in the unreliable, warped - and sometimes plain absent - logic of the killer's mind. No doubt this "device" made it so controversial at the time - both repugnant and oddly compelling in equal measures.

"[I]t 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."

I'm not so sure, but I don't think I've fully grasped your argument. `In any case, I would tend to agree on the whole, but not by de facto. I think there are instances when the line between art and reality are indistinct. If I recall correctly, Oliver Stone's film JFK contains the Zapruder footage (footage, incidentally, that emerged sometime after the events). Now I might be appearing to undermine my case here, but what you see is Kennedy head shoot back from and brain material exit toward the rear of the vehicle, in what one would, prima facie, assume, must be a shot coming from the front. Of course, there have been various explanations of this apparent anomaly, my point is not to indulge in conspiracy theories, rather, what you see in so deeply embedded in context and the narrative of that context, to an extent, will colour what you see. Here the fictional and historical are interwoven, perhaps impossibly so. Nonetheless, what remains indisputable is the act of murder. One could also imagine the situation where a murder, or witness thereof, produces an accurate description of real vents,but passes them as "fictional".

god-free morals said...

Haven't heard of that De Quince essay, will look it up in the library.

The confusion might reside in the term 'realism' as I'm using it. I don't want to give the idea of an art or reality dividing line, indeed, the basis of the post was to argue that these definitions are misleading (related to the Finnegans Wake post). However, what I was trying to detail was the difference between definitions and appreciating. While we look to realism in news and other factual representations, artistic appreciation is more related to 'real to the context'.

Also, I think I've missed your point of the JFK footage. My brain is running rather slow tonight..

god-free morals said...

Here's a great line from an essay I'm reading on the DeQuincey..
"Though opium certainly exacerbated these murderous fantasies - these fantasies of murdering and being murdered - they were by no means peculiar to De Quincey. In the battle of the literary magazines the metaphor of periodical writer-as-serial assassin was often employed."

natetin said...

I think I grasp - for the most part - where you're coming from: I get the anti-essentialism and agree; I also get the point about Wittgenstein's "forms of life". With respect to this later point, ‘[I]s Finnegans Wake a novel?’, well, we can say some factual things about it, such as: is its pose recognisable as adhering to grammatical rules, there are identifiable characters, there is a narrative of sorts ... and so on? While facts, alone, do not determine it as "essentially" being a novel (they could apply equally to say a work of autobiography or of history, etc.), they do help us form the basis upon any such judgement as its being in the form of a novel. Now Joyce may subvert the traditional linear "beginning, middle and end" format, as well as the other staples of the novel, as such an intention is apparent in the text or at least the context of its writing, then it does "recognise" a certain understanding of what a novel is and, in doing, so challenges them. It's a while since I read it, but William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" also falls into this ambiguity whose narrative is unified more abstractly to themes of "addiction" and "control", rather than a historical narrative progression progression. In contrast, the Tarantino film "Pulp Fiction" merely plays with the sequential ordering of narrative. None of this, I think, contradicts anything you say.

What I do have difficulty grasping - and this just might be me being stupid - is where your statement, or more accurately, the categorical nature thereof, comes from:

"[I]t 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."

My reference to JFK was somewhat ham-fisted. So, let me try from a different angle: take the notion of a fact-value divide or the alleged problem of: getting from the "is" (facts of the matter) to the "ought" (values we "should" or indeed, "could" adopt). The experience of "real" murder (fortunately of which I have no first-hand anecdotal repertoire), is never entirely a factual affair - it may entail one or a combination of moral, political and even aesthetic framing reactions. So, I suggest, the way out of this divide is to realise there is no overarching theoretic construct from which to cross it, however, it is worth noting that we don't perceive all facts in a entirely value-free way, no matter how slim the context or how our understanding of it evolves over time. The question then becomes, not an issue of crossing the "fact-value" divide, rather the way we regiment and refine our experience to make sense of it. I am reminded of a quote from one of Donald Davidson's pupils attributes to him (if not exact, I hope true in spirit) "Disagreement is only possible if there are grounds for agreement" - otherwise we are "talking past each other" and, therefore, communication is arguably impossible, i.e. there not even the possibility of "agreeing to disagree". In short, the "realism" of a "real" murder is open to contextual interpretation, even though we can state certain agreeable facts about it. It would follow then, that "realness" of murder is not just a matter of facts, but also value judgements. And, to some, murder might be shocking - in the flesh so-to-speak - but it may also be morally justified and, indeed, welcomed. Also, one need not be a "sociopath" to make certain aesthetic judgements along with those of a moralistic nature, such as it was a "clean, swift and merciful death" - if you'll pardon the pun - you could appreciate the technicalities of the execution, while being simultaneously repulsed by the result.

natetin said...

Cont ...

One could have a "real experience of murder" even though it is fictional, because "realness" cannot just be define, alone, in terms of "factual events" since the "facts" are entwined with "values" - again, at least as far as murders go, mathematical truths, as well as the certain physical laws, may not be so "value prone".

Finally, there may be a "reality" to fictional murders that cannot be reduced to the veracity or otherwise of factual events. Art does not create its own "reality" in hermetic isolation from "real" - possible - events, nevertheless, it does form part of our collective sense of "reality" and therefore encompasses - can define - the "reality" of "real" murder.

May be I'm nit-picking on account of my own confusion - my background is more mind, language, metaphysics and the philosophy of science - never took any aesthetic classes; so excuse my badgering (old habits die hard). Enjoy the blog.

natetin said...

De Quincey's Opium Eater is probably his most famous work:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confessions_of_an_English_Opium-Eater

"On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts" is perhaps harder to find; I used collect books and remember this being particularly hard to find. One of the finest prose writers in English, though his output is uneven, understandable, given his addiction and attempts at avoiding debtors' prison.

god-free morals said...

Thanks for the reply, I wasn't ignoring you, just busy last night.

I don't think we're a million miles apart here, indeed, a lot of what you describe (especially in the first post 20:09) seems exactly in line with what I was trying to say, but obviously failed to convey. I must try harder.

Anyway, the problem here seems to be descriptions of appreciation...

You:
In short, the "realism" of a "real" murder is open to contextual interpretation, even though we can state certain agreeable facts about it.

Me:
Realism here [Mercutio's death] 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).

Difference:
I emphasise that in fictional representations that purely relating to facts is not vital, what is important is its relation to the situation depicted. You emphasise that in reality that neither do we look facts alone, there are a variety of other ‘frames’ that effect our interpretation. Fine, I wasn’t thinking that in the opposite case that ALL we were after was relation to ‘facts’. However, there is the ‘fact’ that there are different implications to your (the viewer’s) reaction to the event witnessed. You see someone stabbed in the street, you phone the police, you see Mercutio stabbed in a production, and you do not.

Me:
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.

You:
Also, one need not be a "sociopath" to make certain aesthetic judgements along with those of a moralistic nature, such as it was a "clean, swift and merciful death" - if you'll pardon the pun - you could appreciate the technicalities of the execution, while being simultaneously repulsed by the result.

Difference:
The person who takes the death of another as beautiful (perhaps by their own hand, but we need not add this) and is not moved by grief or other typical emotions AS WELL. That is to say, it is the only relation they have to the event and is different from the person who is saddened and sickened by the murder of another, but can also see that they died quickly and not suffered, i.e. a ‘good death’. Again, I don’t disagree with you.

You:
One could have a "real experience of murder" even though it is fictional, because "realness" cannot just be define, alone, in terms of "factual events" since the "facts" are entwined with "values" - again, at least as far as murders go, mathematical truths, as well as the certain physical laws, may not be so "value prone".

Me:
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.

Difference:
The claim that what I am suggesting is that art creates its own realm of reality separate from actual reality. Your suggestion that art is always part of our reality as it includes value judgements and so forth. The premise of the post was to build a case that art is not separate from life, but that in appreciating art we are having a real pychological reaction to the event, but that we are capable of appreciating something in a different way. The difference being that in taking something as art we are approaching the event/experience in a different manner but that this need not necessitate the building of a separate isolated realm of experience, it’s just a different manner of appreciation.

god-free morals said...

Question:
When is a MURDER (not a death) ever welcomed? Surely it’s not murder then. It’s euthanasia. Is the point here that by law it might still be murder, but most people would see it as an act of mercy?

Conclusion:
I hope I’ve shown (shown rather than proven) that actually we are closer here in thought. I think all these problems are from my not spelling out clearly enough what I’m about. This is the probelm with conciseness (and poor writing). So, although I didn’t properly describe the ‘real’ that is involved with actual events and not events meant for artistic appreciation. I hope I’ve now said that what you feared (isolated art realm) was not what I was suggesting, although it could be seen as this certainly. Actually a section of my Masters dissertation (on narrativity) deals with historical narrative, I’ll see if it’s worth editing down and posting. Finally, I don’t think that aesthetics is an area of philosophy that should been seen as only open to specialists. Indeed, I think specialisation in philosophy to be, generally, a bad idea (hence by liking of Wittgenstein).

natetin said...

Apologies, my previous but one post was more of a "working it out aloud"; not so much a platform for any major disagreement - old habit from my days as a PhD student, no doubt cast in "the shark pool" as they used to call the weekly thesis update meetings.

Just one more observation (and I promise I'll leave you to get on):

"When is a MURDER (not a death) ever welcomed?"

Without trying to contrive a counter example, I see no a priori fact that would rule out the existence of one. Such an a priori argument, I suspect, would have to be essentialist in nature.

Many thanks for your detailed response.