The Aesthetics of Murder and its Rivals


“There is no essential incongruity between crime and culture.” (Wilde)

“Deaths for Deaths’ Sake
With the haunting lucidity of insomnia, he organized populous orgies that often lasted four days and four nights. In the end, glutted, he settled accounts with bullets. While his trigger finger was unfailing, he was the most feared man (and perhaps the most anonymous and most lonely) of that whole frontier.” (Borges, 66)

“However inclined people are at first to scoff at the idea of murder as an art form, they prove even more reluctant to accept murder as a fact of life or as a characteristic of human nature. As a result, the affinity between art and murder is far greater than all but a few artists and killers have been willing to admit.” (Black, 103)

800px-Charles_Le_Brun_-_Venus_cortándole_las_alas_a_CupidoThe great Baroque painter and designer Charles Le Brun allegedly poisoned his rival Eustache le Sueur. Soon after, in a slightly more enlightened age, Schiller was arguing that murder was a higher aesthetic act than theft while Diderot ‘shuddered’ at such a notion. Controversy over aesthetics as a question of good taste was central to the enlightenment, especially among the Germans and French. This found its way into anglophone thought with some apprehension. And, as Joel Black points out in The Aesthetics of Murder: A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture, it was largely Thomas De Quincey who interjected it. As Black explains at the start of his book: “If the present study accomplishes nothing else, it may at least call attention to the duplicitous, macabre associations that attended aesthetics at the moment it was incorporated into the English language…” (3) Of course, most of the book is not really about this historical phenomenon, but a rather different one, that of extending aesthetic analysis beyond its usual orbit. As he notes “…murder is as much a general cultural phenomenon as it is a specifically social, legal, or psychological problem.” (5) Given the dubiousness of moral claims as a rule, placing aesthetic claims on their level should, perhaps, offend both tender and brutal souls.
the-aesthetics-of-murderWhat is more notable about the aesthetics of murder is that they erode any distinction between ethics and aesthetics, between life and art, being and appearance. This subversion of classical mimesis has caused considerable consternation. Notably for the would-be redeemers of humanity and art, like chronic kill-joy mystic Walter Benjamin. Murder in particular offers the point of distinction between the banal and the Historical, between the secretive and marginalized and that which helps to form and safeguard societies: unfortunate stuff or the stuff of history. Narration allows for snuffing to produce stiffs that become stuff.


Crime, understood as a rebellion against ‘the human condition’, emerged in the mid to late eighteenth century alongside romantic notions of individuality and artistic autonomy. Violation coincides with the moment that the author becomes both a professional and a holder of property. For Edmund Burke, the aesthetic is morally tinged and social while the sublime is horror tinged, amoral, and antisocial. But with Kant, things blur. If the horror of nature can create sublime awe, why not the, perhaps more horrifying, spectre of human violence? “And if the murder can be experienced aesthetically, the murderer can in turn be regarded as a kind of artist – a performance artist or anti-artist whose speciality is not creation but destruction.” (14) According to Black, Kant forbids this. The aesthetic and sublime refuse violence. He even insists they are impossible where the sacred rights and dignity of the human are forgone.

24874332It was De Quincey who exploited elements of Kantian aesthetics to perversely suggest the aesthetic value of violence. This was the subversion of the beautiful by the sublime (15) that paved the way for the Nietzschean critique of morality on aesthetic grounds. Burke had already recognized the aesthetic spectacle of executions as sublime experiences; people flocked to watch killings rather than the stage because “the latter is the more theatrical spectacle.” The Roman theatre, particularly in the performances of mimes, had actually incorporated executions of the condemned. (4) This sort of spectacle, that distinguishes little between violence and art, the real and artificial, tends to be met with aversion by moderns. Black extrapolates: “Because our aesthetic sensibility often conflicts with our moral sense, we are tempted to subordinate the former as deceit and illusion to the ‘truth’ of the latter. By suppressing or denying our aesthetic experiences, we create a moral ‘reality’ that is, in fact, our supreme fiction. This grand artifice or ideology of moral reason can only maintain itself as Truth at the continued expense of the individual’s own subjective feelings, his or her aesthetic and erotic responses to the world.” (4) Artists themselves take part in this quite actively, either naively, hypocritically or perversely. As Black observes, the violence in/or to art by artists tends to be less a condemnation of violence than of the falsity of art; an attempt to transcend the false and reach the pre-aesthetic (5). This is futile, both for artists, and, he suggests, killers themselves. (25)

In De Quincey, as in Jean Genet, “murder ushers in an extraordinary aesthetic experience that is not of this world, and that cannot coexist with any world familiar to ethical beings.” (52) This is not Kantian aesthetics, even if they are related in some ways, for it is not a matter of heightened perception in a moment of quiet close to the terror of sublimity, but instead marks the threshold of a violent break from the quotidian. It is not just the act that is violent, but the aesthetic itself. Conversely, this also means that the return to banal everydayness is an experience of great violence for the murderer, now divorced from the ecstasy of destruction.

What Black, following Dennis Porter, argues (a little too neatly perhaps), is that De Quincey marks is a shift from the shock of the act to a shock of its treatment. (104) He pays particular attention to cases where the work of art attempts to render the perspective of the murderer, allowing the viewer to see things through their eyes, to identify with the killing. Detached from the terror of the violence specifically falling on the victim, though still experiencing a terrifying violence, the viewer/reader has enough distance to experience the act in its aesthetic dimensions, and to relate to it accordingly, if in a rather dilettantish way. It’s even better if they can identify with a witness, thus escaping the moral problem that the aesthetic rapture of killing poses to the banal. Identifying with the witness allows for the simultaneous preservation of taboo and the pleasure of its violation. (67-68) This is the ‘nonthreatening pseudo-terror’ of the sublime. (71)


It is Marcel Schwob who pushes further than De Quincey to insist on the intimate relationship between the murderer and the witness. Along with the reader/viewer, they share a special moment with the corpse before it can be rendered public. This moment provides murder with its ‘distinctly erotic character’ (106). Here, the author draws a line between the aesthetic (the beautiful and disinterested), the erotic (the sublime and interested), and the pornographic (the unsublimated and engaged). The aesthetic, unlike the other two categories, necessarily relies upon, and reinforces, social integrity. Drawing upon a definition of art as distanced object, his use of the aesthetic reduplicates, even if it mildly perverts, the social norms that make this definition possible. The other categories work far harder to dissolve the social, even if it persists on a superficial level. This places them closer to another opposition that Black draws up early in the text, that between the aesthetic and artistic. The latter category gets little investment in his text, operating in a strangely marginal position. Aesthetic analysis, opposed to art analysis, concentrates on experiences, treating all as exchangeably natural by perception. Yet here art is defined as the unnatural (13) and it is this definition that murder undoes precisely because it collapses any distinction between the natural and unnatural and places formation (art) above perception (aesthetics).

But it’s more complicated. De Quincey draws knowing and killing together. Knowing is manifest both in the murderer and the prostitute. They are united, sometimes exchangeable, and locked in a strange erotic relationship that sometimes, thanks to the suggestion of Theophile Gautier, becomes a threesome with the philosopher. This is a philosopher of the hands and of the feet – peripatetic as the prostitute, working with their hands like the killer. The aesthetic is knowing by sight, by foot, by hand, by the extremities which are also the extremities of distance. In fact, all of these correspond to distance for calculation. (We might say to a kind of mathematical sublime, but neither De Quincey nor Black go so far). But this is not a conveyable knowledge. Even in this complicated threeway, whatever fluids are exchanged, spilled or measured, what is known is always private: a gratuity that can never be shared by language because its medium is the body. “This is why sex and murder are ultimately inaccessible to psychoanalytic inquiry and judicial decision. As the purest kinds of intersubjective action, killing and coitus are the two experiences that cannot be psychologically explained…” (121)

Nietzsche, of course, flips things around. Dumping the centrality of the viewer – that aesthete and their ‘disinterest’ – the focus turns to the artist or killer as primary. Their criminality is still capable of taking all of the qualities of disinterest, qualities that accentuate the amoral character of art. The disinterestedness of art becomes criminal, violating the dialectic of moral recognition. Crime without motive is crime doubled over. It is art raised to the level of strict effect, divorcing itself from cause. In this sense, isn’t the effect-world described by someone like Foucault anything other than a hyper-aestheticization of crime raised to universal principle? And couldn’t we extend this to formalism in general? It was by no coincidence, though certainly without this in mind, that Thierry DeDuve compared Foucault to Clement Greenberg.

“Murder is the act of creation itself, not despite its destructive violence, but because of it.” (125) This again is the Nietzschean shift away both from morality and from aesthetics. There is nothing to be known about anthropods so there is nothing to judge. There is only creation, which may in fact be destruction. But the Kantian may object that whatever ‘knowledge’, carnal or otherwise, the killer is claiming, is not knowledge at all because it cannot be discursively registered or tested. What this carnal knowledge is is actually impenetrability.

If the development of aesthetic thought meant that everything sensible (regardless of intentionality, or whether it was ‘natural’ or ‘cultural’) could be treated as an aesthetic phenomenon, then the development of artistic thought meant that everything could be treated as art, whether or not it was sensory. Further, the erotic and the pornographic provide two means other that the aesthetic for knowing art, which is to say, the material objectification of the world. No doubt there are other ways, but these at least hint, in his discussion, that art has a reality that is not reducible to either experience or perception. Even in the erotic and pornographic, the investment is one of – at least transient – subjective collapse.


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