To approach. To peek through. To see Marcel Duchamp’s final contribution, “Etant donnés,” is to confront the intersection of art and crime and beauty and murder.
Remember what Poe said in “The Philosophy of Composition“:
I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.
Here is the threshold:
Here is the observer:
And here is the observed….
BEWARE…NSFW…GRAPHIC VIOLENCE…enter this post at your own risk:
The inspiration for the Black Dahlia murder? Perhaps.
As Jean-Michel Rabaté demonstrates in his book Given: 1° Art 2° Crime: Modernity, Murder and Mass Culture, many are the links between avant-garde art and the aesthetics of crime.
Since Ovid, at least, we have considered the role of nature imitating art:
There was a valley there called Gargaphie, dense with pine trees and sharp cypresses, sacred to Diana of the high-girded tunic, where, in the depths, there is a wooded cave, not fashioned by art. But ingenious nature had imitated art. She had made a natural arch out of native pumice and porous tufa. On the right, a spring of bright clear water murmured into a widening pool, enclosed by grassy banks. Here the woodland goddess, weary from the chase, would bathe her virgin limbs in the crystal liquid.
(Metamorphoses, Book III)
Echoed centuries later by Kant in the 45th section of The Critique of Judgement:
“Nature is beautiful because it looks like Art.”
And then echoed again by Oscar Wilde in his dialogic text “The Decay of Lying,” where he writes, amongst other gems:
“Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life.”
In literature, we find evidence of a certain proclivity for aestheticizing crime, violence, murder. In 1827 & 1839, Thomas De Quincey actually wrote a pair of essays entitled “On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts,” which contains a suggestion for how we might and why we should consider seriously that most gruesome act as beautiful:
When a murder is in the paulo-post-futurum tense — not done, not even (according to modern purism) being done, but only going to be done — and a rumor of it comes to our ears, by all means let us treat it morally. But suppose it over and done, and that you can say of it, Τετελεσται, It is finished, or (in that adamantine molossus of Medea) Ειργασται, Done it is, it is a fait accompli; suppose the poor murdered man to be out of his pain, and the rascal that did it off like a shot nobody knows whither; suppose, lastly, that we have done our best, by putting out our legs, to trip up the fellow in his flight, but all to no purpose — “abiit, evasit, excessit, erupit,” etc. — why, then, I say, what’s the use of any more virtue? Enough has been given to morality; now comes the turn of Taste and the Fine Arts. A sad thing it was, no doubt, very sad; but we can’t mend it. Therefore let us make the best of a bad matter; and, as it is impossible to hammer anything out of it for moral purpose, let us treat it aesthetically, and see if it will turn to account in that way.
A provocative assertion, no doubt. One you can test for yourself by considering the actual crime scene photos of the Black Dahlia murder:
Or by considering the crime scene photographs of the Charles Manson murders:
Or by considering the self-murder of Evelyn McHale, who leapt to her death from the observation deck of the Empire State Building on May 1, 1947. Photographer Robert Wiles took a photo of McHale a few minutes after her death, and a few weeks later the photo ran as the “Picture of the Week” in LIFE magazine:
Returning to literature, Elisabeth Bronfen wrote an interesting book called Over her dead body: death, femininity and the aesthetic (Manchester University Press, 1992). In the preface, she writes:
Representations of death in art are so pleasing, it seems, because they occur in a realm clearly delineated as not life, or not real, even as they refer to the basic fact of life we know but choose not to acknowledge too overtly. They delight because we are confronted with death, yet it is the death of the other. We experience death by proxy. In the aesthetic enactment, we have a situation impossible in life, namely that we die with another and return to the living.
Obviously, Bronfen’s claim is complicated when considering images of actual death rather than staged images of death: the difference between the last few images above and Duchamp’s “Etant donnés’ or an image from Pascal Laugier’s film Martyrs, for example:
But the boundary between art and nature, or actual and staged, fluctuates flows and feeds back and forth. Both produce and are produced by the other. Crime begets art as Art begets crime. Murder begets beauty as Beauty begets murder.
So when McSweeney suggests that “Art and Crime are both limit experiences,” we should consider what limit these experiences represent or explore.
And let us not overlook the role of gender in this conversation. According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, “Globally, up to six out of every ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.”
Call me presumptuous, but I seriously doubt those 6 out of 10 women would agree with Poe’s assertion that “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” But then again…
This week, I taught Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in Highschool to a group of undergraduates. Incest and rape and torture and violence play prominently throughout it. I had assumed that students would be shocked or offended, and some of them were, but comparing it to the reaction I received last summer when I taught what I consider an equally violent text (William Burroughs’s The Soft Machine), I was genuinely surprised that it didn’t raise the same level of visceral reaction. I mean, last summer I had students who talked about how the Burroughs book made them physically ill. The predominant reaction to the Acker book was different. Students disliked what they considered to be its gratuitousness. “Every page had the F-word on it.” or “I thought she could have gotten her point across without being so vulgar.” If I’m remembering correctly, none of the female students commented about the real world implications of violence against women. None of the female students shared Acker’s anger or outrage at a male dominated cultural machine that continually reproduces the link between beauty and violence, art and crime.
All of this seems worth thinking about.