Theater of Cruelty

The aesthetics of crime

This week, the appeal process started in the Nokas case. Why are we fascinated by serious crime?


[essay] The value conflicts in modern societies do not only take place between different social groups – they are just as much about conflicts in each individual subject that participate in different value spheres, for example a moral and an aesthetic value sphere. Just as the conflicts between the various groups can be resolved through reference to a neutral, higher instance, the conflicts in the individual subjects can be resolved in such a way. An expression of this conflict is the fascination "big" criminals face while at the same time being the subject of moral condemnation, something we see, for example, in connection with the Nokas case.

Criminal rebellion?

In a record from the 1880s, Friedrich Nietzsche places crimes generally under the term "rebellion against the social order". Such a rebellion can be extremely relevant, he emphasizes. However, he seems to distinguish between the criminals who are "real" rebels and those who belong to the "race of crime". The latter, the racially determined criminals, should society go to war against, he writes. On the other hand, he values ​​the former. In such a perspective, the philosopher also becomes a true criminal, who opposes adopted norms. Nietzsche also highlights the great political amoralists of the Renaissance as role models.

It can be said that Nietzsche praises the "strong" criminal and condemns the "weak". The weak criminal has also described Nietzsche in How the Zarathustra spoke, in which the chapter "About the pale criminal" states: "He was on par with his own act when he performed it; but when it was accomplished, he was unable to bear the image of the action. "Thus, the weak criminal is a figure who does not have sufficient strength to take in his own action, and to elevate it to a norm. The weak criminal returns to his own actions. In doing so, he recognizes in practice society's norms, and as such is not a true rebel against the existing. The weak criminal is both too weak to fight his instincts and to acknowledge them. With such a weak soul, the criminal would have been better off following slave morality. The strong criminal, on the other hand, is a picture of the superhuman, we think Nietzsche.

Love of evil.

One could say that the French writer Jean Genet would be a paradigmatic example of such a superhuman. In the autobiographical book Thief's Diary, Genet begins by writing that he has been driven "by love for what we call evil". He will “seek a new paradise” by “forcing a pure vision of evil”. For Genet, this is about forming an identity that differs, about defining one's own "good" as opposed to the official good. He needs the usual decent social morals as his counterpart. Therefore, he also highlights the discomfort of being in Hitler's Germany and the reluctance he felt towards stealing there. In a nation that is the incarnation of the criminal, crime becomes impossible as a subversive project. Perhaps we can even say that the villain, through his transgressions, actually helps to fortify the law.

Georges Bataille writes that the violation does not negate the ban, but in a sense completes it. But when the ban has already been lifted, there is nothing there to exceed. Beauty is linked to transgression, but in such a thoroughly corrupt environment as those Genet finds in Nazi Germany, no transcendence – and therefore no beauty – is possible.

The key to Genet is whether an action is beautiful. This is how the ethical subordinates to the aesthetic. He writes that every act, including the betrayal, can be beautiful. And any objection that an act is immoral will apparently be exploited, because an ethical objection will not simply overwhelm an aesthetic. The gene operates here in the extension of Charles Baudelaire. In a draft foreword in the collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire writes that he has advocated "extracting the beauty of evil". Everything can be done though, but Baudelaire seems to primarily associate beauty with evil, claiming that the murder is the loveliest of beauty jewelery. In his diaries, for example, he writes that "the most perfect example of male beauty is Satan."

The gene did not choose the criminal life because it is simple, but on the contrary because it was difficult and accommodated the possibility of the ultimate realization of an aesthetic ideal. He emphasizes that it was not easy to leave a feeling of remorse behind, but by working with himself he managed it. Through the admission of the crime, it becomes an expression of freedom. For Genet, it is crucial to emphasize the free choice in his actions – that it is he who is their originator, rather than that they should be explained in something outside him. The gene lives out the Nietzschean criminal ideal. Nietzsche's conscience tells him one thing: "You will become who you are." And you do that by "giving style" to your character. The weak criminal lacks style, and the strong becomes the epitome of good style. Nietzsche writes: "Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is life still to endure for us." And there are no limits to what can be incorporated into an aesthetic perspective.

Art crime.

Why shouldn't crime be art? David Bowie themed art crimes on his brilliant 1995 album, Outside. In the textbook that came with the album, we find excerpts from the fictional diary of Detective Nathan Adler. The diary opens with a bizarre description of the 14-year-old Baby Grace Blue art ritual murder, which hangs over a museum entrance with severed limbs coupled with advanced technology. Bowie's claim is that art crimes would be the logical consequence of the development of art in recent decades. There is nothing in the concept of art that goes against such a development, and much art has moved in this direction. However, Bowie's idea is not new, for as early as 1827, the English author Thomas De Quincey wrote the essay Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.

The shocking thing about De Quincey's text is that he advocates viewing a murder, not from the ordinary moral perspective, but rather from an aesthetic perspective. De Quincey does not begin on bare ground, but writes here in the extension of the philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. In his study of the beautiful and the sublime, Burke writes that one could announce that one should set up the most sublime and gripping tragedy, with the most brilliant actors, without sparing anything in the scenography, and add the most exquisite music – and so let it be known that a high-ranking criminal was to be executed in the square outside. The result would be that the theater was emptied in an instant, he claims. He's probably right about that. Burke points out that we find satisfaction in seeing things that we not only would never have made ourselves do, but would rather have seen undone. In other words, he points out that there is a contradiction between the aesthetic and the moral reaction to certain events. The most central thing in the example, however, is the emphasis that sublime reality trumps sublime art.

The sublimity of murder.

De Quincey radicalizes Burke's and Kant's reflections on the sublime. When the violence in nature can be a source of aesthetic experience – why shouldn't human violence, which is perhaps even more frightening, also be a source of aesthetic pleasure. Violence has its own appeal. It is difficult to imagine any human action that stands out more as sublime than murder. Burke's example of public execution shows that he was open to this possibility, even though he did not develop it. Kant, on the other hand, pulls the sublime in another direction.

Admittedly, Kant also emphasizes war as something sublime, but it is a tame and controlled war: "Even the war, if it is waged with respect and respect for civil rights, has something sublime about it," he writes. One may wonder if this is true. Can not a war waged without respect for the rights of the individual be more sublime? Kant would refer something like this to the category of "outrageous". In doing so, he cut himself off from exploring the trail that Burke opened and which De Quincey took to his extreme through the highlight of the assassination as an art form.

De Quincey lets aesthetics trump ethics by letting the sublime trump the beautiful. An aestheticization of crime had taken place in De Quincy's time. Already in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera of 1728, which Brecht later transformed into his Dreigroschenoper, Pechum says: "Murder is the most fashionable crime a human being can commit." However, this aestheticization remained within the realm of fiction. De Quincey takes it all a step further. The radical thing he does is to consider reality as art and to elevate the most extreme, human action, the murder, to the supreme art. The artwork is thus not the story of the murder, but the murder itself. The artist is not the author who depicts the murder, but the killer himself. Here, De Quincey goes far beyond, for example, Friedrich Schiller, who wrote that murder is aesthetically higher than theft, as Schiller here is still within a fictional horizon. There is nothing to suggest that Schiller would consider a real murder a work of art.

Murder creates an aesthetic response in the viewer, and anything that evokes such a response is by definition art for De Quincey – and one who creates art is by definition an artist. As Burke pointed out in the example of public execution, reality is stronger than fiction, and real murder provides a stronger aesthetic response than fictional murder. Therefore, the killer becomes the greatest artist. What De Quincey finds pleasing in the murder is not the victim's suffering, but the sight of an artist using another's body as raw material. It also means that the perspective in the consideration of the murder cannot be the victim's, but must be the killer's own – or a spectator's. This creates the distance required for the experience of the sublime. If one were to take the victim's standpoint, fear would overwhelm the aesthetic.

Composer Karl-Heinz Stockhausen joined the tradition of Burke to De Quincey when he stated that the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center was the largest work of art ever. Burke would undoubtedly have considered the attack on the twin towers sublime. And De Quincey as well. Kant, on the other hand, would have banished this event from the area of ​​sublime. Where it was crucial for Kant to maintain a link between ethics and aesthetics, we find a radical detachment from De Quincey. We can call it an aesthetic suspension of the ethical. The question is whether this detachment is durable, and if so: In what form?

Two thoughts.

A transgression aesthetic always presupposes morality, as it is morality that makes transcendence itself possible. Without morality, in short, the aesthetic of aggression is without object. The aesthetic view of the crime is not independent of the moral perspective, but presupposes it. The fact that a given act exceeds a moral or legal norm is an important prerequisite for its aesthetic quality.

Recognizing an aesthetic perspective on the crime does not mean that one has invalidated the moral. We must therefore disagree with the aestheticism of others, claiming that "the only criterion for judging an action is its elegance". There are a number of possible perspectives on the world, and the ethical and aesthetic perspectives are two of them. The different perspectives can all in their own way give us an understanding of the world, and events in it, such as the Nokia robbery. But often one perspective tries to overwhelm all the others and push all the facts into this one perspective. The perspective becomes totalizing, and one forgets that there is only one perspective among others. With this perspective one forgets that there is not one true description of the world, but several. When aesthetics become aesthetic, it has degenerated into a totalitarian perspective that lacks rational justification.

There is nothing in the way of considering a criminal act as a sublime work of art, and at the same time believe that the act must be punished. It requires one to hold two thoughts in the head at the same time, but there is no contradiction between these two thoughts.

By Lars Fr. H. Svendsen

Philosopher and writer

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