Monday, August 11, 2008

The Role of Extreme Violence in Art

I've been wondering about the role of extreme violence in art lately. Clearly there's a place for it, but what use, purpose does it serve?

About Me
The first thing you need to know about me is that I'm definitely in touch with my shadow side and it doesn't scare me. When I was much younger I used to be distressed by my own thoughts and ideas until I started exploring my dark side, primarily with violent films. In fact, and I think I've said this before, if you knew what was going on inside my head, oh about 80% of the time, you would run far away. I'm a dark person even though I'm good at hiding it. People who love me and catch glimpses of it now and then sometimes have difficulty reconciling me as they know me and my shadow side.

After I moved here and was served with my divorce papers I wrote a revenge short story. I made the mistake of reading it to my writing group and I think they had some difficulty with it. We never met again. One woman said I needed therapy. This short story is set in the mid-1800s in Mexico in a town close to the border of Texas. It concerns a story of a good, hardworking man who comes home to the destruction of his family by a gang of thugs. His beautiful wife and four out of the five kids are all dead in the burning house. His oldest daughter, age 9, is missing. What happens next is this good man goes on a massive killing rampage to avenge his family's deaths. He not only kills the gang members one by one, but also their families even if the men have been disowned. His brother who initially helped the man ends up working with the authorities to put a stop to the carnage. The killer takes on a strange supernatural quality and there are plenty of religious references. This story is so gory, violent and graphic that I haven't told anybody of it's existence except the unfortunate members of my former writing group. The process of writing the story was fascinating to me because I really tried to push the boundaries of what I could come up with. I haven't looked at it in years, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately.

Don't worry I'm not posting it here.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
I finished reading this book just a couple of weeks ago which brought up the question that forms the subject of this post. I can't say the book was recommended by one of my bosses, only that he mentioned it a couple of times in our conversations about Paradise Lost.

I would never recommend this book to anyone, and neither would he.

Widely lauded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century it is a story of a trip through hell. The main character, The Kid, has a taste for violence. At age 15 he joins a band of scalpers in the mid-1800s near the border of Texas and into northern Mexico. The story is based on a real band of scalpers, the Glanton Gang. This is one of the most violent books I have ever read. It also beautifully written. The descriptions are amazing. The main antagonist, The Judge, is one of the most disturbing characters of all time. Whereas Glanton is a mere sullen sociopathic killer, the Judge goes beyond that and even beyond evil because evil implies morality as its opposition and morality is mere speck in comparison to the Judge. It exists, but only in context to the other characters.

This book is staggeringly violent and yet it is necessary to this story. Why is that so? Why have these extremely disturbing descriptions? Why have these character do these things? What is the point?

I once had a conversation with a friend of mine who couldn't understand why I went to see a play at Berkeley Rep call The People's Temple. It was about The People's Temple and the Jonestown massacre that took place in 1978. He asked me why I insisted upon filling my head with such a subject matter. At the time I explained to him it was about reconciling a event that terrified me when I was kid. I also told him it was a good learning experience for me in that it reminded me how easy it is to get caught up in a cult and perhaps in other group ideas.

I don't know what the role of Blood Meridian's violence is, at least not right now. I can't say I learned anything from reading it except to say that I saw myself becoming numb to it after a while, and more importantly, that this fact did not bother me at all.

They're going to make a movie out of this book. Ridley Scott is supposed to direct. How the hell they're going to avoid an NC-17 rating is beyond me. Even if you tone down the violence, many of the images are so awful and integral to the story that cutting them out will make for a different story altogether. And it will take nothing less than an Oscar caliber performance to bring the Judge to life.

Man Bites Dog (dirs. Belvaux et al.) 1992
I watched this Belgium film years ago because I was curious about a film that had a reputation for extreme violence and had been banned in four countries. It's about a camera crew that follows a serial killer around while he talks about and practices his "art." The main character, Ben, is charming and engaging. The movie, thankfully filmed in black and white, is an interesting commentary about reality TV and an exercise in blacker than black satirical comedy. Towards the end the camera crew gets caught up in Ben's activities and they go on a rampaging slaughter. Funny, gruesome and very disturbing. Ben's charm really pulls you in and you can't help but think that he's really not that bad until the the men's activities begin to escalate. Although this film has not made the 10 ten lists of the most disturbing films of all time, it is occasionally honorably mentioned.

Now what did I learn from watching that movie? Was there anything to learn? Did I even like it? I don't know. I did like it and I thought it was interesting and very well done but I have not seen it since viewing it that first time. In a way I don't have to because most of the film has managed to stay with me all these years since. Is that a good thing? It's certainly a positive commentary for the people who made the film.

I don't recommend it, by the way. I don't think it's necessary viewing for most people.

Bosch, Bruegel the Elder and the Isenheim Altarpiece
My favorite kind of art is the Northern Renaissance, and my favorite painter is Hieronymus Bosch. I find his visions of Paradise and Hell and his grotesque creatures to be endlessly fascinating. As my art teacher used to say "everything is going to Hell according to Bosch." His visions of Hell depict people being tortured and tormented. Along those same lines is Bruegel's astounding painting The Triumph of Death. Bruegel was inspired by Bosch and this painting shows people being killed by an endless army of skeletons. All social classes are represented here and it even shows a common form of execution at the time being broken on the wheel. Grim, awful and relentlessly fair, this is a fantastic painting.

I learned about the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald not too long ago. It is a huge piece (approx. 105 x 120 inches) in several panels painted between 1512-1515. When the main panels are closed it shows a disturbing crucifixion scene, probably the most disturbing I've ever seen. Mary Magdalene and Christ's mother Mary are in their usual postures of grief and agony (the Madonna is supported by John the Apostle). John the Baptist is there with a bleeding lamb. The crucified Christ is much larger than the other figures in the painting. His body is covered with sores and his face, hands and feet are tortured and twisted. His arms look like they should have broken a long time ago. Having looked at plenty of crucifixion scenes over the years because of the kind of art I love, I can say that seeing this painting up close (on a learning DVD) for the first time made me have to look away for a moment. The teacher described it as "shocking." And it is.

My second reaction after looking at it closely and pausing my DVD was the thought "that is so incredible." The rest of the altarpiece has some strange elements to it such as the angels playing in an orchestra for the Virgin and Child on the inside of the panel (one of which features an oddly feathered Lucifer looking ruefully up at God the Father) and other things. Clearly the purpose of showing such a shocking crucifixion scene was to bring home Christ's agony as he died for our sins. It's very effective for that. It made even me, who doesn't really believe in organized religion, think twice it.

My gushing about these art works aside, and descriptions, I do wonder about the role of violence in these artworks. In Bosch's paintings the role of violence shows people being tormented in Hell for their sins and perhaps work as a deterrent. Bruegel's painting, in contrast, shows that while Death is inevitable, it is also indiscriminate and oddly fair. Grünewald's extraordinary altarpiece reminds people of Christ's sacrifice in a terrible way.

Clearly the people who commissioned these painting as well as the artists felt it was necessary to depict violence of this type. I suppose some could argue that those times were more violent than our modern times, but I wonder if that is true.

I have none. Many people I know, particularly people I really care about, say such violence is over the top and unnecessary. It is not necessary to fill our minds with such images. To bring these things to the forefront of our consciousness does not add anything. And yet such violent depictions persist. It's easy to say that violent depictions in art during the Renaissance was a necessary way to educate people and to help them focus on being devote and righteous, but what about today? I wonder sometimes if such extreme violence is not so much a mirror of our society, but merely an expression of our individual shadow sides. We all have a dark side and some are more in touch with them than others. Or rather some, like me, find it necessary to be in touch with our dark sides.

I welcome your comments. This is a really interesting subject for me and would love to hear what other people think.

1 comment:

sucraM said...

Wow, what a great essay.

I've loved Hieronymous Bosch since I was about 9 years old. His paintings were in a Time-Life book we had called "The Mind," in a sequence of images that depicted madness through the eyes of artists. When I stumbled upon it while randomly leafing through the book, I thought it was cool and kind of funny because to me it looked like he had a sick sense of humor. He was definitely ahead of his time.

You should post your story somewhere for hardcore Mock Turtle fans to read (and I know there are many of us, right?), maybe password-access only.