Aestheticization of violence  

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"One ought to learn anew about cruelty," said Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil, 229), "and open one's eyes. Almost everything that we call 'higher culture' is based upon the spiritualizing and intensifying of cruelty...." more ...

"Never, I repeat, never shall I portray crime other than clothed in the colors of hell. I wish people to see crime laid bare, I want them to fear and detest it, and I know no other way to achieve this end than to paint it in all its horrors. Woe to those who surround it with roses! Their views are far less pure, and I shall never emulate them." --The Marquis de Sade - Reflections on the Novel

"In every gallery in Europe there are hideous pictures of blood, carnage, oozing brains, putrefaction—pictures portraying intolerable suffering—pictures alive with every conceivable horror, wrought out in dreadful detail—and similar pictures are being put on the canvas every day and publicly exhibited—without a growl from anybody—for they are innocent, they are inoffensive, being works of art. But suppose a literary artist ventured to go into a painstaking and elaborate description of one of these grisly things—the critics would skin him alive. Well, let it go, it cannot be helped; Art retains her privileges, Literature has lost hers. Somebody else may cipher out the whys and the wherefores and the consistencies of it—I haven't got time."--1601 (1880) by Mark Twain

Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Agostino Novello saves a falling child c. 1328 Simone Martini, an example of art horror
Agostino Novello saves a falling child c. 1328 Simone Martini, an example of art horror

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The aestheticization of violence in high culture art or mass media is the depiction of violence in a manner that is excessive in a significant and sustained way.


History in art


Plato proposed to ban poets from his ideal republic because he feared that their aesthetic ability to construct attractive narratives about immoral behaviour would corrupt young minds. Plato’s writings refer to poetry as a kind of rhetoric, whose "...influence is pervasive and often harmful." Plato believed that poetry that was "unregulated by philosophy is a danger to soul and community." He warned that tragic poetry can produce "a disordered psychic regime or constitution" by inducing "a dream-like, uncritical state in which we lose ourselves in ...sorrow, grief, anger, [and] resentment."

As such, Plato was in effect arguing that "What goes on in the theater, in your home, in your fantasy life, are connected" to what you do in real life.

Aristotle, though, advocated a useful role for music, drama, and tragedy: a way for people to purge their negative emotions. Aristotle mentions catharsis at the end of his Poetics, where he notes that after people listen to music that elicits pity and fear, they "are liable to become possessed" by these negative emotions. However, afterwards, Aristotle points out that these people return to "a normal condition as if they had been medically treated and undergone a purge [catharsis]...All experience a certain purge [catharsis] and pleasant relief. In the same manner cathartic melodies give innocent joy to men".

In art, there is the example of the Laocoön and His Sons marble.


hell in popular culture, doom paintings, hellmouth

The artist Hieronymus Bosch, from the fifteenth and sixteenth century, used images of demons, half-human animals and machines to evoke fear and confusion to portray the evil of man. The sixteenth-century artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder depicted nightmarish imagery that reflect, if in an extreme fashion, popular dread of the Apocalypse and Hell.

Mathis Gothart-Neithart, a German artist known as "Gruenewald" (1480-1528) depicted intense emotion and painful emotion. His painting of the Crucifixion does not spare the beholder, relentlessly bringing out terrible suffering and agony, induced by the cruelty and torture of the executioners and conveying a vivid sense of horror and pain.

Gruenewald’s ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ also shows a violent image of Jesus on the cross, with his body covered in wounds, with the focus on Jesus’s suffering and his death.

18th century

In the mid-18th century, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian etcher, archaeologist and architect active from 1740, did imaginary etchings of prisons that depicted people stretched on racks or trapped like rats in maze-like dungeons, an aestheticization of violence and suffering.

19th century

In 1849, as revolutions raged in European streets and authorities were putting down protests and consolidating state powers, composer Richard Wagner wrote that "I have an enormous desire to practice a little artistic terrorism," see Art and Revolution.

Laurent Tailhade is reputed to have stated, the night before Auguste Vaillant bombed the Chamber of Deputies in 1893: "Qu'importent les victimes, si le geste est beau? [What do the victims matter, so long as the gesture is beautiful]."

And in the visual arts, Gericault painted The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) and further explored the dark side of human nature in such works as monomaniacs and his studies Truncated Limbs, Anatomical Pieces and Severed Heads. .

20th century

In 1929 André Breton's Second Manifesto of Surrealism stated that "L’acte surréaliste le plus simple consiste, revolvers aux poings, à descendre dans la rue et à tirer au hasard, tant qu’on peut, dans la foule" [The simplest Surrealist act consists of running down into the street, pistols in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd]."

The German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen echoed Tailhade and Breton when he called the terrorist attacks of September 11th the "greatest piece of art there has ever been".

Many types of media have been accused of glamorising violence, for example the film A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick or The Matrix.

The Grand Theft Auto video game series is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records 2009 as the most controversial game series and has often been accused of glamorising violence.

Art horror

Art horror is term describing works of art that can be classified as macabre or grotesque. Notable artists are Jan Luyken, Hans Holbein, Hans Baldung Grien, Matthias Grünewald, Jacques Callot, Francisco Goya, Gustave Doré and Jose Guadalupe Posada.

Further reading


See also

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