The aestheticization of violence in high culture art or mass media has been the subject of considerable controversy and debate for centuries. In Western art, graphic depictions of the Passion of Christ have long been portrayed, as have a wide range of depictions of warfare by later painters and graphic artists. Theater and, in modern times, cinema have often featured battles and violent crimes, while images and descriptions of violence have always been a part of literature. Margaret Bruder states that the aestheticization of violence in film is the depiction of violence in a "stylistically excessive", "significant and sustained way" in which audience members are able to connect references from the "play of images and signs" to artworks, genre conventions, cultural symbols, or concepts.
High culture forms such as fine art and literature have aestheticized violence into a form of autonomous art. In 1991, University of Georgia literature professor Joel Black stated that "(if) any human act evokes the aesthetic experience of the sublime, certainly it is the act of murder". Black notes that "...if murder can be experienced aesthetically, the murderer can in turn be regarded as a kind of artist—a performance artist or anti-artist whose specialty is not creation but destruction" (1991: 14). This conception of an aesthetic element of murder has a long history; in the 19th century, Thomas de Quincey wrote that
"Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle... and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it—that is, in relation to good taste."
In addition to high culture aestheticizations of violence, mass media forms such as newspaper and television news reporting have produced sensationalized reports on crime and warfare. Maria Tatar's book Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany analyzes murders in pre-Hitler Germany and their artistic representations, investigating "the chilling motives behind representations that aestheticize violence, and that turn the mutilated female body into an object of fascination".
Lilie Chouliaraki's article, "The aestheticization of suffering on television" (2006), analyzes "an example of war footage in order to trace the ways in which the tension between presenting airwar as an 'objective' piece of news and as an instance of intense human suffering is resolved in television's strategies of mediation". For example, Chouliaraki argues that the "bombardment of Baghdad in 2003 during the Iraq war was filmed in long-shot and presented in a quasiliterary narrative that capitalized on an aesthetics of horror, on sublime spectacle (Boltanski). She says that the "aestheticization of suffering on television is thus produced by a visual and linguistic complex that eliminates the human pain aspect of suffering, whilst retaining the phantasmagoric effects of a tableau vivant", producing an "aestheticization of suffering [that] manages simultaneously to preserve an aura of objectivity and impartiality, and to take a pro-war side in the war footage".
A number of filmmakers from the 20th century have used aestheticized depictions of violence. According to James Fox, filmmaker Donald Cammell "...looked upon violence as an artist might look on paint. [He asked:] What are its components? What's its nature? Its glamour?" Thomas Harris created a fictional character called Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal and aesthete killer. In the films adapted from his work, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Hannibal (2001), directors Jonathan Demme and Ridley Scott, respectively intentionally generate excitement and anticipation when Lecter is about to kill (and eat) a victim. Lecter was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. In David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), the villain of the film, Frank Booth, is an excessively violent man who obsesses over small fetishes (such as blue velvet) when he is attacking and raping his victims; his obsessions help him achieve orgasm.
In the film Man on Fire, which tells the story of a burnt-out former Black Ops agent who seeks to avenge the kidnappers of a young girl he was bodyguarding, a character says that the agent is an "artist" in killing. He says the man is about to "paint his masterpiece" as he seeks out and kills all of the members of the criminal organization who were connected with the child abduction.
In Xavier Morales' review of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 1, entitled "Beauty and violence", he calls the film "a groundbreaking aestheticization of violence". Morales says that the film, which he calls "easily one of the most violent movies ever made", "a breathtaking landscape in which art and violence coalesce into one unforgettable aesthetic experience".
Morales argues that "... Tarantino manages to do precisely what Alex de Large was trying to do in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange: he presents violence as a form of expressive art...[in which the]...violence is so physically graceful, visually dazzling and meticulously executed that our instinctual, emotional responses undermine any rational objections we may have. Tarantino is able to transform an object of moral outrage into one of aesthetic beauty...[, in which,]...like all art forms, the violence serves a communicative purpose apart from its aesthetic value". When the female sword-wielding protagonist "...skillfully slices and dices her way through...[the opposing fighters]...we get a sense that she is using them as a kind of canvas for her expression of revenge...[,]...like an artist who expresses herself through brush and paint,...[she]...expresses herself through sword and blood".
Film critics analyzing violent film images that seek to aesthetically please the viewer mainly fall into two categories. Critics who see depictions of violence in film as superficial and exploitative argue that it leads audience members to become desensitized to brutality, thus increasing their aggression. On the other hand, critics who view violence as a type of content, or as a theme, claim it is cathartic and provides "acceptable outlets for anti-social impulses".
Adrian Martin argues that critics who hold violent cinema in high regard have developed a response to anti-violence advocates, "those who decry everything from Taxi Driver to Terminator 2 as dehumanising, desensitising cultural influences". Martin claims that critics who value aestheticized violence defend shocking depictions onscreen on the grounds that "screen violence is not real violence, and should never be confused with it". He claims that their rebuttal also claims that "movie violence is fun, spectacle, make-believe; it's dramatic metaphor, or a necessary catharsis akin to that provided by Jacobean theatre; it's generic, pure sensation, pure fantasy. It has its own changing history, its codes, its precise aesthetic uses."
Margaret Bruder, a film studies professor at Indiana University and the author of Aestheticizing Violence, or How To Do Things with Style, proposes that there is a distinction between aestheticized violence and the use of gore and blood in mass market action or war films. She argues that "aestheticized violence is not merely the excessive use of violence in a film". Movies such as the popular action film Die Hard 2 are very violent, but they do "not fall into the category of aestheticized violence because it is not stylistically excessive in a significant and sustained way".
But Bruder classifies films as using "stylized [e.g. aestheticized] violence if they "revel in guns, gore and explosions, exploiting mise-en-scene not so much to provide narrative environment as to create the appearance of a 'movie' atmosphere against which specifically cinematic spectacle can unfold". In movies with aestheticized violence, she argues that the "standard realist modes of editing and cinematography are violated in order to spectacularize the action being played out on the screen"; directors use "quick and awkward editing", "canted framings", shock cuts, and slow motion, to emphasize the impacts of bullets or the "spurting of blood".
For viewers of films with aestheticized violence, such as John Woo's movies, she claims that "One of the many pleasures" from watching Woo's films, such as Hard Target is that it gets viewers to recognize how Woo plays with conventions "from other Woo films" and how it "connects up with films...which include imitations of or homages to Woo". Bruder argues that films with aestheticized violence such as "Hard Target, True Romance and Tombstone are [filled] with... signs" and indicators, so that "the stylized violence they contain ultimately serves as...another interruption in the narrative drive" of the film.
Writing in The New York Times , Dwight Garner reviews the controversy and moral panic surrounding the 1991 novel and 2000 film American Psycho, which concerns Patrick Bateman, "an Exeter and Harvard grad, a gourmand, a tanning enthusiast and a ruthless fashion critic" who is also a serial killer. Garner concludes that the film was a "coal-black satire" in which "dire comedy mixes with Grand Guignol. There's demented opera in some of its scenes." The book, meanwhile, has acquired "grudging respect" and is "seen as a transgressive bag of broken glass that can be talked about alongside plasma-soaked trips like Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange".
Garner claims that the novel's author, Bret Easton Ellis, "was racing ahead of the culture" and that his book "was ahead of its time": "The culture has shifted to make room for Bateman. We've developed a taste for barbaric libertines with twinkling eyes and some zing in their tortured souls. Tony Soprano, Walter White from "Breaking Bad", Hannibal Lecter (who predates "American Psycho")—here are the most significant pop culture characters of the past 30 years... Thanks to these characters, and to first-person shooter video games, we’ve learned to identify with the bearer of violence and not just cower before him or her."
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 one does 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 Politics, 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" (from Politics VIII:7; 1341b 35-1342a 8).
The artist Hieronymus Bosch, from the 15th and 16th centuries, used images of demons, half-human animals and machines to evoke fear and confusion to portray the evil of man. The 16th-century artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder depicted "...the nightmarish imagery that reflect, if in an extreme fashion, popular dread of the Apocalypse and Hell".
Mathis Gothart-Neithart, a German artist known as "Grünewald" (1480–1528) depicted "intense emotion, especially painful emotion". His painting of the Crucifixion "...does not spare the beholder. Grünewald relentlessly brings out all the marks of terrible suffering and agony, induced by the cruelty and torture of the executioners...[vividly conveying] a sense of horror and pain". Grünewald's 'Isenheim Altarpiece' also shows a violent image of Jesus on the cross, "with his body covered in wounds", with the focus on "... Jesus' suffering and his death".
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". In 1849, as revolutions raged in European streets and authorities were putting down protests and consolidating state powers, composer Richard Wagner wrote: "I have an enormous desire to practice a little artistic terrorism."
Laurent Tailhade is reputed to have stated, after 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]." In 1929 André Breton's Second Manifesto on surrealist art 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]."
French postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that whereas modern societies were "...organized around the production and consumption of commodities", "postmodern societies are organized around simulation and the play of images and signs". As such, in "...the postmodern media and consumer society, everything becomes an image, a sign, a spectacle". For Baudrillard, the West's "commercialization of the whole world...will turn out rather to have been the aestheticization of the whole world—its cosmopolitan spectacularization, its transformation into images, its semiological organization". As a result, the "previously separate domains of the economy, art, politics, and sexuality" become "collapsed into each other", and art penetrates "all spheres of existence." Thus, Baudrillard argues that "[o]ur society has given rise to a general aestheticization: all forms of culture—not excluding anti-cultural ones—are promoted and all models of representation and anti-representation are taken on board".
When a person views an isolated painting, photograph or cartoon, they are viewing a static image. If a photographer takes a still photo of a police officer's struggle to arrest a young man, for example, the denotative meaning might be "there was a man dressed as a police officer placing his hand on the shoulder of another man of a certain age whilst a photographer took a picture". On the other hand, the connotative meanings might range from, "law enforcement in action" to "a heroic fight to subdue a dangerous terrorist about to release sarin gas", to "police use excessive force to arrest non-violent protesters", to "fancy dress party ends badly". The attribution of the specific subtext is left to the caption writer, the text accompanying the photo, and the audience.
Critic Susan Sontag argued that, through repeated exposure, certain well-known photographs have become "ethical reference points", such as the many images depicting the victims and liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (1977). From this perspective, the subtext of such images, though still connotatively open to interpretation, has been somewhat restrained by familiarity, predominant cultural beliefs regarding the Holocaust, and perhaps by overusage.
If there is a motion picture or video recording of the previously described scenario of a police officer arresting a man, the filmmakers, videographers, and editors may reframe this scene, by fragmenting the recording, depicting it from different vantage points, editing the material, and reassembling these components. A film editor can produce a non-realistic sequence of intercut, edited images, which forces the audience to interpret those images according to a different set of semiotic rules. Even without editing or alteration, a film or video recordings' mise en scène and non-verbal signs become much more explicit and enable the audience to attribute meaning to the scenario.
The value of this video as a signifier will be determined by its relation to the other signifiers in the system. Thus, if the video is included in a reputable television news program, it will acquire a greater claim to be indexical and its status is more likely to be considered reliable "evidence" of real world events. In semiotic terms, the words spoken by the television presenter will be symbolic, and the images will have both iconic and indexical qualities.
The "semiotic value" of the video will change if it is transposed into a polemical or satirical programme, presented by a commentator, or screened with on-screen captions (e.g., "Crime Wave in the Streets", or "Protesters Brutalized by Police"). These substitute contexts form modality indicators that may help the viewer to assess the plausibility, credibility, or truthfulness of the content. The violence shown on-screen can be aestheticized by the values of the symbolical signs used by the news presenter, by captions placed on-screen, or by the relations with other signifiers in the same programme (e.g., if the arrest video is preceded by a report about "antisocial and criminal behaviour").
If a film or television director staged a similar fictional scene, the audience will be predisposed to consider it less "real". They know that the scenario is being filtered through the film maker's sensibilities and the outcome will reflect the director's motives. Hence, the lighting, makeup, costumes, acting methods, cutting, and soundtrack music selection are understood to be combined to inform the audience about the film maker's intentions.
The culture industry's mass-produced texts and images about crime, violence, and war have been consolidated into genres. Film makers typically choose from a predictable range of narrative conventions and use stereotyped characters, and clichéd symbols and metaphors. Over time, certain styles and conventions of filming and editing are standardised within a medium or a genre. Some conventions tend to naturalise the content and make it seem more real. Other methods deliberately breach convention to create an effect, such as the canted angles, rapid edits, and slow motion shots used in films with aestheticized violence.