Art as a Murderous Act

Posted on January 17, 2016


“I’ve got a peculiar weakness for criminals and artists – neither takes life as it is. Any tragic story has to be in conflict with things as they are.” – Stanley Kubrick

What makes one person choose art and another one murder? One controversial theory suggests that artists and criminals do have something in common: They like to break the rules. Where they do differ is in their choice of weaponry and strategies of attack. Whether wielding a knife or brush, these transgressors exploit their talents (or psychopathologies) to express primal feelings of rage, love, hate, despair or passion – crawling into the darkest corners to find a treasure trove of disturbing imagery and thoughts.

Modern art, often equated with the ‘transgressive’, pitted the progressive avant-garde against the conservative academy or salon. In fact, there are many artists today whose work breeds (or enacts) a remarkable continuity between murder and creation; violence and passion; and death and life.


  1. An act that goes against a law, rule, or code of conduct; an offense.

Seems criminal. Right? Well, maybe not.

In his recent book, Trangressions, prominent lawyer Anthony Julius, sets out to explore what he terms the “offences of art” from a legal and moral, but also a social and aesthetic point of view. Julius asks whether art still has the power to shock us, whether it serves, in the process, to enlarge our imaginative horizon or merely diminishes our sense of humanity. Is transgressive art merely folly for our depravity and lust?

 “Where no law is, there is no transgression.” (Romans 4:15)

In Transgression (another book of the same name), sociologist Chris Jenks states that “transgression is not the same as disorder; it opens up chaos and reminds us of the necessity of order.” Through Jenks’ definition, as cited in the book Transgressive Imaginations: Crime, Deviance and Culture (Maggie O’Neill and Lizzie Sea), “it is clear that transgression can have both liberating effects and severe consequences. It can be liberating to ‘break the rules’ and to find and go beyond the edges of acceptability.” To do so potentially offers new ways of seeing or establishing social order and identities.


Image published by Warren Ellis on his website in 2014

As fiction writer and graphic novelist Warren Ellis so candidly expressed in his article, Blood in Your Eye: Why We Need Violent Stories (Vulture Magazine 2013), art exists for humans “to consider the real world in ways that simple objective views simply cannot do – from the inside.” We cannot Other characters or experiences when we see the world from inside their heads or by walking in their shoes. The Other, “revealed as a damaged or estranged human,” can teach us something about “the roots of violence or the trappings of horror.”

Through art, Ellis suggests, we can interrogate the atrocities in the world, the real cancers of our society. “You can’t ignore a tumor” (well, you can of course, but consider the consequences). In order to learn about things we need to look at them and roll them around on our tongues. This is the system of art: writing, painting or enacting something in order to get a more nuanced look. “Art is how we both study and de-fang our monsters. To lock violent (or repulsive) art away, or to close our eyes to it, is to give our monsters and fears undeserved power” – or fertile ground for the darker edges of humanity to grow and expand. In fact, suppressing such things may be what provokes us into hateful acts of revenge, killing sprees or other catastrophic tragedies.


Louise Bourgeois, Art is a Guarantee of Sanity, 1999

The late artist, Louise Bourgeios, considered her art as a parallel form of psychoanalysis, offering privileged and unbridled access to her unconscious, as well as a form of psychological release. On a piece of pink paper she once scratched the slogan, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” Her artwork can be viewed as a reparative act, a form of mental mending, or in more aggressive pieces, an act of violent catharsis.

“Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” – Theodor Adorno

Here it seems, Adorno is talking about art as catharsis. Ideas and emotions build up inside and must be released via some medium or other way. In other words, it is better to utilise a paintbrush than a gun. Through art, we can experience violent hatred and a desire to kill someone (even ourselves) without causing actual harm (although this could potentially be argued with some art). This means we have dark feelings worthy of our acceptance, exploration and self-expression. Once we give way to these violent thoughts, art can move us into quiet or epic moments of healing and insight. By no longer holding on to its charge, the darkness can evolve spontaneously into something else – something humorous, provocative, poetic or deeply profound.


Untitled, construction paper, Tom Friedman, 2000


Tom Friedman is known for transforming mundane materials into meticulously crafted works that use humour and wonder to reflect more deeply on creation and destruction. His ‘splat’ victim (possibly pushed or jumped to his death from the rafters above), is born from the artist’s careful cutting and assembling of construction paper. The artist uses his material to conjure up feelings about human fragility and violent death with his evocative use of merging a realistically torn body with cartoon references to lighten the load.



The late Chris Burden produced a series of controversial performances in the early 1970s in which the idea of personal danger as artistic expression was central. “Shoot” was one of a number of violent performances in which Burden subjected himself to danger, thereby creating a double bind, for viewers, between the citizenly injunction to intervene in crises and the institutional taboo against touching art. He spent five days in a small locker, with a bottle of water above and a bottle for urine below; slithered, nearly naked, across fifty feet of broken glass; had his hands nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen; was kicked down a flight of stairs; and on different occasions, incurred apparent risks of burning, drowning, and electrocution. Death by art?



The Vienna Action Group was a group of anti-commodity artists who came together to make art of transgressive action using gestures of blood, semen and meat in the 1960s. The main Vienna Actionists were Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Their violent, antisocial actions of theatrical savagery put the artists constantly at odds with the Austrian law and police for taking seemingly dangerous risks. The artists served jail sentences for breaking laws of moral decency, public exposure and degrading symbols of the state – pain, self-mutilation, guilt and exorcism were common themes in provocative performances that resembled pagan orgies or ritual sacrifices. 


Myra HindleyIn 1997, the controversial Sensation exhibition of young British art opened at the Royal Academy. Angry visitors tossed red and blue ink and raw eggs over a portrait of Myra Hindley and issued threats: “Unless you tell me it’s withdrawn, I’m coming round to the academy and I’m going to stab the first person I see.” What provoked such violent anger? Marcus Harvey’s portrait was of a woman convicted of being a child murderer. The painting is a composed entirely of duplicated hand prints taken from a hand casting from a four year old girl, the daughter of a friend. Although such a gesture may initially seem insensitive and cruel, on closer inspection, the handprints “seemed to claw at Hindley’s face, obliterating her features with their tiny grasping palms. It had the chill of horror we feel but can rarely express.” (Jessica Lack in her article, Censoring Provocative Art is the Worst Advert for 2012 Art published in The Guardian)




Janice Kerbel, Three marked decks, Bicycle Riderback, 1999 (detail) – photo Bettina Hoffmann via Canadian Art Magazine

Since 1996, artist Janice Kerbel has submerged herself in explorations of various modes of deception. Her most recent pieces like Bank Job, Kill the Workers! and DOUG are some of her best-known works, but her interest in creating fictional crimes and deceptions go back to her early days as an artist. In 1996, she made a series of jams from flowers and poisonous berries that she canned like strawberry preserves. Accompanying the jars were descriptions of the sinister effects these concoctions would have on the human body. Her jams posed a threat as desirable yet potentially dangerous objects for consumption. Under the ‘authority’ of traditional fieldwork and botanical science, this series of work questioned the construction and myth of the femme fatale.



thumb-e1418992654644Gunther von Hagen’s life reads like an archetypal scientist’s resume—distinguished by early ingenuity, scholarship, discovery, experimentation and invention. ‘Dr. Death’ invented a ‘plastination’ process, which is the craft of preserving human bodies by replacing the natural body fluids and fats with solid plastic. His infamous Body Worlds exhibition includes 175 body parts and 25 corpses, including the bisected body of a pregnant woman with her womb cut open to reveal the fetus. Despite millions of viewers who have visited his exhibitions, others have harshly criticized his work as macabre and exploitive, referring to him as a “modern-day Frankenstein.” Besieged by controversy, this “artist-cum-scientist” has faced angry Christians and governments who are offended by his offerings to sell ‘slices’ of human remains online and for breaching laws in handling of corpses. In 2004, von Hagen agreed to return seven corpses to China after admitting that the bodies used in his exhibitions might be executed prisoners.




Self, 2001

Back in 1991, Marc Quinn’s “blood” self-portrait caused quite a sensation, catapulting a bizarre art project into the world spotlight. Every five years, the artist casts a detailed self-portrait from his own frozen blood. Yes, they are creepily sublime, yet, beautifully outrageous. He created the Self-Series as a means of recording the changes to his facial features as he ages. Quinn said about his work that, “By some freak coincidence, the volume of my head is the volume of the circulation system of my body, about nine pints. In the years [that] I’m making a blood head I go and visit my doctor every six weeks and he takes a pint out in the same way as if I was giving blood.” The work is uncanny in how it shows the impossibility of immortality. He describes it as a work of art on life support: “If you unplug it, it turns to a pool of blood. It can only exist in a culture where looking after art is a priority,” says Quinn.




The Destruction of the Father, plaster, latex, wood, fabric and red light, 1974

In 1974, Louise Bourgeois presented her sculpture, The Destruction of the Father. Described as intimate in size, this telling piece speaks clearly to her deep interest in psychoanalysis, her personal history and her unique technical abilities and style. It is well known that Bourgeois’ early family life, with an ill mother and adulterous father, shaped her sculptures, drawings and prints. According to her New York Times obituary, this evocative piece was inspired by “a fantasy from childhood in which a pompous father, whose presence deadens the dinner hour night after night, is pulled onto the table by other family members, dismembered and gobbled up.” In an interesting blog article, Bourgeois the Artist, Bourgeois the Cook, writer Nicole J. Caruth makes some profound observations regarding her inclusion in the Food Sex Art: The Starving Artists’ Cookbook video project by artists Paul Lamarre and Melissa P. Wolf:

“An image of her hanging phallic sculpture Janus (1968) practically overshadows her recipe for “Oxtail.” There is something to be said here for the unacknowledged relationship between recipe and sculpture. Oxtail, prior to being butchered, very much resembles an uncircumcised penis. Sometimes animal penis and tail are both classified as waste; other times, in some cultures, they are considered delicacies or (like art) luxury items.”

Murderous is not the same as murdering. One is an adjective, the other a verb. Art, then, is a murderous act (however, symbolic) – a way to explore the dark side of humanity. In fact, according to Ellis, “it is entirely possible that we need to get a little blood in our eyes to see the world more clearly.”

 “Who has fully realized that history is not contained in thick books but lives in our very blood?” – Carl Jung

 “All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

 “The noir hero is a knight in blood caked armor. He’s dirty and he does his best to deny the fact that he’s a hero the whole time.” – Frank Miller

 “The blood jet is poetry and there is no stopping it.” – Sylvia Plath

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