How can artistic representations be aesthetically pleasing yet simultaneously morbid?
This comes in to play when discussing the conjunction of death and a beautiful woman in verbal or visual portrayals. How can we be delighted, fascinated and emotionally elevated by the depiction of a horrible event in another’s life, but know we would not wish it upon ourselves?
Representations of death draw the eye because they occur in a realm separate from our own – we are confronted with death, but it is the death of the “other”. We experience death by proxy.
When talking on the subject of poetic structure and how he approaches the topic of melancholy in his essay “philosophy of composition” Poe says “The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
Poe’s quote supports what seems to be a universal world view of women in art during his lifetime; a woman’s place is outside of art looking in, as a muse, used as a driving force for a mans creative poeticism. But the outcomes are not for them.
Their deaths are dactylic and bewitchingly satisfying to lament upon, but what sets the death of a beautiful woman apart from any other death?
When creating representations of femicide, divine or otherwise, you create a distance from reality; separating the identity of the figure described or depicted from that of a living being independent from a male narrative.
An example comes in the form of Maggie Nelson’s “Jane” which has the for-said quote in its early pages. Jane is an accumulation of poetry and the documentation of the writers late aunts life, a life that was cut short by what was thought at the time to be the actions of a serial killer.
After chapters and chapters of humanising groundwork, that builds an understanding of Jane as a soulful real woman, that has intimate and complicated emotions and relationships, you are left feeling empty at the medias reaction to her death shown in the final chapter. Watered down to nothing more than a body count tally and the focus of morbid curiosity, her autonomy is stolen by real crime writers that unconsciously bring the magnifying glass down on societies contradictory lust like obsession, and apparent moral disgust, for tales and images of violence.
We know she is more than just a transient victim in the pages of a national newspaper because Nelson hasn’t let us forget it, pipet feeding us the modest beauty of everyday life and the reality of a real woman over a mere couple hundred pages.
Having Pos’ quote in the beginning of her book contradicts and brings in to stark contrast the end and (maybe the goal ) of the last chapter.
It says there is nothing romantic in the death of a woman. There is nothing romantic in the medias portrayal of victims of serial killers, they just become plot points in the murderers story.
There is a beauty and romanticism of suicide and martyrdom in literature and art, but a complete lack of the same regard in the case of murder. This stresses the fundamental difference between the very real physical violence that is done to a body, and the “imagined” violence that is done with a pen or brush, the reality of death is not as easy to swallow. (expand)
“Woman is not a poet: she is a muse or she is nothing”- Robert Graves.
This romanticism often comes coupled with the Muse trope which was very opulent during the 19 century, and seemed to imply that a women on the verge of death or in fact already dead was the pinnacle of virtuous femininity. When exploring these tropes, professor Bram Dijkstra states that the obsessions with the weakened female form were “dangerous fantasises” that had a role in keeping women down trodden and submissive and concluded that images like these “constituted a further step in the marginalisation of women”
After the ultimate sacrifice for passion or cause, cold and lain out upon her pedestal, in her most passive state, she becomes and object. No longer obtainable in the a physical sense she becomes the subject of art and literature, and through that, she is obtainable again.
“it seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is a keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked”-Susan Sontag, regarding the pain of others , pg 36
In her book “beauty and being just” Elaine Scarry says “far from damaging our capacity to attend the problems of injustice,beauty instead intensifies the pressure we feel to repair existing injuries.……the fact that something is beautiful is bound up with an urge to protect it or act on its behalf”
This at surface level seems true as consistently thorough history we as humans have felt the urge to worshiped and protected that which we have found beautiful, but it is dangerous to ignore the reality that we often have just as powerful an urge to destroy and maim.
The most obvious contemporary examples are Yoko ono’s 1964 “cut piece” where the artist stands motionless on a stage with a pair of scissors at her feet inviting the audience to interact, and Marina Ambramovi?’s 1974 performance piece “Rhythm 0” that takes Ono’s concept to a more perilous level by the involvement of 72 objects that include a gun, various knives and a axe while also having less obviously antagonistic items such as olive oil, fruit and a rose lain out nearby.
that ended with a man holding a gun to her head and trying to get her to fire it before being intercepted by audience members.
Watching these performances you feel a a rising level of apprehension and empathy at the level of vulnerability being displayed and twangs of anger at the audience members taking pleasure in what feels like an abuse of trust. Cutting through her clothes and exposing Ono’s naked form and in Ambramovi?’s case, mutilating her body and directly threatening her life. but you also watch in fascination at what the next action will be and as the aggression rises in the room. You think you know that you wouldn’t push the boundaries of moral decency like the participating audience are doing, but maybe thats what they thought too before being given the consequence free freedom of doing so.