Reflection 1: Violence as Aesthetic in Film

A major theme in the topic of what makes violence in film art in Davy Ngyuen’s presentation of his paper, “Filming Fight Club Probably Hurt: Aesthetics and Violence” at Gonzaga’s Art, Nature, and the Sacred conference on January 28th, is the artist’s intention, or inspiration, of violence and the message violence sends to the audience.

Often the most graphic violence captures most of our attention. But it is the intention rather than the intensity of violence in film that defines art. Ngyuen distinguished between two kinds of intention of violence in film to understand what art is. The first is violence for the sake of being violent (what he calls gore-porn). Here, violence in film is superficial and exploitative and can be argued to lead audience members to become desensitized to its brutality, thus increasing their aggression. This is not art. On the other hand, the second is violence to critique or illuminate a point. Here, violence can be seen as liberating and providing outlets for the exploration of different topics. This is art. It demands analytical engagement from the viewer in order for its message to be understood and appreciated. An example that Ngyuen provided of these two kinds of violence in film is the movie SAW versus the Piano Teacher. This distinction between the use of gore and blood in mass market films and aestheticized violence helps answer the question, What is art?

Aestheticized violence has two categories, mythic violence and divine violence. Mythic violence focuses on making and preserving law and dealing with retribution. It is boundary-making and power-making violence. Divine violence, on the other hand, is the antithesis of mythic violence. Divine violence is law, boundary, and power destroying in favor of justice. It reaffirms the sovereignty of the self against the violence of the law. It is “lethal without shedding blood,” as Ngyuen said. These two kinds of violence stem from different inspirations and thus communicate wildly different messages to the audience.

Margaret Bruder, author of “Aestheticizing Violence, or How To Do Things with Style,” has a slightly different point of view.1 She argued that aestheticized violence demands to be stylistically excessive in a significant and sustained way. In movies with aestheticized violence, “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.” While Ngyuen emphasized the artist’s intention of the violence as the main distinguisher of what is art, Bruder claimed that the style of shots and edits are what makes a violent film true aesthetical art.

Ngyuen and Bruder’s opinions relate to our class discussion about Plato. Ngyuen seems to follow Plato, emphasizing the intention, or inspiration, of the artist, while Bruder puts more emphasis on the skill, talent, and knowledge of the film maker, an area which Plato ignores. I think both inspiration and skill play role in determining what art is, although I agree more with Plato’s emphasis on inspiration. Art requires intention and inspiration, while mastery of talent and skill deserve great appreciation but is more optional.

Another theme in Ngyuen’s presentation was the relationship between the artist and the spectator. Ngyuen believed violence in art requires the spectator to undergo a certain level of risk by engaging in the art. Voilence in art commands the viewer take responsibility to engage on an emotional and taxing level. This risk and responsibility provides the foundation for a relationship between artist and viewer. It gives the viewer a primarily role in understanding the message of the aesthetics of violence. Without this engagement, violence loses its artistic value.

During the question and answer period, Ngyuen admitted that too much reading in to and analyzing art can be problematic because it results in stripping the art of its mysterious beauty. I appreciated this comment because I think the balance between unlocking the inner meaning of art to fully appreciate its wonder, and overanalyzing it so much that it becomes merely a collection of metaphors and symbols is important. Being a Mathematics and Economics major who enjoys understanding things systematically, I am eager to push myself in this class to allow art to speak to me organically. I hope to be able to find the balance art evokes between inner personal reflection and intentional conversation between artist and spectator.

1. Bruder, Margaret Ervin (1998). “Aestheticizing Violence, or How To Do Things with Style”. Film Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington IN. Archived from the original on 2004- 09-08. Retrieved 2007-06-08.

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