Monday, April 5, 2010

The Architecture of Serial Killers

A few years ago I was seated next to a guy at a dinner party, where I had been introduced as an artist from New York. It was somewhere far enough out of town where that was exotic (we are like fleas on a yard dog in Brooklyn), and my dinner companion, who was an accountant or some such thing, asked me what artists talk about when they get together. I said, "Movies. What do you guys talk about?"
I was giving the guy a hard time, but I wasn't joking. There is good reason to believe its always been this way (in New York at least, which really doesn't date back as an artworld much beyond WWI). In 1966 the artist Robert Smithson wrote:
Artists see an infinite number of movies. Hutchinson, for instance, instead of going to the country to study nature, will go to see a movie on 42nd Street, like ‘Horror at Party Beach' two or three times and contemplate it for weeks on end. The "blood and guts" of horror movies provide for their "organic needs," scifi movies provide for their "inorganic needs." Serious movies are too heavy on "values," and so are dismissed by the more perceptive artists. Such artists have X-ray eyes, and can see through all of that cloddish substance that passes for "deep and profound" these days.
I like that Smithson quote, not because I imagine myself as having "X-ray eyes" but because it gives me solid high art grounding for my disinterest in serious film. I know movies the way most Americans do. I go to them. As an artist I watch for artists. Bio pics like Thirty two Short Films about Glenn Gould and Mishima are obvious places to look (and two of my all time favorite movies), but because movies are made by artists, I don't just look in the obvious places. I watch for artists in every movie I see.
There are no artists is Star Wars (just felt it needed to be said). Heist movies are a super badass version of how it feels to work on a large art exhibition (and probably a film) - bring the team together, pulling an old friend back into the game, building task-specific tools, all-nighters, then finally the job, a short celebration and everybody goes there separate ways. But it is an imperfect fit. Thieves seldom have a point beyond profit. If there is an agenda at all it might be revenge. Heists are not art. Serial killers in Hollywood movies are a perfect fit. They are the Marcel Duchamp of Hollywood. They have a point, and it is to upend convention, break down social norms, to shock. They are manifesto writing preachers.

Smithson went on to write in that same essay that "Artists that like Horror tend toward the emotive, while artists who like Sci-fic tend toward the perceptive." Again, I am making no special claims about my perception, but I am not a big fan of Horror. All the same, some things stick out.
The serial killer's lair in Se7en looks like the most awesome artist studio ever. It is filled to the ceiling with tools, images, sketchbooks, stacks of material, and cool constructions made of appropriated materials. Likewise with Hannibal Lecter's storage space in Silence of the Lambs. Although strictly speaking Hannibal is an interesting exception. He's not an artist, but he is an aesthete. He is the serial killer as art collector.
Lecter's protégé Buffalo Bill is the midwestern career art professor as serial killer. His lair is a basement workshop. It is a grizzly turn on the sorts of spaces you only see outside New York. In New York an artist is lucky to have one large room, and everyone in New York (not just artists) lives like college students. Visiting artist's studios in Missouri or Michigan or wherever; where artists have more then one workspace; where they live in houses with driveways and own dinning room sets, is a somewhat painful experience for a long time New Yorker.
If Buffalo Bill were going to give me a studio tour it would probably make me a little jealous too: "Here is where I raise my deaths head moths," he would tell me, "I used to special order them. In this room is where I listens to disco while sewing my Ed Gein-esque body suits out of tanned human skin. (he's a HUGE influence on my work.) That? Its an old well, its probably 200 years old, left over from the original homestead. I use it as a holding pen. The house is a Craftsmen. It was built in 1910. When I bought it is had this horrible aluminum siding. Did you notice the built in hutch up stairs, and the leaded glass? Everything inside was intact. I bought it for $4000.00 eight years ago. Can you believe it?" Kill me.
I first made the connection between artists and serial killers soon after I started art school, because the killer’s walls are always decorated with little pictures, sketches, and other scraps of various what-what. That's what artist student's walls look like: A couple Joel-Peter Witkin photos, engravings of micro-organisms, an cool postcard invitation from a Matthew Ritchie show, a plastic toy, some strips of human skin, and voila, an artist studio/serial killer's lair. These little bits of imagery and reference materials serve the same function in both spaces. They are hung for the benefit of the audience. Students generally don't have much more than a year or two's worth of art, very few tools usually little or no furniture. They hang images that are supposed to give some insight into their creative process; to tell us a little something about what he or she is creating, but also give a studio some ambience, make it feel arty. I still do it. Serial killers ALWAYS do it.
The Cell takes this trope one step further. In that film we actually see into the killers mind and what we are shown are images lifted directly from the art world (Matthew Barney, and Damien Hirst most notably). Watching it was a bit like seeing a shopping survey show like Greater New York: "I saw that at Gladstone! Wasn't that at Kreps two years ago?, I didn't see that, but I heard about it..." Commercial artists and designers lift imagery from the artworld all the time, Hollywood is no different. And terms like obsessive, schizophrenic and paranoid are used to describe artistic activities with regularity. For a long time I was offended by the association between pathology and creativity. After all, art is a healthy productive engagement with life. Artists should be the ideal, not a gruesome deviance from acceptable norms.
Consider what a serial killer actually is. It is a psychopath with no empathy or sense of guilt. These are not creative people, or expressive people these are empty disconnected violent men (this really does seem to be a social derangement tagged to the Y chromosome). By any definition the serial killer is sexually deranged. As portrayed in Hollywood films their deviance is pointed. While always a bit effeminate they are fey in the most sinister sense of the word. In his essay Losing the War Lee Sandlin writes:
People now understand [fey] to mean effeminate. Previously it meant odd, and before that uncanny, fairylike. That was back when fairyland was the most sinister place people could imagine. The Old Norse word meant, “doomed.” It was used to refer to an eerie mood that would come over people in battle, a kind of transcendent despair.
Artists are often fey in a far less sinister way. But perhaps it is not that the feyness of art is not being recast as violent deviance, perhaps there is something more complex then homophobia and misogyny going on (in the better movies). Perhaps when someone says an artist's work is obsessive (I get that one a lot), that his or her intellectual style is paranoid (I've gotten that one too) or schizophrenic (that I never hear), art is not being driven down, it is simply being asked to carry a new burden.
Michel Foucault wrote about mental illness not as an organic disease, but as a cultural construction. what is crazy shifts over time. The term nostalgia was originally used to describe a mental disorder. It started its life as a pathology, but has been normalized. In the post war years the paintings of Jackson Pollack and other Abstract Expressionists were discussed in terms of alienation, a term that had been coined to describe a mental disorder. But if I were to describe myself as alienated no one would prescribe medication - it has became a nonthreatening condition akin to nostalgia. Hysteria and homosexuality are no longer treated as mental illness. Feminism and gay rights are still heavily contested ground in our society, but it is clear in which direction things are going. Artist still manage to get the Rudolph Giulianis of the world worked up, but nothing like the battles over Robert Maplethorp's photographs in the 1980s. Whatever anxieties the social conservatives have, their fear is waning.
According to the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard the function of the avant-garde “is to deconstruct everything that belongs to order, to show that all this 'order' conceals something else, that it represses.” That was deeply threatening inside and outside the art world once upon a time. But now it has as much rhetorical punch as nostalgia. Of all the varieties of artist the serial killer resembles the avant-garde artist most. They have a agenda of social disruption. They mean to shock and defamiliarize. They are making the avant-garde confusion of art and life in the most gruesome fashion.
But the serial killer is insane, violent, and subtractive. Art can be all of these things as well. It is an alogical enterprise. However Stockhausen was horribly wrong, art is never murder. If artists disfigure flesh, it is almost invariably their own. Marina Abramović, Chris Burden, Orlan, and Bob Flanagan all put their own flesh on the line to make points. Santiago Sierra is the only artis I can think of who disfigures the flesh of other people (shame on him, and everyone who supports him). Art is being asked to lift something out of the sinister depths, but it is not murder. The serial killer is a pointed depiction, it is the artist with an agenda beyond self-expression. It is the artist as an agent of change. These are often disturbing figures.
I remember reading that the reason Foster didn't reprise her role as the FBI agent Clarice in the sequel to Silence of the Lambs was because she felt the script betrayed her character (after seeing Hannibal I saw why, the film had no moral bearings). Empathy is a word we associate with discussions of mental health, but it was coined to describe the relationship of the viewer to abstract painting. It names the struggle to see in the painting what the artist was feeling. Art is not a straightforward, cause and effect experience. Neither is empathy.
Part of watching Silence of the Lambs is knowing who Foster is, knowing her integrity as an actor. She does not just shape my feelings about Clarice, but the entire film. Her presence (and her moral stance when presented with a script she found truly amoral) is a challenge. It dares us not to empathize. The artist in the role of serial killer is shamanistic. Pathologies are being normalized. The fey revolutionary is being masticated, digested painfully and made less threatening.


  1. What is the title of that picture (7th frame) that has an old man holding a hammer?

  2. Artists and serial killers have so much in common; for one - they have a deep sense of self, with acute focus and detail. Also collecting, who collects stuff like serial killers and artists? I mean really. Some artists also to consider might be Paul McCarthy or even Bruce Nauman.

    You didn't mention musicians, actors and directors (Tarantino, Nick Cage, White Zombie, Lady Gaga, etc.). How would they fit?

  3. tpfkazrs: That is "Melvin Burckart Human Oddity, Florida" by Joël-Peter Witkin. I haven't found an elegant way to add captions, but would like to if anyone has any suggestions...

    Michelle: Paul McCarthy is in the ballpark, but I have never been convinced by Bruce Nauman. I think I set the bar very high - "change agent" (for lack of a better term) is a particular and intense cultural role. To actually be threatening takes a level of commitment that is rare. A world famous artist’s willingness to abandon painting, and embrace art - like Duchamp. To be shot and crucified like Chris Burden. To cut, abrade, burn, and display your own flesh like Marina Abramović. To sodomize yourself like Matthew Barney.

    It also requires that the extremity of the act connects with the world, has effect. How sad to go so far as to commit suicide, as Ray Johnson appears to have done, and yet leave nothing behind but a garbled code? It is very rare to try and succeed.

    I love Tarantino but don't think he works. Werner Herzog, David Lynch, and Lars Von Trier could be added to that list I suppose. I imagine a lot of other filmmakers could be as well. (Paul Verhoeven?) But because I was considering genre movie, not “serious film”, it would have muddied the water.

    Musicians should fit - Stravinski’s Rites of Spring? Dylan plugging in his guitar – those were threatening moments. Gaga is like Nauman, Smart, interesting, but she doesn't make me squirm.

    The physical transformations made by Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and Christian Bale in the Machinist; the physical intensity of Dustin Hoffman’s method acting in Running Man; Martin Sheen’s on set collapse in Apocalypse Now – these all seem to fall short, maybe because that intensity is perapepetic, not life-long. Even Klaus Kinski seems to fall short.

    For some reason stand up comics fit. Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Red Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks all come to mind. Those guys all managed to say frighteningly funny things. They really made people squirm. Even Paul Reubens could be added to that list:

    Imagine all the kids who got spanked that morning for riffling through their father's underpants drawers.

  4. Can't believe you didn't reference either Francis Bacon or his studio...

  5. It's a great point Matt. When I wrote this I alos hadn't seen Fritz Lang's "M" yet either - another glaringly missing piece. I should probably update this post witha sequel.

  6. Wow, lots of really interesting insights. I am an artist myself and have been interested in the pathology of killers for a long time. I do agree with you on many points. I would say that both artists and serial killers are introspective people, know who they are and what they want to express. Beyond that- they're more like opposites. The killer is a destroyer, leaves nothing but devastation and does it all only for their own perverse pleasure. The artist is a creator, they make things of beauty and interest and for the benefit of the many.

  7. Thanks Xandriss. Just to be clear: I don't believe that actual serial killers have anything in common with artists. This post is about the way artists are portrayed in Hollywood films - as serial killers. I in know way think Serial killers are artists, or even artistic. I think they are totally broken human beings, while creative working people are paragons of mental health.