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Given: 1° Art  2° Crime

Modernity, Murder and Mass Culture

In the series
Critical Inventions

Jean-Michel Rabaté has been a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania since 1992. He is a managing editor of the Journal of Modern Literature and a senior curator of Slought Foundation. He has authored or edited more than twenty books on Modernism, literary theory, psychoanalysis and contemporary art. Recent titles include: The Future of Theory (2002); Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Jacques Lacan (2003), The Palgrave Guide to Joyce Studies (2004), Logiques du Mensonge (2005), and 1913 (forthcoming).

This exciting new study investigates links between avant-garde art and the aesthetics of crime in order to bridge the gap between high modernism and mass culture, as emblematized by tabloid reports of unsolved crimes. Throughout Jean-Michel Rabate is concerned with two key questions: what is it that we enjoy when we read murder stories? and what has modern art to say about murder? Indeed, Rabate compels us to consider whether art itself is a form of murder.
… The book begins with Marcel Duchamp’s fascination for trivia and found objects conjoined with his iconoclasm as an anti-artist. The visual parallels between the naked woman at the centre of his final work, ‘Etant Donnés’, and a young woman who had been murdered in Los Angeles in January 1947, provides the specific point of departure. Steven Hodel’s recent book has thrown new light on what was called the 'Black Dahlia' murder by pointing to one of Duchamp’s friends, Man Ray, who, according to Hodel, was the murderer’s inspirator. This putative involvement recalls Walter Benjamin’s description of Eugene Atget’s famous photographs of deserted Paris streets as presenting ‘the scene of the crime’. Indeed, this phrase was used as the title for Ralph Roff’s 1997 exhibition, which implied that modern art is indissociable from forensic gaze and a detective’s outlook, a view first advanced by Edgar Allan Poe who invoked both criminal detection and manuscript studies in his 1846 essay ‘Philosophy of Composition’. Arguing that Poe’s fanciful account of the genesis of his story ‘The Raven’ can be superimposed onto his deft solving of murders like that of the ‘Rue Morgue’ or of Marie Roget, the author goes on to suggest that Poe’s aesthetic parallels Thomas De Quincey’s contemporaneous essay ‘Of Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-111-5
Hardback Price: £47.50 / $67.50
Release Date: September 2006
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-112-2
Paperback Price: £16.95 / $29.95
Release Date: September 2006
Page Extent / Format: 184 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Colour plate section


List of Illustrations
Series Editor’s Preface


The Esthetics of Murder: Of sirens, traces and auras
1 Freud’s Da Vinci Code: Interpretation as crime
2 Duchamp’s fait-divers: Murder as a “ready-made”
3 Scene of the Crime: Nothing to see!
4 Scalpel and Brush, Pen and Poison: The ekphrasis of murder
5 Who Killed Bergotte? The patch and the corpse
6 Surrealist Esthetics of Murder: From hysteria to paranoia
7 Murder as Kitsch, Abstraction and Ritual

Conclusion How to Think “Not Abstractly”


Recommended for faculty and graduate students, Jean-Michel Rabaté’s Given, 1º Art 2º Crime is a study that aims to link avant-garde art to the aesthetics of murder in order to bridge the gap between modernism and mass culture, where the latter is often embodied by both popular best-selling novels and tabloid coverage of unsolved murder cases. As such, it might be more accurate to think of Rabaté’s study as Given, 1º Murder, 2º Art. That is, he premises his argument on Thomas De Quincey’s contention that murder can be considered one of the fine arts, if one separates the aesthetic from the moral. This separation of ethics and aesthetics is permissible if the murder has already been committed, whereby it ought to be treated as an aesthetic spectacle to be enjoyed. However, how we enjoy the aesthetics of murder has changed over time. Instead of basking in the sublime aura of masterpieces, Rabaté argues that we now reduce this aura into a network of clues and traces. In doing so, we need to turn into skilled detectives in order to discover the hidden clues left in the body of evidence. Yet this extends beyond the idea of critic-as-detective and into the realm of paranoia. In other words, what is new about Rabaté’s assertion is the idea of critic as paranoid criminal-detective. Like the basic law of the genre of detective stories, everyone has to be suspected (p. 80) by a critic who is ready to become criminal (p. 13) through the offering of transgressive interpretations of works of art. Even when there are no obvious traces to be found in the work of art, the critic can always hallucinate them into being through the use of paranoia-criticism (p. 121).
IASL online

Murder, considered as a fine art, is not of course the sole purview of modernism, but the banality and brutality of crime finds its aesthetics most explicitly detailed in modernist art, in a manner that connects high culture and mass culture, as Jean-Michel Rabaté illustrates in his sustained meditation on the auratic condition of modern sublimity. If the art of modernity focuses on the everyday, draining realist significance from object or event in order to invest itself with an ‘automony of esthetics,’ then what takes place in the transformation of violent reality into text is that, as Rabaté argues, ‘the work of art simply turns into its own reality’ (3); or as ‘de Quincey tells us, via Kant, … murder both ‘is’ not murder and ‘is’ murder when it becomes art’ (Rabaté 3). De Quincey anticipates modernist aesthetics to this extent: that art in representing something violent, or in engaging in violent representation, divorces representation of reality from subservience to giving meaning or significance to reality. It ‘becomes once and for all self-reflexive,’ as Rabaté puts it in summarizing the English opium eater (3). This provocative affirmation is less a statement to be misread as a so-called postmodern or poststructuralist denial of meaning (as so many bad readers have insisted for so long now, out of a fear that reading might involve one in changing one’s opinions), than it is a recognition that such violent rupture occasioned in art is itself the irreversible aesthetic and epistemological transformation of the text through the advent of modern consciousness. This in turn, as Rabaté goes on to explore, throws up matters of taste, in Given: 1o Art 2o Crime: Modernity, Murder and Mass Culture, a profoundly insightful, witty book, which, with great panache focuses ‘on a number of late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century artists
who cross the bridges linking the history of the avant-garde and the esthetics of murder’ (5).
Everyday Modernities

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