Thinking about Aesthetic Violence: The Case of Bonnie and Clyde
"They have been asking, what is the ‘effect’ of art on violence? But from a philosophic point of view, what we may need to ask even more is, what is the effect of real life violence on art? That is, how does the world produce conditions under which artists may feel themselves compelled to represent violent behaviour and its results?"
Remember the movie, Bonnie and Clyde? Produced by Warren Beatty, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Beatty and Faye Dunaway, it was released in 1967. I probably first saw it in 1968, during its second release, when I was sixteen years-old. I was fascinated from the outset, no doubt in large part because of its thrilling candour about sex. In the opening scene, Dunaway, playing Bonnie, appears nude at her bedroom window, peering down into a yard where Beatty, playing Clyde, is looking for a car to steal. It is a very torrid scene, perhaps ‘the sexiest come-on in film history’, as one Guardian critic has written. But much of the plot then turns on Clyde’s impotence; and one of the emotional climaxes of the film comes when the seething tension over sex is overwhelmed by joyous camaraderie, and Bonnie and Clyde become genuine lovers.
Candour about sex: that was almost never seen in Hollywood movies, mainly because up until about 1967 it was virtually illegal. The Hollywood Production Code prohibited it. But now the Code was gone, and filmmakers enjoyed a new freedom, allowing them to imitate European and Japanese auteurs in trying to show life as it really is, and not how popular cultural fantasies wanted it to be.
In fact, Bonnie and Clyde pays homage to popular culture again and again, but largely in a light-hearted ironic mode, borrowed from the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. And soon enough, the movie turns dark, returning to life as it really is – or at least, as cinema can show how it really is. A man gets shot in the face. A woman gets blinded by shrapnel, shrieking in indignation and pain. Deadly gun battles between Bonnie and Clyde gang and the police ensue. At the end of the movie comes an uncanny tour-de-force, based on what happened to the real-life Bonnie and Clyde. In real life they were brought to death by a posse of state troopers. Ambushing the couple while they were driving in the countryside, the posse shot one hundred thirty rounds of ammunition at the vehicle; Bonnie and Clyde each were torn apart by about 25 lethal bullet wounds. In the film, such a violent moment gets reproduced by way of a cinematic tour de force.
During 59 seconds of apparently continuous action, sometimes in slow motion, sometimes in real time, comes a montage of 50 shots: bullets exploding, the automobile pock-marked with bullet holes, and Bonnie’s and Clyde’s bodies ripped apart. As Clyde crumbles to the ground, a piece of his head is shot off, an allusion to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As Bonnie gets shot her body responds as if she were a marionette, pulled by the force of the bullets as if by too many puppet strings in too many directions at once. Moments later, the film comes to an end. And it is shockingly sad.
Bonnie and Clyde was a eventually a big hit; it was nominated for several Academy Awards and soon came to be regarded as a masterpiece. But it was also noted for opening a Pandora’s box of violence in film. Hollywood films would never be the same. They would produce graphically, horrifyingly dramatized violence, even more than they would produce graphically torrid sex.
The next few decades in America saw violent crime increase to record levels, and reasonably enough, many saw a correlation: films and other art forms representing more and more violence, and citizens becoming more and more violent themselves. Study after study in the behavioural sciences was produced which seemed to prove that exposure to violence in films and other media caused an increase in violent or at least aggressive behaviour.
But violent crime in America and elsewhere in the developed world has dropped considerably since the early 1990s, even as the media have if anything become more violent than ever before. And that should give us pause about the idea that film and other media cause violent behaviour. Whether crime is up or down, we need to think twice about how we correlate fictional violence with real violence, and how we go about studying them.
In my new book, The Aesthetics of Violence: Art, Fiction, Drama and Film, I propose that most of the behavioural studies arguing for a correlation between fictional and real violence, which continue to this day, are bogus. Among the reasons for my objections to the studies are their faulty experimental presuppositions and faulty methods. Generally, subjects are exposed to violent art—often, very poor violent art – and then ‘measured’ as to how ‘aggressive’ they now are over a short term. Very little thought is put into what aggression is, and how it might be related to violence, or how culture intervenes in establishing what ‘violence’ and ‘aggression’ are. But the main reason for my objection is this: behavioural scientists by-and-large ignore the nature of art, of fiction and aesthetic experience, in favour of what I call vulgar Platonism. (Plato, of course, argued that poetry had a bad effect on the souls of citizens, because it caused mimicry and aroused unhealthy emotions.) They have been asking, what is the ‘effect’ of art on violence? But from a philosophic point of view, what we may need to ask even more is, what is the effect of real life violence on art? That is, how does the world produce conditions under which artists may feel themselves compelled to represent violent behaviour and its results?
Go back to Bonnie and Clyde. It is no doubt a 1960s’ response to perceptions about the role of violence in contemporary America, including the escalation by America of the war in Vietnam, urban race riots, and a series of high-profile assassinations: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. It appeared that American culture suffered from two equally troubling propensities: one, a propensity for violence within, and the other, a propensity for violence without. Americans were raging against each other, and they were raging against foreign countries too. In such an environment, art was called upon to act, not just to reflect on the current situation but to intervene it and produce its own event. That artworks are events is one of the crucial premises of my study. Art does not just reflect the world; it also acts upon it and within it. And so, filmmakers and other artists began exploring how to configure the shape, the morality, the consequences and the emotional implications of violence so far it could rendered in artistic form and presented to the public.
With the creation of an event there also comes responsibility, as many artists were and are well aware. Art has a responsibility toward violence, as it does toward any aspect of human life. And what kind of responsibility? It is not what the behavioural scientists would tell us. It is not that films and other art forms cause us to imitate what we see, so that artists ought be circumspect about what they do. It is rather that artworks cause us to imagine and to judge, to feel and to think. The responsibility is thus not to set up models to imitate or not, but to confront us with our own perplexities. The purpose of art is both to calm us down and shake us up, to explain and disturb, but to do so in a zone of aesthetic distance. On the subject of violence in the movies, the director of Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn, thus perhaps put it best: ‘The trouble with the violence in most films’, he told a reporter, ‘is that it is not violent enough’.
Being ‘violent enough’, though, is not, in spite of the word ‘enough’, a quality that can be measured. Nor can its ‘effects’. It is a quality the emerges from a pact between artists and their public, a pact which says, however fictional an artwork is, it will not lie, not even about violence and sex. Bonnie and Clyde is a good example of an artwork that doesn’t lie. There are many many more examples. And would there were still more, regardless of what behavioural scientists say.