Horror, art and defining ‘the aesthetic’

Born into art but tainted by the revulsion that is intrinsic to its very nature, horror is deemed ‘untouchable’; impure, contaminated, debase – less than. Enveloped in all that disgusts, horror is a chaos of murder-masochism-mayhem that defies the ethics of an ordered society. It exists as an outcast, an exile; demonised, shunned, scorned and abhorred by fan and foe alike. But repugnance is no disqualifying factor. When the (apparent) bedlam of a world enveloped in the psychosis of masked maniacs and marvellous monsters is commandeered by thought, skill, imagination, heart and intellect, not only is horror art, but great art.

The likes of bloody corpses and rotting flesh challenge the notion of ‘the aesthetic’ prescribed by artistic classification, in much the same way that Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Pop Art, Dada, Expressionism, De Stijl – modern art in other words – challenged the ordinance of the classical academy. The art of the twentieth century (in particular) has altered the principles of the aesthetic, the definition of which has been amended by context and social change. Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce was a proponent of the idea that ‘expression’ is central to the definition of artistic aesthetic in the way that beauty was once thought to be a fundamental component thereof. Art reflects the society of which it is a part, and it only makes sense that the terms used to define art evolve along with that which influences its character.

Another important philosophy to emerge in the twentieth century was articulated by Eli Siegel – American philosopher, poet and founder of ‘Aesthetic Realism’ – who said that reality itself is aesthetic.

And reality isn’t always pretty.

Dali, Bacon, Munch, Giger, Andersen, Shakespeare, Stoker, Shelly, King, Lovecraft, Poe… they all knew/know it. But what of cinema – Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Ring, Hostel, Midnight Meat Train, Alien? Why is it so difficult for society to acknowledge the artistic aesthetic of the horror genre, in relation to film specifically?

Philosopher David Novitz has argued that classificatory disputes in relation to ‘what constitutes art’ are more often disputes about societal values and where society is trying to go than they are about theory proper. And by implication, society’s vilification of the horror film is a case of moral indignation, rather than philosophical expulsion.

But if ‘realism’ and ‘expression’ are accepted as core values of the aesthetic, then horror, film included, is an integral member of the artistic fraternity. Horror is unquestionably expressive. As an occasional satire and certain metaphor, horror offers insight into a fractured psyche, a broken world. Serial killers and the supernatural function as symbols for, and expressions of, human pathology. Horror uses hyperbole to reflect the human condition and thus exists on a dichotomous platform that hinges on an ironic representation of reality; fantasy is a reflection of real life. Like the folk stories of old, horror is a cautionary tale, a warning – divert from the proverbial path (whatever it may be) and trouble will follow.

Horror is easily intellectualised but its success is not rooted in the notion of critical thought. Horror is primal, it invokes fear. Known for his violent depiction of a screaming pope to crucifixions, animals and carcasses, ancient Greek figures and distorted, emotionally charged portraits of his close friends and lovers, Francis Bacon said “I’ve made images the intellect would never make.” Through abstraction, Bacon tells the truth of human existence; he speaks of its desperation, its hopelessness – the tragedy of the human condition. His art is magnificent in its ability to disgust and intimidate, as it lays bare man’s sin. Bacon exposes a soul in torment and documents the degeneracy and corruption of which man is capable.

As an attack on all that is virtuous and chaste, horror relies on its audience to be morally minded. For an audience to be ‘horrified’ it must deem itself ‘righteous’, or ‘other’ to what is depicted on screen; if said audience is ethically vacuous, horror will not succeed. It aims to frighten, to subdue, and it presupposes an audience conscience. Yet, as much as horror expects the audience to distance itself from its subject matter, it also knows that its audience will identify with the obscenity inherent in the artistic expression, even if on a subconscious level. Horror reveals man’s innate sinfulness and in so doing it functions as a ‘safe’ way to expel demons, to live vicariously. It is equivocal in character; repellent and simultaneously attractive. Steven King said that “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones” – we also watch/read/view horror for the same reason.

In a Philosophical Enquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke distinguishes between the sublime and the beautiful – terms often used synonymously in relation to artistic aesthetic – arguing that the sublime induces a sense of being dwarfed or even horrified. Film is a confrontational medium. It’s not encased in a book cover or housed in a gallery. Arguably, just as one can close a book and exit a museum, so too can one ‘switch off’ a film if it offends one’s sensibilities. True, yet there is something severe and compelling about watching a horror film – it’s a visceral experience. Horror offers a debauched exposé that renders its audience uncomfortable, to say the least, but one can’t help but look – attracted by the obscene.

The blood spatter, the dagger placement, the scream decibel, the alien appendage, the demon voice, the leather apron, the missing limb, the spilled intestines – all of it… is loquaciously rendered in the medium of film, in the name of art. Needless to say, film, as with all art, is evaluated on its technical merit (or lack thereof). And so the term ‘art’ is imbued with complexity; art is classified according to its medium – film is art, and horror is film thus horror too is art – but that does not make it art, or artful. The aesthetic is prescribed a value, as determined by the superiority of the artistic execution.

Richard Wollheim distinguishes three approaches to assessing the aesthetic value of art: the Realist, whereby aesthetic quality is an absolute value independent of any human view; the Objectivist, whereby it is also an absolute value, but is dependent on general human experience; and the Relativist position, whereby it is not an absolute value, but depends on, and varies with, the human experience of different humans. Aesthetic value is unavoidably subjective – even if Objectivism is the prescribed school of thought. Art cannot exist independently of ‘human view’ because a) it is humanly created and b) it will be prescribed value by a human mind – a mind that cannot escape the societal context that has forged its personality, its identity, making it innately subjective.

Therefore, as much as horror is aesthetic by virtue of its artistic medium, its aesthetic value is articulated with bias. Such is the nature of art. But value should also be determined by art’s ability to evoke a response. Man is an emotive being, guided by his emotional core as much, if not more, than his mind. To recoil – to recoil with blatant hostility – is to reciprocate, to engage with art. Horror’s very point is that it cannot be ignored. It forces its audience to look, to think and to acknowledge. Horror exists as a caustic imitation of life; an exaggeration that confronts the notion of ‘humanity’ and is a description as well as an admonition. It is sublime in its ability.

“There are moments when even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity may assume the semblance of Hell.” ― Edgar Allan Poe