the aesthetics of violence



gallery on leviseur, bloemfontein,

south africa


Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss, Beauty? Your gaze, divine and infernal, pours out confusedly benevolence and crime, and one may for that, compare you to wine.

You contain in your eyes the sunset and the dawn; you scatter perfumes like a stormy night; your kisses are a philtre, your mouth an amphora, which make the hero weak and the child courageous.

Do you come from the stars or rise from the black pit? Destiny, bewitched, follows your skirts like a dog; you sow at random joy and disaster, and you govern all things but answer for nothing.

You walk upon corpses which you mock, O Beauty! Of your jewels horror is not the least charming, and murder, among your dearest trinkets, dances amorously upon your proud belly.

The dazzled moth flies toward you, O candle! Crepitates, flames and says: "Blessed be this flambeau!" The panting lover bending o'er his fair one looks like a dying man caressing his own tomb,

Whether you come from heaven or from hell, who cares, O Beauty! Huge, fearful, ingenuous monster! If your regard, your smile, your foot, open for me, an Infinite I love but have not ever known?

From God or Satan, who cares? Angel or Siren, who cares, if you make, — fay with the velvet eyes, rhythm, perfume, glimmer; my one and only queen! The world less hideous, the minutes less leaden?


- Hymn to Beauty by Charles Baudelaire



It could be debated that the twentieth century will be remembered as one marked by extreme violence, leaving future South African generations with a legacy of mass destruction and suffering. This legacy has spilled into all parts of public life, undermining the moral, interpersonal and social fabric of society. There is no denying this culture of violence; a society enveloped by conflict. Through my personal research interests I seek to extract beauty from this violent reality, advocating the aesthetic qualities of such violence and the potential thereof in architecture, art and subsequent sub genres.


In his study of the Beautiful and the Sublime, philosopher Edmund Burke (1998: 43) pointed out a source of aesthetic pleasure that is essentially different from the delight of experiencing the beautiful, an enjoyment that was dark, amoral and asocial. Simultaneously English essayist Thomas De Quincey took Burke’s reflections one step further in his essay “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”. He argued that if violence in nature could be a source of aesthetic experience, why should not human violence, which perhaps is even more terrifying, also be a source of aesthetic experience? “Violence has its own power of attraction. It can be claimed that violence is repulsive, but we can just as easily claim that violence is sublime” (Svendsen, 2008: 82).


Svendsen (2008: 74) explains that this ‘evil’ both Burke and De Quincey refer to lends colour to the world. 


He argues that such a fascination with the frightening is no new phenomenon, and that we find examples of this throughout art and literature. Where the typical response would be to try and create the greatest distance between ourselves and that which scares us – instead here we sought it out of our own free will. He argues that our reason for doing so is that these experiences somehow give us a positive feeling and fulfill and emotional need. “To be strongly affected by something gives our lives a kind of presence. And it can be irksome to feel that life is emotionally just ticking over, that one’s inner life lacks zest. It is then that emotions that are basically negative can appear to be positive alternatives to this inertia” (Svendsen, L. 2008: 75).


Through this installation­ I aim to manifest this violence and express the violent realities of contemporary South Africa in a tamed form– ultimately aimed at a new pleasure of violence. Oscar Wilde (Svendsen, L. 2008: 76) writes, “Because art does not hurt us. The tears that we shed at a play are a type of the exquisite sterile emotions that it is the function of art to awaken. We weep, but we are not wounded. We grieve, but our grief is not bitter…It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection; through art, and through art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence”. Ultimately this installation becomes a privileged space where we can experience all the emotions that life can offer us, without having to pay the price that these emotions are often linked to in real life.


© Jaun van Wyk