Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Cult of Aesthete Assassins

"People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentleman, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.... To sketch the history of the art, and to examine its principles critically, now remains as a duty for the connoisseur"
—Thomas de Quincey, "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts"
The Cult of Aesthete Assassins is the vulgar way of referring to The Society for Exquisite Excision. They are less a cohesive artistic school—let alone a guild of assassins as it is generally understoodthan an assortment of artistically inclined individuals—including theorists, critics and patrons—who view murder as a legitimate compliment/component to the other fine arts. A common confusion is that they only commit murder for hire; rather, there are as many rationales as there are methods of dispatch. Among the variegated rationales are:
  •  the aesthetic contemplation of the act of murder
  • the attempt to beautify the world as an act of aesthetic philanthropy 
  • to preserve the legacy of an artist by killing them 
  • an attempt to intuit some transcendent principle or experience through the act of murder
  •  the use of body as medium for artistic expression
  • a means of experiencing the sublime
  • the scandalous/audacious (and importantly, attention grabbing) nature of murder as art
  • an expression of criticism
  • ennui
  • debt
  • inspiration
  • establishing a legacy
  • showmanship
  • pursuit of arete  
Despite their sanguinary pursuits, the primarily concerns are artistic debate, discussion, criticism, curation, manifesto writing, squabbling, feuding and cultivating the artist-as-product to accrue patronage. 

The cost to acquire the services of one is extremely variable and prone to numerous whims including if the artist is concerned with working on a particular type of person (only Countess' of a certain age, Men on the night of their wedding, ornithologists, philosophers, the beautiful) or with a particularly expensive medium in addition to the cost of having them produce the body (marble, gold, ivory, jade, porcelain, rare pigments [ultramarine blue, annatto, cochineal, Dragon's Blood, etc.] and so on) and fueling the vices and muses of the artist necessary for inspired work. 

Hiring one is as simple as joining their salon circle, getting their attention, and convincing them to take you on as a patron—it helps if they have a masterpiece they need more money to finish or they have creditors on their heels. It also sometimes helps to get them intoxicated first. It also helps if you suggest you have received a bid from their more successful rival.

What is a typical Aesthete Assassin Like?
There are no typical Aesthete Assassins, the work of art is a singular production. It is hyperbolic to claim there is nothing that can be generalized about Aesthete Assassins but they are extravagant (both in cost and final product) and the extravagance is part of their individual charm.

Almost Insentient, Almost Divine: regardless of the aesthetic principles embraced, as a rule Aesthete Assassins are always without fail very intentionally dressed. They may adopt some strange minimalism of wearing all black and painting their face chalk white—but in that case they spent hours perfecting the shade. They may appear disheveled but there are hours in front of a mirror capturing the exact ways in which they appear unkempt. They may wear impractical, expensive and gaudy fashions but they will often wear it only once because otherwise it loses its impact. The same goes for their personal appearance: regardless of what they have decided is the properly embodied aesthetic for them (perfect muscular symmetry, scarification to highlight portions of their body, elaborate tattooing, intentionally marring their appearance for juxtaposition) it is the product of studious contemplation and the relentless application of cosmetics, management of diet and exercise and selective use of whatever enhancement is available. The artist is an integral part of the work of art. This is reflected not only by their embodiment but also by their commitment to conspicuous consumption.

[consult Elizabeth Amann's Dandyism in the Age of Revolution: The Art of the Cut for inspiration if you like, or just look at weird avant garde fashions].

The fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table: Aesthete Assassins have, functionally, subsumed all moral questions as questions of aesthetics and therefore spend most of their time contemplating aesthetics, debating the meaning and value of art with each other, justifying the enormous cost of their masterpiece and pursuing an extremely personal commitment to the aesthetic. To anyone outside of the system of aesthetic considerations guiding their behavior, they often seem arbitrary, addled and chaotic—what possible justification is there for bejeweling a tortoise to death? to mutilating the wings of 27 peacocks to create an exacting tableaux before setting them ablaze? to throwing expensive bottles of champagne into the ocean? 

[À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans has some excellent ideas about interior decoration and personal aesthetic vision].

Luxury Problems: Aesthete Assassins would rather starve than consume an inferior meal, freeze to death rather than wear an unfashionable coat and have a tendency towards expensive addictionsespecially ones that increase aesthetic appreciation. Common addictions include: hashish, opium, absinthe (with active wormwood), mandrake, nightshade, belladonna, nicotine, snuff and whatever is currently the most fashionable and new substance. Periodic reminder that for real there was a whole heroin chic thing around having tuberculosis, like it was considered a romantic disease (run with that).

Art is Hard: Aesthete Assassins struggle with the doubled vexation of wishing to be widely recognized for their craft, while also maintaining the quality of their works. Many rely on a host of interns and assistants [think Damien Hirst]. They also go through creative slumps, feel uninspired, feel required to exceed their last great work, or struggle with being hired on by provincial clients whose tastes are dull and pedestrian. This is why they have salons, in order to both vent about the narrow vision of their employers and criticize each other to even greater heights—also there is usually free food and drink.

The Medium is the Message (or some suggestions for Aesthetic Assassin mediums)
"whilst the portrait painter often has to complain of too much torpor in his subject, the artist, in our line, is generally embarrassed by too much animation"

Ceramics: Bone china can be produced using the target, possibly make them witness the conversion of their favorite hand into a teacup. Then utilize it in an elaborate tea service (the tea is poisoned; the poisons timed to the service).

Gastronomy: Obviously one can prepare and cook another human being in a variety of ways. On top of Hannibal, I would suggest The Cannibal's Guide to Ethical Living (Mykle Hansen) for a completely different take on the aesthete cannibal. Preparing a meal out of someone—even a sumptuous meal—can get repetitive. Gourmand Assassins also specialize in making foods that highlights being poisoned and still are irresistible (Fugu, Ackee, Cassava are all poisonous and popularly eaten).

Music: The obvious answer is using human derived catgut to string any number of instruments (a harp, violin, cello, etc.)—obvious answers are boring [gut strings are also used in some tennis racquets]. There are a lot of contemporary musicians that use bone derived instruments: Eraldo Bernocci [Obake/BLACKWOOD], Adel Souto [156], Christopher Juul [Heilung], and Michael DeWitt [Zero Kama]. Historically the Kangling (Tibetan horn made from a human femur) is used in ritual practice, Damaru (a kind of two headed drum) have been made from human skulls, there is a pretty cool Lyre made from antelope horns and a human skull in the Met.

Additional Arts (because otherwise this will go on forever): bodies can be taxadermied (including with flensed elements for aesthetic appreciation; think paintings by Bacon) which can also translate into an art installation or be inventively posed for depiction in another medium, skin can be tattooed, flayed off and made into a garment or canvas, the act of murder can be a performance (utilizing elements of mime, theater of cruelty, theater of the absurd, etc.). You can almost certainly do various sorts of printmaking using a human corpse. Various sorts of bone carving are among the earliest forms of art, scrimshaw is a very particular style. Andres Serrano (among many others) used a wide variety of bodily fluids in his compositions ["Piss Christ" is just well known]. These all can be done in conjunction.

There are probably many more I am not thinking of.

Suggested Reading:
Thomas de Quincey, "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts"
Patrick Suskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Hannibal (TV series)
Maria Tatar, Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Wiemar Germany
Marcel Duchamp, "The Creative Act" 
T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent"
Ina Blom, "Boredom and Oblivion"
Johnathan Harris, Art, Money, Parties: New Institutions in the Political Economy of Contemporary Art 
Anything by Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze.
Anything about the Vienna Actionists.


  1. People who organise manufacturing of artifacts are called designers not artists [think Damien Hirst]

  2. organization can be art, depends on the observer's appreciative faculties.
    i imagine that the artist would have to perfect some novel new way of doing things (maybe Ford?) or have exhaustive hands on knowledge with all of the manufacturing processes and exacting levels of quality like masters in an apprenticeship model.
    what is art and to whom?
    grandma says the music you listen to is just noise, but she goes to bed at 8:00, dig?