Icons of Evil: We Do Not Know Why People Commit Terrible Crimes. While Contemporary Artists Have Responded with a Mix of Irony and Pornography, the Media Has Sought to Comfort Us with a Succession of Banal Morality Tales

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), February 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Icons of Evil: We Do Not Know Why People Commit Terrible Crimes. While Contemporary Artists Have Responded with a Mix of Irony and Pornography, the Media Has Sought to Comfort Us with a Succession of Banal Morality Tales


Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)


Harold Shipman hasn't quite made it as an icon of evil. The nondescript doctor who murdered dozens, maybe hundreds, of his patients has escaped the pantheon of moral monsters because of the sheer opacity of his personality. He was a serial killer on an almost unthinkable scale, but the colourless figure waving at the camera in endlessly repeated media footage has yet to become a popular signifier of moral horror. His murders were methodical, even orderly, and showed no obvious signs of sadism. Perhaps they satisfied some secret need for total control--but by committing suicide, Shipman ensured that his motivation will remain unknown for ever.

The images of Shipman that have been disseminated do not lessen the mystery that surrounds his crimes. The incessant clips in which he is seen coming and going in his driveway seem to record an eventless existence, an unending round of stilted gestures that are as hard to read as his crimes. He seems to have been decomposed into a succession of jerky movements that reveal no sign of personal agency. This blank illegibility blocks any simple judgement of wickedness. It is perhaps for this reason that Shipman has so far eluded representation in art.

In contrast, the police mugshot of Myra Hindley in heavy makeup and blonde wig is a caricature of female depravity. (Despite having had no direct part in the deaths of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, Maxine Carr seems destined to be cast in a similar role.) The photograph of Hindley formed the basis of Marcus Harvey's painting Myra, in which it was magnified using a child hand print instead of the dots from which it is constructed in newspaper reproductions. Predictably, and no doubt intentionally, the painting sparked a noisy debate when it was shown in the "Sensation" exhibition of Young British Artists at London's Royal Academy of Arts in 1997. The tabloids seized on it as an example of the degeneracy of contemporary culture, but by doing so they were instrumental in promoting a new genre, a highly commercial mix of the ironic and the pornographic in which evil is merely another way of interrogating our values.

A stylised nihilism pervades the culture, but when it becomes an unthinking reflex, nihilism ceases to be cathartic. There is a world of difference between Francis Bacon's savage assault on meaning and the cool detachment that is expressed in Harvey's Myra. Bacon's paintings derive their energy partly from a sense of loss, but it is just that which is absent when nihilism becomes a commodity manufactured and marketed by the culture industry. A mixture of affectless violence with the ephemera of fashion and advertising has created the most successful brand in recent British art, but it is not a formula that can be sustained for long. The lightly subversive juxtaposition of images works only against a background that is heavy with meaning. Nihilist art requires a world in which traces of significance can still be found, but its effect is to wear away the few that remain. The end-point is an aesthetic of emptiness, in which everything is recorded and nothing felt.

While the dominant trend in recent British art has toyed with nihilism, the mass media have done the opposite. Technology has been used to manufacture meaning. The camera gives us a snapshot of events and allows us to imagine we are seeing things clearly and plainly. By turning the chaos of sensation into a series of definite images, it enables us to find meaning when it may in fact be fugitive, or even absent. …

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Icons of Evil: We Do Not Know Why People Commit Terrible Crimes. While Contemporary Artists Have Responded with a Mix of Irony and Pornography, the Media Has Sought to Comfort Us with a Succession of Banal Morality Tales
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