A Touch of Evil
I saw Satan Fall Like Lightning Luke, 10:18
In the past weeks our demons have returned to haunt us. Blake Morrison's
personalised account of the of the Bulger murder in Liverpool, and Michael
Howard's pronouncements on Myra Hindley and Ian Brady have revived
memories of events that have attained the status of myth. In both cases
the murders and the images associated with the murders have assumed an
importance above the merely documentary.
The iconic photographic portrait of Myra Hindley from the 1960s, her unforgettable
eyes staring darkly at the camera, has once again surfaced in the newspapers.
Its air of brooding menace has become so saturated with associations of
evil that it easily eclipses the more recent images of a softer, kind-looking
middle-aged woman. The equally iconic image of James Bulger, taken from
a security camera recording his meeting with two older boys, has similarly
reappeared across the media.
In Britain, today, these images signify evil. The flatness and banality
of both photographs allow the imagination no purchase on the notion of
communality or shared distress. Hindley's portrait is too furious
to admit us to any understanding, while the security camera in Liverpool
keeps us at an unacceptable distance from the acts we witness. It seems
important that both images are in grainy black and white and that both
are the product of the camera as a mundane documentary tool. There is
a tacit agreement that no art or artifice has been involved in the production
of the two pictures and this has contributed to their power, they are
taken as proof of the existence of some incomprehensible and occult force
that we cannot hope to comprehend.
At this level, the images function as some sort of folk representation
of evil, portraying it as a concept alien to most of us. This stance is
consolidated by the media's general approach to the subject which
is based on sentimental notions of benevolence and emotive descriptions
of 'tragedy'. These descriptions often seem to distort the real
and immense suffering of the victims families into an oversimplified scene
of woe to which we can only respond on an emotional level. Ultimately,
this kind of coverage leaves us feeling helpless.
For the contemporary artist, the power exercised by these images poses
a real threat in that they severely limit the boundaries of what can be
said about human nature. Given their use in the media (and their exploitation
by election-minded politicians), the images and events surrounding the
Bulger and Hindley cases have become so charged that any discussion of
the murders has become taboo. The only safe option is to sympathise with
the victims, condemn the killers and distance ourselves from the acts
as much as possible.
Moreover, the impact of this new taboo can be felt in all our representations
of morality. Dunblane, drug-taking and sex crimes have all become subjects
so fraught with condemnation that no sophisticated debate can take place
around them. In some cases, the media straitjacket on morality now verges
on obscenity itself. J.G. Ballard, in his notes to The Atrocity Exhibition,
"The equivalent of the US television commercial on British TV is
the 'serious' documentary, the ostensibly high-minded 'news'
programme that gives a seductive authority to the manipulated images of
violence and suffering offered by the conscience-stricken presenters - an
even more insidious form of pornography."
The media representation of social problems has reduced our world to a
simple morality play of good versus evil. If we are to understand anything
about human nature this needs to be resisted. In the visual arts, in particular,
the problem has urgency, given the growing pressure on galleries to self
censor work that may suggest we all have dark urges.
In the case of the Bulger murder, Jamie Wagg's "History Paintings"
of the security camera photograph were removed from the Whitechapel Gallery's
Open Exhibition after prolonged attack by the tabloids in 1994. The images
were already rendered unforgettable through their exposure in the news
media, yet their reproduction outside of that arena was considered an
Mark Cousins, in an essay analysing the furore around Wagg's paintings
"The work seeks to set the image of the boys in a public space of
memory which does not repeat identification but works through them. It
is a work in search of a public sphere in which canonic images are set
within the historical and political conditions of their emergence. It
is probably right that the newspapers expressed such outrage, for the
work challenges the space of representation and identification within
which newspapers coin it."1
This search for a public sphere in which to interrogate not only 'canonic
images' but a multiplicity of moral and natural impulses has more
recently gained momentum. Again, the murder of James Bulger seems to have
provided the starting point for much of this new debate. David Jackson,
for instance, in a short book on the killing, clears away much of the
obfuscation around the notion of 'evil' which permeates most
accounts of the incident:
"If we want to prevent another James Bulger killing from occurring
again we have to start by challenging the tabloid voices that are constructing
the two boys as folk devils. For example, the Daily Star leader for November
25th, 1993 needs to be challenged. It spoke of seeing 'pure evil'
in the faces of the two boys and insisted that; 'As Long as they
both draw breath, they must never be released.' In challenging this
we have to say firmly and clearly, that the two boys aren't devils.
Despite being extremely disturbed, they are both more like ordinary, working
class boys than exceptional monsters. Right under our noses, on a regular,
daily basis, destructive and damaging things are being done to the lives
of many of our boys. But we still react with surprised, innocent shock
to these happenings as if we can't bear to acknowledge where they
Jackson is of a growing group of writers and thinkers who are attempting
to confront the savage, natural instincts that we all share. Others like
Blake Morrison and Gitta Sereny, both attracted to the murder of James
Bulger are likewise undertaking personal explorations of the nature of
what we term evil. Sereny, in her recent biography of Hitler's architect,
Albert Speer, has provided a stark insight into the way in which a man
can slide into connivance with a system of brutality. Moreover, she penetrates
the self-deceptions and defences Speer raised against his own knowledge
of his activities and acknowledges the human suffering he experienced
in doing so. Describing the aim of her book as an attempt 'to learn
to understand Speer' she points out 'while in such encounters
it is essential never to pretend agreement with the unacceptable, moral
indignation for its own sake is an unaffordable luxury.3
These accounts of personal morality and the intimate response to what
we describe as evil have, however, been paralleled by more scientific
approaches such as that of Richard Dawkins. Speaking on the apparently
different subject of DNA, in River out of Eden, he outlines an unsentimental
view of the universe:
"Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent...We cannot admit
that things might be neither good nor evil, neither kind nor cruel, but
simply callous - indifferent to suffering, lacking all purpose. In
a universe of blind physical force and genetic replication some people
are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't
find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The Universe we observe
has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom,
no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless
This neo-Darwinian statement of evolutionary process offers us a contemporary
existential landscape in which to make a more honest appraisal of our
general human condition. At first glance, it seems fairly bleak but there
is no reason why it should become a landscape of despair. Dawkins, like
Sereny and Jackson, has simply asked us to be honest about the darker
side of our natures and to accept the savage indifference of life. From
that point, he believes it possible to build something more lasting. Even
the myths he appears to attack are left intact. Dawkins himself, in his
choice of book titles such as The Blind Watchmaker and River Out of Eden
is only too aware of the imaginative power of the metaphor.
Although, for Dawkins, this approach eventually leads to a renunciation
of God there is no good reason why this has to be. In Ecclesiastes, we
can find statements comparable to his own, such as: "Like fish which
are taken in an evil net, and like birds which are caught in a snare,
so the sons of men are snared for an evil time, when it suddenly falls
upon them." There is an acknowledgement of the random and democratic
nature of evil that is as strong as anything by Dawkins or even Nietzsche,
who wrote: "There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation
In the visual arts, this stance may appear difficult to articulate. Goya's
Capriccios, for instance, deal with evil but within the larger context
of nightmare and madness, as if the artist is overwhelmed by the vision
of nature he has evoked. Among contemporary artists, though, Gerhard Richter
has succeeded in expressing a clear acknowledgement of the need to approach
the subject in a tempered frame of mind:
"26 June 1992. It might be for us to look on killing as part of our
own nature - of the very nature that we seek to regard as our antithesis,
as in the inhuman, 'blind' nature of natural disasters, carnivorous
animals and exploding stars.
Our behaviour conforms to this nature in two ways: on the one hand as
active killing, both in wars and as civilian murder; on the other in the
still more horrifying passive mode of assent (we watch the news while
eating dinner; we enjoy seeing murders in films). This is because of the
way we take death for granted: just as we know that we are alive, we know
that we die; death comes as naturally to us as life. The instinct to stay
alive limits our compassion and our willingness to help; we give our help
and our pity only under duress, and when it seems to be to our own advantage.
The suppression and repression of these facts gives rise to dangerous
delusions, the politics of hypocrisy, false and lying actions.
And yet to accept them would be so unimaginable and so unworkable that
we knowingly and impotently prefer to allow for - that is, include
in our plans - all future catastrophes."5
Cady Noland, in her essay, Towards a Metalanguage of Evil, adopts a similar
baseline in her interpretation of nature, but carves out a much more sophisticated
position for the artist. Acknowledging what Richter has called the 'blind
Nature' in all of us, Noland goes on to describe a society founded
on a game in which the rules are often hidden and many of us are lost
in 'a world of deceit'. Essentially, she describes a world which
Richard Dawkins would recognise as the Darwinian survival of the fittest,
though Noland views it through the lens of Dallas and Dynasty. In her
world, everyone assumes an element of disguise or artifice, conning each
other strategically for their own ends:
"Conning devices are tools. The degree of harm they do, if any, depends
upon the purpose for which they are instrumented. Where the "mirror
device" might be used by a parent to encourage a child, or by a psychiatrist
as a therapeutic device, it is also used by ambitious students, known
otherwise as "brown-nosers" or "ass-kissers", who
cynically reword the opinions of their teachers in their written and oral
work. People also use the "mirror device" to "pass",
as Erving Goffman points out. A high school girl may try to hide her intelligence
and assume a "light-weight" persona instead of going dateless.
Goffman details this and Many other versions of "passing" in
his book STIGMA."
The "mirror device" is a tool with which to mollify Y, and render
him more pliable to X's manipulations. Malignant use of the "mirror
device" abounded in Nazi Germany. To cite just one example, a perfect
imitation of the Treblinka Railway Station was constructed for the express
purpose of lulling prisoners into thinking they'd arrived at an apparently
benign destination. This so-called station was actually a killing center."6
Cady Noland's world is not so far from that of Les Liasons Dangereuses - a
world of strategies in which everyone plays or is played upon. The consequences
can be horrific as she points out in her reference to Treblinka, but she
is not advocating any closure of the game. She is simply saying the game
and its rules continue whether we like it or not, and we must acknowledge
its existence if we are to play it successfully or change it.
For the contemporary artist, the 'game' is vital. Artifice,
after all, is an essential element of art. The very notion of artifice
may have been tarnished by the superficialities and power games of the
1980's but it would be naive to abandon the concept itself. Recasting
it, as Noland has done, in a sphere which demands greater self-awareness
and an understanding of Machiavellian designs offers an alternative to
the simplicities of tabloid culture.
In his introduction to The Return of The Real Hal Foster writes of the
"fundamental stake in art and academy: the preservation, in an administered,
affirmative culture, of spaces for critical debate and alternative vision."7
In Britain, today, these spaces are diminishing and real critical debate
has been reduced to a trickle of coded signals. This is not to advocate
a highly politicised art movement. However, no matter how vibrant an art
scene may appear to be, it requires the freedom to explore all dimensions
of human nature if it is to continue to thrive.
1. Mark Cousins, Security as Danger, 1996, p.8
2. David Jackson, 'Destroying the Baby in ourselves, 1995, pp 39-40.
3. Gitta Sereny, Albert Speer, His Battle With Truth, 1995, p14.
4. Fredrick Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil ,1886.
5. Gerhard Richter, Notes 1992, The Daily Practice of Painting, pp 242-243.
6. Cady Noland, Towards a Metalanguage of Evil, Documenta IX, 1992 pp
410-413. Many thanks to Eva Rothschild for pointing me at this essay and
other necessary background material.
7. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, 1996, xvii.