Crimes of Art + Terror

“Do killers, artists, and terrorists need one another?” (inside book jacket)

Generally, I can’t say I’m a fan of literary analysis. Not even a disgruntled fan. But Crimes of Art + Terror, its literary analytical elements substantial as they are, is pretty slick.

CoA+T seeks to examine the entanglements between so-called ‘transgressive art’—art that ‘pushes the envelope’, so to speak—and actual, transgressive actions. Saying, essentially, art and crime aren’t all that different; they really have a lot in common, they draw on the same human traits. The authors kick off their analysis with none other than September 11 (you may recall a terrorist incident from that day) and a certain conductor’s comments re: that incident, wherein he called it “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos.” The Unabomber, DeLillo and Mao II, Bret Easton Ellis and American Psycho, Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Normal Mailer—this is the milieu of so-called ‘transgression’ that the authors, Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe, seek to evoke.

All in all, it’s a pretty excellent book. Though it sometimes lapses into an overly academic and self-congratulatory tone, CoA+T generally remains tolerable and quite interesting.

Is it helpful to have something of an intimate familiarity with the authors, artists, and criminals called on by Lentricchia and McAuliffe? Yes, absolutely. I’m not sure it’s absolutely essential to know any of them, but it’s definitely helpful. Some of the sections of the book that dealt with artists I wasn’t familiar with seemed a little confusing, but that might just as easily have been due to the uneven nature of the book; some parts are just more coherent than others. In particular, the beginning is especially coherent—very pointed and tightly written—while other parts, farther into the book, are not so pithy and somewhat roundabout. Which might have to do with the difficulty of using a broad range of artists to make a point, or might have to do with the fact that the book’s not so much one sweeping argument as it is a series of essays connected by a vague idea. (Chapter 4 was kind of a drag, but the first three chapters are truly excellent.) As a whole the book is competent, if not consistently brilliant.

Crimes of Art + Terror
Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe
University of Chicago Press