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28 Apr

Another Hannibal Chapter in the Making

Written by Michael Fuchs
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"An Art Form that Honors the Taste and Aesthetic of What We Eat": The Art of Murder and the Art of Television in Hannibal

In his book The Aesthetics of Murder (1991), Joel Black notes, "Violent acts compel an aesthetic response in the beholder of awe, admiration, or bafflement. If an action evokes an aesthetic response, then it is logical to assume that this action—even if it is murder—must have been the work of an artist." Elaborating on Black's idea, Steven Jay Schneider has suggested that ever since Mark Lewis was willing to sacrifice human lives for his cinematic art in Peeping Tom (1960), the "corrupt or degraded artist" has become a staple in the horror genre (2003). NBC's show Hannibal (2013–2015) may well have taken this fascination with the art of murder to the extreme. Hannibal Lecter's performances in his kitchen while preparing dishes featuring human meat are just as artistic as his (and his fellow serial killers') tableaux vivants-turned-tableaux morts, which transform lifeless human bodies into pieces of art. But what are we to make of this intersection between art and murder? Are Hannibal's monstrous 'designs' expressive of a culture in which the meaning of 'art' has become open to interpretation? In a way, the series seems to suggest as much, but these artworks are also key to the show's constant deconstructing of binaries, as they symbolize oppositions such as culture vs. barbarism, and help construct Hannibal as a liminal figure that "def[ies] boundaries," as one of the show's characters remarks.

Yet beyond tapping into the apparent indefinability of 'art' and being a tool in characterizing Hannibal, the crime scenes also highlight their own constructedness—not only in terms of their construction within the diegesis, but even more so in terms of them being set pieces for a television show. Thus, my paper will explore the ways in which these set pieces threaten to tear down the imaginary wall between the diegetic and the extradiegetic, as the lines separating the artist within the storyworld (i.e., the killer) and outside the storyworld (i.e., the showrunner and the directors) disappear. In this way, I will suggest, Hannibal's murderous art not only metaleptically becomes Hannibal's murderous art, but also becomes representative of televisual art in the early twenty-first century. (And this argument will bring us back to a question raised above—'what is art?')