July 6, 2012

Crime and chiaroscuro: Introduction

This will begin an ongoing series looking at how prominent of a light-dark contrast there is in the visual culture of rising vs. falling-crime periods.

Homicide rates in Europe began their centuries-long decline starting between 1450 and 1550, and lasting up through the present. Still, there have been three major, and one minor, reversals of this downward trend -- from ca. 1580 to 1630 (the Early Modern wave), from ca. 1780 to 1830 (the Romantic-Gothic wave), from ca. 1960 to 1990 (the New Wave wave), and a less geographically widespread one from ca. 1900 to 1930 (the Jazz Age wave).

To put names on the falling-crime periods: from ca. 1450 to 1580, the Renaissance Humanist wave; from ca. 1630 to 1780, the Reason-Enlightenment wave; from ca. 1830 to 1900, the Victorian wave; from ca. 1930 to 1960, the Mid-century wave; and from ca. 1990 to present, the Millennial wave.

Having pored over the visual culture from these various periods, two major links jump out at me (there are probably more). First, rising-crime visuals have greater contrast between light and shadow, called chiaroscuro, whereas falling-crime visuals have a less stark contrast in lighting. In a separate series, I'll look at the second, which is the more restricted, frieze-like depth perspective of rising-crime visuals, compared to the deeper, photorealistic perspective of falling-crime visuals.

What underlies both chiaroscuro and restricted depth is a more theatrical drive, heightening drama and tension like you would see actions performed for you on a stage. Not being so fully realistic, they remind you that it's a stylized work of art, that these choices have been made for dramatic effect. They possess an immediacy that is lacking in works with a subtler lighting scheme and more rational depth perspective -- something that the creators and fans of these latter works would hardly consider a bad thing, since their goal is to appeal more to our reason than to strike an emotional chord.

Why does rising-crime art opt for features that pack more of a punch? It's not just in visual art, but literary and musical art too. A steadily rising rate of violence signals a world that's growing increasingly out-of-order, like the rules that governed the old ecology are shifting or no longer apply. In such a topsy-turvy world, new solutions must be tested out before it's too late. These are not top-down technocratic solutions, but an interaction among everyone -- musician, neighbor, preacher, painter, or parent -- to try to figure out what works and what does not.

Communicating in this way much more directly to a broader swath of your fellow group members, not some distant set of mediators, and under the pressure of what seems like a closer and closer deadline for humankind, your message acquires a greater sense of urgency. There's no time to dick around, on-the-other-hand-ing right up until the apocalypse.

Chiaroscuro also touches on another important theme of rising-crime times -- that the barrier between two very different dimensions, one good and one evil, is becoming unzippered, creatures from the other world entering our own, or perhaps we finding ourselves wandering into theirs. One of the most simple, vivid, and widespread ways to symbolize this is creating myths about a light world and a dark world. So, strong use of chiaroscuro heightens the sense that two formerly separate and opposite worlds of good and evil have come crashing into each other.

It does not even have to be so literal, where the good symbol is bathed in light and the evil symbol cast in shadow. No matter who the intense light is thrown on, nor what remains cloaked in darkness, the stark contrast itself evokes the collision of the two dimensions.

Why then does falling-crime art utilize a subtler gradation of light? Again this greater naturalism and emotional restraint doesn't show up only in visual art, but in literary and musical art too. Well, everything that had been going so wrong in the earlier rising-crime period seems to only be getting better and better. Now that the problem is wrapping itself up somehow or other, we don't need to band together and address each other so directly as we did during the trial-and-error phase before.

Indeed, whatever communication we still need can be done more impersonally, perhaps even through mediators like an expert elite. And since it looks like the apocalypse did not in fact arrive, we seem to have all the time in the world to work on our problems -- calmly. Hence, cool-headedness, rationality, and detachment are now in order. Let's hibernate for awhile, outsourcing the running of our affairs to a technocratic elite or a team of gizmos.

Moreover, in so emphasizing the naturalistic gradation of light, the sfumato technique of lighting appears to deny or at least diminish the importance of the other-worldly supernatural realm. Like, maybe there is some place like that somewhere -- but let's not worry about it here and now. Right now let's focus instead on elevating the human, the mundane, and even the everyday, and light the scene accordingly with hazy or smoky changes in tone. Throwing the action into a strong light-dark contrast will only start us off on the path toward black-and-white superstition and magical thinking.

With this background out of the way, I'll illustrate the points by walking through each cycle of falling and rising-crime periods. Next up will be the Renaissance and the Early Baroque periods of painting, corresponding to the Renaissance-Humanist and Early Modern waves in the violence cycle referred to at the beginning.


  1. The classic example is the opening scene of Star Wars, with the long shot of the rebel ship being chased by the huge empire ship.

  2. did my last comment go through? delete this if it did

  3. I didn't see another one in the queue...

  4. Empire Strikes Back has an ever better use, during the lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader in that carbon-freezing place.

    It's strongly back-lit, with both characters appearing in saturated shadows, their lightsabers adding another light-dark contrast. There are lots of low-angle shots, too.

    If film nerds thought for themselves, that scene would be listed in any of the discussions about the influence of Expressionist film during the Jazz Age. But since it made lots of money and was popular with commmon people, and was enjoyable, it could not have had an iconic Neo-Expressionist scene in it.

    And unlike the use in film noir, the use in Empire Strikes Back is more authentically Expressionist, evoking the supernatural realm rupturing into the natural, the worlds of good and evil slamming into each other, and so on.

    (Film noir used it more metaphorically, to evoke alienation, as though the characters were shadows. In Expressionism, they meant it more literally, like the creatures of the dark world are invading the light world.)

  5. When do you project the next rising crime period to begin?

  6. "nonymous said...
    When do you project the next rising crime period to begin?"

    If the cause of rising crime is cyclical, probably around 2020; if its demographics-based, then the next time that America has a majority adolescent population.


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