Art creating reality: the case of organized crime by Łukasz W.J.
Abstract: Organized crime inspires contemporary artists all over the world. Starting from computer games, comics, mangas, animes to books, music and – last but not least – movies, accents directly connected to syndicates can be found everywhere. This relation is even more complex, when investigated. In my paper I describe the importance of art for organized crime, which uses it as a way to create its own mythology, helping in public relations. For Westerners there is a short way between hearing mafia and thinking Godfather. Few people know that existing criminal Italian families were so delighted by the way they were described in the book (and later presented in the movie) that they started to act like the fictional characters and use terms from it, e.g. the term godfather itself was never used to describe the head of a criminal organization before its appearance in Mario Puzo's novel. At the end of present work I briefly show how social impact of crime popularization by contemporary art differs all over the world.
"(...)there were more and more students’ demonstrations. Many young people thought that the yakuza film characters were almost like student leaders, fighting the system against impossible odds. They took them quite seriously—both students on the left and the right. And they felt deep empathy for the characters when they would die at the end. There was the aesthetic, too, that saw a terrible beauty in dying this way. In these films, the only way left to make a change in the system is through violence. But the majority of the audience for yakuza films were blue-collar workers who felt virtually at war with the faceless, white-collar, corporate bosses. No one felt they had a system they could depend on. Everyone identified with the individual hero or anti-hero going up against the system(...)" - Satō Junya Introduction In this paper I am going to describe a relation between contemporary art and organized crime, but the discussion cannot be started without defining what contemporary art is and what is organized crime, and that is not an easy task. Both matters keep many scholars awake at night all over the world; e.g. there are more than 160 official definitions of organized crime, and I did not want to make my article a strictly theoretical work that could be difficult to understand for readers. Therefore I have chosen few, most commonly known and frequently encountered examples. As for the contemporary art, by which I understand works created after the Second World War, I am going to focus on four of its faces: movie, literature, graphic novels and computer games. Choosing these countenances of art was motivated by their popularity among organized crime groups, as well as their impact on societies and particular groups of receivers most responsive to the content. The last two – graphic novels and video games - can be seen as controversial for some people, but I strongly believe that those mediums can be judged as art, and probably only future
generations will be able to apprize them properly. Nonetheless, there is not enough space here to follow this discussion, which is a significant subject, but at the same time another question arises: what is the target, the mentioned “particular group of receivers”, of those mediums? I will answer that question, by using an example from Japan. Miyuki I. Sundara in her article about yakuza wrote: The yakuza is an all men's society. They do not trust women. The only visible woman in the group is the boss' wife, called ane-san. Ane-san means "older sister." All members give her the same respect as the boss because she is his wife. However, she does not get involved in the business. Her position in the group is the boss' wife, and not a member of a group. The yakuza do not trust women because they believe that women are weak. They believe that women cannot fight like men, that women are not born to fight. To a yakuza member, the most important thing is courage. If there is a battle, you must be ready to fight to the death, rather than lose the battle. Yakuza members must be willing to die for their boss. The author has taken her knowledge from an interview with a former yakuza member, but the image created by these words is quite clear and universal throughout the whole criminal underworld (with some exceptions, but – again – it is a matter for a different paper). In general, it is a place dominated by men, and the main target of most of the art creations are men, young and old, from various backgrounds and environments. With that information kept in mind it should be much easier to understand the forms preferred by artists. Finally the issue of organized crime. The easiest and the most universal definition of that global phenomenon was prepared by United Nations: "Organized crime" is understood to be the large-scale and complex criminal activity carried on by groups of persons, however loosely or tightly organized, for the enrichment of those participating and at the expense of the community and its members. It is frequently accomplished through ruthless disregard of any law, including offences against the person, and frequently in connexion with political corruption. (United Nations 1975, 8) The term “organized crime” usually refers to large-scale and complex criminal activities carried out by tightly or loosely organized associations and aimed at the establishment, supply and exploitation of illegal markets at the expense of society. Such operations are generally carried out with a ruthless disregard of the law, and often involve offences against the person, including threats, intimidation and physical violence. (United Nations 1990, 5) Having that covered, without going into further details, I am going to make short presentations of three mafias, which I have chosen for this paper – Italian style cosa nostra, Chinese triads, and Japanese yakuza. Italian style cosa nostra is the closest one – with history, image and geography – to what Western world relate with organized crime. Structures of it's predecessor, Sicilian mafia, are used as a model for defining similar structures in different countries. Its beginnings can be traced back to the Middle Ages and criminals roaming through lands of the biggest Italian island, but organization itself emerged from more or less chaotic criminal “initiatives” in the 19th century. Those movements emigrated across the Atlantic together with Italians, looking for a better future in the New World. Unfortunately, mechanisms and traditions migrated together with people. There started to appear organizations offering protection, also against similar enterprises developed among other minorities (Jews and Irishmen need to be named). Those groups finally transformed into more commonly known mafias, for which heyday started together with American prohibition. The ban of alcohol allowed them to become a popular heros among common people. Those organizations were, and still are, a great inspiration for writers, and other artists, but also for other
organizations. It happens because they were first to discover the power of creating image and legend through supporting art, but that will be discussed further. At the same time, on the other side of the globe, two dragons raised from the ashes of political struggles in Eastern Asia – Chinese triads and Japanese yakuza. Both can be easily defined as criminal, none the less both started from a higher positions among their fellow citizens. Triads developed from secret societies, which were always a popular response of common people to unjust governments, which was directly connected with loosing the mandate of heaven. Those movements, standing in opposition to main powers in China, were always sooner or later brought to the point, when they needed to turn to illegal means to gain funds for their actions. That was what, at the end, turned them fluently into creations, which could be named as organized crime. Banned from the main land by Mao Zedong, they have found safe havens in Macao, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Especially the former British colony was always seen as a capital of triads, and it is also there, where strong connections were developed between Chinese underground organizations and art, mainly cinematography. It must be noticed that it happened much later than in Japan, sometime in the 80s, because British government was censoring all artistic productions that could be judged as being against Europeans or that could promote dangerous local movements and organized crime was judged as such. None the less, they were becoming stronger, and finally started to use artistic means to present their cause and build public relations, just as their Japanese cousins were doing so successfully. Moving further east, to the Land of the Raising Sun, organized crime developed – as it tries to convince the public – from very romantically pictured and remembered cast of “knights” - the famous samurai. Those legendary masters of sword and arts grew deeply into Japanese folklore, taking permanent place in the hearts of people. Yakuza – as direct descendants of those warriors – used their legend and also means to create it, going much further, now being a big part of Japanese pop-culture. For careful readers it is already obvious, why organized crime all over the world has turned to art – it is all about creating an attractive image, a legend. Creating Legend Stories were always a good companion of men. Starting from those only brought by witchdoctors, shamans, and “professional” story tellers, moving from fireplace to fireplace, from village to village, ending with 3D cinemas and virtual reality. With evolution of culture, different methods appeared to deliver stories about gods, heroes and the world itself. Art developed as a way of expression of feelings, abstract thinking, and bringing legends closer to people. All that quite naturally started to be in the middle of attention of political and social powers, using those means as tools for propaganda, promoting their own causes. Different periods of time characterized with different tools, which were evolving in their own pace, but the need of using them never changed. It is because the art not only portrayed societies, but also influenced them, by creating trends. As for this paper an example of pirates, one of the historical and universal faces of organized crime, will serve as an explanation of mechanisms used later on by mafias all over the world. Pirates, objectively looking at the matter, can be judged as ruthless thugs. Although their balancing on the edge of legality, when they had a letter of agreement from home governments, made their existence essential at some points in history, and for some countries. Their violent and criminal – even by standards contemporary to them – actions were bringing fear and outcry of their own countrymen. Then the art came in the form of music, literature, and paintings, showing that pirates are quite romantic fellas, for whom freedom of wide blue seas and adventures brought by every new dawn meant more then bonds of society. As you can imagine this reshaped the way
of looking at pirates, especially among young boys, dreaming about running away from home and gray reality. Sounds familiar? Later on, in the 20th century, as noted at the beginning, four major artistic tools were used to help building mafia's image, which not only had to help with the whole local communities, but also served as an advertisement. And a very successful one, as it attracted many lost souls, outcasts, not being able to find a better place in rapidly changing societies (or, mainly after wars, that were thrown away from society by experiencing unimaginable horrors in the fronts of conflicts). The one medium, that had the biggest impact on the global audience throughout the whole century was definitely cinema. th Good example on how movie was able to influence societies and organized crime in 20 century is the case of... sunglasses. One hundred years ago those useful things were worn only by blind people. Then, during 30s, some sportsmen – e.g. drivers – started to use them, but during the war they were associated in general with stereotypical, masculine characters (mainly brave pilots). Film industry used that association and to show that protagonists are really serious and tough personages, the sunglasses were worn as an obligatory add-on to the outfit of a gangster. According to Diego Gambetta there is no evidence that before the movie Gun Crazy (1949) they were used by criminals, but after it was released the accessories became part of a style that every tough-guy needed and did follow. That rule can be extended further to other things, not only gadgets, but even to the core essence of behavioral patterns, codes of honor, etc. Art can tell stories, that is obvious, but what stories could mean to criminals? Basically, two things – building and maintaining reputation. And that is what mafioso sometimes creates out of blue, a gangster does not even have to really be the bloodthirsty killer, it is enough if others see him as such. Reputation lasts even when it is not based on a solid ground, keeping on the surface those, who faced with a challenge would sink. And reputation can be artificially maintained thanks to legends and stories, good images created for public by artists. Thus, there is no need to argue that in the best interest of various organized criminal groups it is sometimes crucial to support musicians, filmmakers, writers, etc., sometimes describing them the right image of their enterprises. One book serves as a universal example. The image created in Mario Puzo's novel, and later on portrayed in movies, was so attractive that not only day to day audience was drown to the ways of mafia. In 1986 father Luis Gigante, respected catholic priest from Brooklyn, said that he really loved Godfather. […] Liked the character of Don Vito Corleone. When a guy was blackmailing him, trying to ruin him, he killed him to save wife and kids. Showing his strength, he started to be someone. [emphasis Ł.K.] Moving back East, Japan again serves as a great example, as it is a place were borders between popular culture built with artistic means and reality is very thin. Criminals from the Land of the Raising Sun needed examples and lessons to gain their own gangster know-how. ItalianAmericans served as a great example all over the world, mainly thanks to stories spread across borders. Unfortunately Western mafias were far away. Thus, since yakuza didn’t know any real American gangsters, they turned to the movies instead. They went so far with that romance with 10th Muse that it finally lead to the beginning of a new cinematic tradition in Japan: the yakuza film. These films, descendants of the old samurai epics, bear little resemblance to American or European gangster movies; they are closer to the Western, in which cowboy and outlaw clearly define a code of morality. From the samurai, the
yakuza has inherited the role of the last defender against the decadence and corruption ushered in by modernization and contact with the West There is probably no one, who could explain things better to all foreigners than Jake Adelstein. An American Jew, who went to Japan to seek his place and has found it as a reporter; that path took him close to the underground world of crime and vice. In his bestselling book he wrote, referring to more modern Japanese gangsters: The major gang bosses are well-known celebrities. Bosses from the Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai grant interviews to print publications and television. Politicians are seen having dinner with them. They own talent agencies that the general public knows are yakuza front companies – such as Burning Productions – but that does not stop major Japanese media outlets from working with them. There are fan magazines, comic books, and movies that glamorize the yakuza, who have metastasized into society and operate in plain view in a way unthinkable to American or European observers. What is more, when I have written above that American, and to some extent also European mafiosi referred to films made in Hollywood, the same can be applied to Japanese criminal organizations. But as far as Western mobster can influence the production by manipulating labor unions or bribes, the Eastern ones usually own the studios making movies about yakuza or triads. Films made in Hong Kong, in the capital of Chinese organized crime, could not be made without gangsters, who influence the production in various ways, but mainly with mafia-style protection. They look after studios, actors, directors, if they want a star to appear in their flick, and if the money is not enough, they can even use threatening methods. What is more, since triads are responsible for the black market, they influenced Hong Kong cinema also in a a not-direct matter, causing films to be published on DVDs after two-three weeks from the premier in theaters. In general, the Triad film most closely resembles the Hollywood Gangster film, but it can also be compared to the Japanese gangster genre (…) Thus we often see the presence of Japanese gangsters. Although it has a much shorter history – around 30 years, compared to 80-year history of American gangster film and the 70 years of yakuza film in Japan, it has promoted international stars, like: Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, John Woo, and Jet Li. Moreover, the idea standing behind making such cinema was the same, as in the other cases explained above. The organizations wanted to reach the citizens of Hong Kong and teach them that life as a Triad is better than life as a victim. Connecting with people, through stories and art become possible during contemporary times, by other means too, especially comic books, or manhua (the same Chinese character is used for the now-familiar Japanese word manga), [which] are an important part of youth culture, and boy culture in particular, in Asia and also in the United States . Mafiosi and gangsters were always popular bad guys and enemies for various heroes, but there are also some titles portraying them in more romantic light. E.g. Max Allan Collins' graphic novel titled Road to Perdition which was adapted in 2002 in the movie of the same name. The story is loosely based on the Japanese manga series Lone Wolf and Cub created by Koike Kazuo and Kojima Goseki (illustrator). The main character – Michael O'Sullivan – is a ruthless and coldblooded, but honorable enforcer of a criminal organization, who is betrayed by his employers and is forced to run with his son, and starts a quest for revenge. Also an honorable enforcer, assassin for hire, Hinomura is a protagonist in manga series by Koike Kazuo and Ikegami Ryoichi (illustrator) titled Crying Freeman, which shows the world of Japanese and Chinese organized crime. Those graphic novels are only the tip of an iceberg, built mainly for young people all over
the world. However, there is also one more medium that consumes their time and imprints images in their minds – video games. They are a huge topic, since action, crime and vice look great on the screen. Games have nowadays even bigger impact than movies, because of their interactivity, allowing gamers to be a part of a story, to pull a trigger, to chase in cars, and so on. Few series deserve mentioning: Mafia, Yakuza, Grand Theft Auto, and True Crime. Their titles are selfexplanatory, while ideas behind them are quite similar, from which the main is to give players the opportunity to become a criminal, and “live” the story inside the world of organized crime. Thanks to all of that the image of organized crime in the minds of regular citizens is quite solid and vivid, because no matter where are you from, when you hear mafia, you exactly know what to think, however you need to remember that in many cases it is what mafias want you to think. None the less, creating an artificial image of a ruthless gangster was not always paying off properly. All because there was no turning back. It is a true vicious circle. There is a simple example to these words. Imagine a mafia boss, who is just a businessman, who never killed a person, who always used threats, and never really had to appeal to violence, but he created his image with stories told by his trusted men, and theatrical behavior, so that – in a Machiavellianism fashion – he was able to rule with fear. Because of his illegal activities he is caught by the police. He stands in front of a jury and is on trial, he cannot say the truth, because he would lose his face, and if the word about his fictional brutality spreads, his reputation, all his men and respect would be gone. The disinformation used to threaten victims becomes also his only cover in prison, because the reputation, even artificial, is the only thing left to him, that separates him from the regular criminals. It is, however, probably impossible to separate crime from art, like it was done by British censorship in Hong Kong. Simply because violence is a part of life and mafia is its one of the most sophisticated forms. Conclusions Japanese writer, Miyazaki Manabu, told Reuters: “There's a joke about a young man going to a gang office and asking what the salary was, and would he get insurance”. The attractiveness of joining a criminal organization is now a part of the same race for the right employees, as is in the case of legal enterprises. But at the same time, staying with the Japanese example, the widespread drug dealing, extortion, racketeering, and violence were affecting more people than ever before. But just as the Japanese thought they had seen it all, the corruption fostered by the yakuza spread to places even they didn’t expect. And organized crime across the decades of existence has shown that it is ready to change in order to survive. In the nearest future it will also need to renew its legend and as history has shown, for that there is no better way as to use art.
List of movies and TV series Title: Year: Director: Scarface (1932) Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson Force of Evil (1948) Abraham Polonsky Gun Crazy (1949) Joseph H. Lewis The Racket (1951) John Cromwell On the Waterfront (1954) Elia Kazan Underworld U.S.A. (1961) Samuel Fuller Les tontons fingueurs (1963) Georges Lautner Le Samourai (1967) Jean-Pierre Melville The Brotherhood (1968) Martin Ritt Godfather (1972) Francis Ford Coppola Gendai yakuza: hito-kiri yota (1972) Fukasaku Kinji Jingi naki tatakai (1973) Fukasaku Kinji Lucky Luciano (1973) Francesco Rosi Black Ceasar (1973) Larry Cohen The Yakuza (1974) Sydney Pollack Yakuza no hakaba: Kuchinashi... (1976) Fukasaku Kinji Scarface (1983) Brian De Palma Once Upon a Time in America (1984) Sergio Leone Police story (1985) Jackie Chan The Untouchables (1987) Brian De Palma Goodfellas (1990) Martin Scorsese King of New York (1990) Abel Ferrara Bugsy (1991) Barry Levinson Hard Boiled (1992) John Woo Rising Sun (1993) Philip Kaufman American Yakuza (1993) Frank A. Cappello Shanghai triad (1995) Yimou Zhang Tokyo Mafia (1995) Shirai Seiichi Hoodlum (1997) Bill Duke Donnie Brasco (1997) Mike Newell The Sopranos (TV series, 1999-2007) created by David Chase Brother (2000) Kitano Takeshi Gangs of New York (2002) Martin Scorsese Infernal Affairs (2002) Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak Road to Perdition (2002) Sam Mendes Gong wu (2004) Ching-Po Wong Miami Vice (2006) Michael Mann The Departed (2006) Martin Scorsese American gangster (2007) Ridley Scott Breaking Bad (TV series, 2008-) created by Vince Gilligan Public Enemies (2009) Michael Mann Boardwalk Empire (TV series, 2010-) created by Terence Winter Drive (2011) Nicolas Winding Refn Kill the Irishman (2011) Jonathan Hensleigh
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