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The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

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Today both reality and entertainment crowd our fields of vision with brutal imagery. The pervasiveness of images of torture, horror, and war has all but demolished the twentieth-century hope that such imagery might shock us into a less alienated state, or aid in the creation of a just social order. What to do now? When to look, when to turn away? Genre-busting author Maggie Today both reality and entertainment crowd our fields of vision with brutal imagery. The pervasiveness of images of torture, horror, and war has all but demolished the twentieth-century hope that such imagery might shock us into a less alienated state, or aid in the creation of a just social order. What to do now? When to look, when to turn away? Genre-busting author Maggie Nelson brilliantly navigates this contemporary predicament, with an eye to the question of whether or not focusing on representations of cruelty makes us cruel. In a journey through high and low culture (Kafka to reality TV), the visual to the verbal (Paul McCarthy to Brian Evenson), and the apolitical to the political (Francis Bacon to Kara Walker), Nelson offers a model of how one might balance strong ethical convictions with an equally strong appreciation for work that tests the limits of taste, taboo, and permissibility.


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Today both reality and entertainment crowd our fields of vision with brutal imagery. The pervasiveness of images of torture, horror, and war has all but demolished the twentieth-century hope that such imagery might shock us into a less alienated state, or aid in the creation of a just social order. What to do now? When to look, when to turn away? Genre-busting author Maggie Today both reality and entertainment crowd our fields of vision with brutal imagery. The pervasiveness of images of torture, horror, and war has all but demolished the twentieth-century hope that such imagery might shock us into a less alienated state, or aid in the creation of a just social order. What to do now? When to look, when to turn away? Genre-busting author Maggie Nelson brilliantly navigates this contemporary predicament, with an eye to the question of whether or not focusing on representations of cruelty makes us cruel. In a journey through high and low culture (Kafka to reality TV), the visual to the verbal (Paul McCarthy to Brian Evenson), and the apolitical to the political (Francis Bacon to Kara Walker), Nelson offers a model of how one might balance strong ethical convictions with an equally strong appreciation for work that tests the limits of taste, taboo, and permissibility.

30 review for The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

  1. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    3.5 stars A thorough, disturbing, and intelligent book about cruelty and how we interact with it today. Maggie Nelson addresses an ambitious set of questions: with so many images of war, torture, and horror available to us, how do we best process such media to motivate us to act? Why do we draw such pleasure from gory video games and humiliating reality television shows? How do we separate cruelty and violence - and can cruelty coexist with love? Nelson alludes to a plethora of performance artist 3.5 stars A thorough, disturbing, and intelligent book about cruelty and how we interact with it today. Maggie Nelson addresses an ambitious set of questions: with so many images of war, torture, and horror available to us, how do we best process such media to motivate us to act? Why do we draw such pleasure from gory video games and humiliating reality television shows? How do we separate cruelty and violence - and can cruelty coexist with love? Nelson alludes to a plethora of performance artists, philosophers, writers, sculptors, and filmmakers in The Art of Cruelty, ranging from Antonin Artaund to Susan Sontag to Yoko Ono and many more. Instead of delivering any kind of final verdict about cruelty, Nelson cleaves out space for the many complexities that come with it, urging us to examine cruelty with a critical and nuanced lens. Nelson has such a fierce brain. Her intellect pulsed through these pages. Whether she wrote about how "the mainstream thrust of anti-intellectualism... characterizes thinking itself as an elitist activity," the awful and misogynistic ways society glorifies female victimhood, or the difference between witnessing cruelty on the page vs. on the screen, her analysis delved deep enough to pull insight even from the most nauseating of subjects. She keeps her heart open, too, writing both about the emotions and the thoughts inspired by art portraying cruelty. If you enjoy aristic, cultural, or literary criticism, this book may appeal to you, as Nelson holds nothing back in her pursuit for what cruelty has - and does not have - to offer us. I lower my rating of The Art of Cruelty because I got lost in her writing sometimes. This in part falls on my shoulders because I did not recognize many of her allusions. However, Nelson throws out so many references on top of one another that her own voice gets submerged in the mix on occasion. i wanted more coherent and collected synthesis as opposed to an onslaught of artists and their works. Though Nelson aims to raise questions instead of providing answers, I still wish she had come down with a more thorough argument in some chapters of this book. Overall, a fascinating and difficult book that will make you more aware of and thoughtful toward the cruelty and violence so common in our culture. You may not walk away from this book feeling any better, but you will have gotten smarter, more woke, and more uncomfortable. And that may just be what we need more of in this world.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Antigone

    I've become more and more caught by social cruelty in recent years - stopped short, eyes blinking, "You're kidding me, right?" caught by it - and I think this is because I'm growing older. I just have this tendency to imagine, in an incredibly solipsistic way, that everyone's maturing with me. That we're all in this together. That as the years pass we're all having (not the same but) similar experiences, learning similar lessons, absorbing similar outlooks on the realities of this life-thing, an I've become more and more caught by social cruelty in recent years - stopped short, eyes blinking, "You're kidding me, right?" caught by it - and I think this is because I'm growing older. I just have this tendency to imagine, in an incredibly solipsistic way, that everyone's maturing with me. That we're all in this together. That as the years pass we're all having (not the same but) similar experiences, learning similar lessons, absorbing similar outlooks on the realities of this life-thing, and so it always shocks me when I come across someone who's doing some genuinely thoughtless sort of damage to another human being. Really base, stupid sort of stuff that's not going to result in more than the briefest instant of one-upsmanship. It's often of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge variety that leaves its object slumped in shame and me, unwittingly drafted as a witness, cringing beneath the onslaught of an entirely disproportionate amount of empathy and rage. (Disproportionate to the act, completely proportionate to the senselessness.) I'm tired of this, worn out by it, feel pretty powerless against it, and so a thought-filled book titled The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning is going to have a certain appeal. Maggie Nelson, a poet and teacher, takes on the subject of cruelty (and violence and brutality) as they appear in art, film, photography, cyberspace, fiction, theater, culture and pornography. For those unfamiliar with criticism, this is not a lecture or a diatribe. It's the separation and examination of a series of stock ideas and rationales. It's the creation of an intellectual space within which one can better think about these elements of existence. What purpose do they serve? What do they mean? What can I learn here, and how can that help me to better understand the reactions they engender? Nelson opens her mind and dumps the contents out with no further intent than to ponder, process and connect. Topics touched upon include artistic violence as catharsis, as confrontation, as distraction; censorship vs. engaged withdrawal; the difference between truth and fact, spirituality and knowledge; denial, repression, power and control. Time is spent with Aristotle and Freud, Plath, Sontag, Didion, Warhol, Artaud, Francis Bacon, the Marquis de Sade, Wittgenstein, Kafka and many more. Much avails itself to quotage. Here's a section I liked on honesty: For not all frankness is created equal. "Brutal honesty" is honesty that either aims to hurt someone or doesn't care if it does. ("No one wants to be friends with you." "You smell bad." "You've always been less attractive than your sister." "I never loved you.") While the words often arrive sutured together, I think it worthwhile to breathe some space between them, so that one might see "brutal honesty" not as a more forceful version of honesty itself, but as one possible use of honesty. One that doesn't necessarily lay truth barer by dint of force, but that actually overlays something on top of it - something that can get in its way. That something is cruelty. Nelson succeeds on many levels with this work. There were certain references that overshot my experience - especially concerning performance art - but they passed quickly as the focus realigned. (And I should include a warning here. The material on pornography is graphic, to my eye understandably so, yet those with heightened sensibilities might take heed.) Be assured, though, the majority of the provocation is intellectual. If you're ready to expand your mind; agree, disagree, accept, reject and reassess the subject of cruelty - this is the place to go.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ellie

    REVIEW Maggie Nelson has become one of my favorite writers: intelligent, with beautiful prose written with precision, personal yet always aware and tending to the larger picture. To review a work such as The Art of Cruelty is a daunting effort. The book is extremely complex and dense. It examines what art is as much as the role of cruelty in art (and, sometimes, in life). The catalogue of painters, sculptors, performance artists, filmmakers, philosophers, and writers is intimidating and impossible REVIEW Maggie Nelson has become one of my favorite writers: intelligent, with beautiful prose written with precision, personal yet always aware and tending to the larger picture. To review a work such as The Art of Cruelty is a daunting effort. The book is extremely complex and dense. It examines what art is as much as the role of cruelty in art (and, sometimes, in life). The catalogue of painters, sculptors, performance artists, filmmakers, philosophers, and writers is intimidating and impossible to justice to. Of course, Antonin Artaud, with his Theater of Cruelty, and the Marquis de Sade are here but also Susan Sontag, Sylvia Plath, and Henry James. Performance artists such as Nao Bustamente, Karen Finley, Yoko Ono, Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy, and Marina Abramovi’c, are all examined. The list of quotes I jotted down is almost as long as any review I could write would be). That being said, I think what this book gave to me was the interest in exploring what makes us uncomfortable, what is unsettling (although not necessarily violent). Nelson writes, “…an art that affects you in the moment, but which you then find hard to remember, is straining to bring you to another level.” P.28 “…it has opened you to the possibility of growing into what you are not yet…” p.28 sums up how I feel about this book and the sense that only through multiple readings would I get a better sense of what it is about. Nelson’s focus (as the title implies) is on the use of cruelty in art (in its broad sense of the visual arts, literature, performance art, theater) but she also makes connection to life in the “real” world, including Puritanism and Abu Grahaib and the use of torture. She questions whether cruelty in life or art is cathartic, if in fact such a thing as “catharsis” exists. She questions the value of cruelty as an end in itself, as an expression of some ultimate truth about either humanity or art. Representations of cruelty may move us but, as Susan Sontag pointed out, not necessarily to action. “Literature is not self-help” (p.127). Violence can become a kind of porn that leads to nothing beyond itself (or worse). “Cruelty bears an intimate relationship to stupidity as well as to intelligence, and I am not interested in stupid cruelty….” (P. 124) There is no simple understanding of what cruelty means or accomplishes. “By virtue of its being multiply sourced, art cannot help but offer up multiple truths.” (p.117) Always, Nelson seems to come down on the side of complexity. I was not always clear about her own stance vis-à-vis cruelty, other than she seems to dislike it as an expression of some ultimate truth or artistic summation of human experience. Yet she seems obsessed with the work of Francis Bacon, whose painting are saturated in blood and violence (she devotes a great deal of space to the reduction of the body, in various artists including Bacon, to “meat”-but she does spend a great deal of space on it). Nelson examines the way artists have used cruelty, explicitly or implicitly. Yoko Ono with her performance work “Cut Piece” or Marina Abramovi’c with her “Rhythm O” both leave themselves vulnerable with instruments of violence (a scissors in Ono’s case, a gun in Abramavi’c’s) at the disposal of a participatory audience. With these pieces, an others, Nelson also examines the 1) use of the female body and its history of victimization and 2) the complex issue of consent in violence. I seem to have side-stepped a lot of Nelson’s examinations of more brutal work. I suppose one of the strengths of this book is that it has many points of entry for the reader and many paths to wander along. She certainly spends a great deal of space discussing art works of great gore, although I find her exploration of the violence in Plath’s poetry of more interest to me personally. However, she does make a case for withstanding the discomfort in cruelty to see where it takes you. On the other hand, she writes of the exhilarating feeling of walking out on something or closing the book on something or just turning away for something that feels (as one complainant puts it) “too poisonous to ingest” without any salutary benefit. I think Nelson left me with what Henry James called “the right degree of bewilderment” (p.198), not sure where Nelson stands on the overall topic of cruelty. She writes about a particular work “I like it…because it bothers me, and I’m not sure why….it places us in the ‘lived moment of contraries where we all have to deal.’ I’m not sure where this is, but I’m glad to be here.” (pp.183-183) Which is how The Art of Cruelty left me: not exactly sure where I was, bothered by a lot of what I had read, but definitely glad to be there.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Rob Atkinson

    I was excited to read this book after reading the laudatory review on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, but honestly I found "The Art Of Cruelty" a bit of a disappointment. In part this is due to the fact that I was most interested in reading a critique of cruelty as it is manifested in contemporary visual and performance art, and it turns out the focus of this work is much broader. This is a very personal, subjective work of criticism, most heavily informed by the author's obvious af I was excited to read this book after reading the laudatory review on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, but honestly I found "The Art Of Cruelty" a bit of a disappointment. In part this is due to the fact that I was most interested in reading a critique of cruelty as it is manifested in contemporary visual and performance art, and it turns out the focus of this work is much broader. This is a very personal, subjective work of criticism, most heavily informed by the author's obvious affinity for Buddhist thought and old-school feminism. It is also takes a rather scattershot approach to the subject, leaping from literature to drama to film to art but frustratingly focusing on only a very limited number of artists while ignoring some of the most relevant subjects for such an inquiry. Francis Bacon is central to her analysis of the visual arts, her touchstone throughout; the work of Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden, Diane Arbus, Yoko Ono, Marina Abromovic and Karen Finley are also briefly addressed. But there isn't a single mention of Bruce Nauman, whose aggressive and often clausterphobic phenomenological work arguably is the most relevant to her subject. The list of artists and writers she addresses are mostly women, and one senses that rather than thoroughly researching her subject and writing on the most appropriate exemplars of her theme, she instead largely sticks to the comfort zone of those women artists with which she is already most familiar. To a large extent she also facilely equates 'cruelty' with 'violence' (particularly violence towards women), skewing the balance of her whole analysis and ignoring some of the subtlest and best work out there. Beyond visual and performance art, of course Artaud is here, as is Sylvia Plath; refreshingly (and aptly) so is Ivy Compton-Burnett. A few pithy points are made. But overall there is little cohesion and no real development of any central argument. In closing, Nelson finally presents something of a thesis, almost as an afterthought; it's something along the obvious lines of "the employment of cruelty in art is justified if it is socially redeeming/enlightening and does not just add to humankind's natural state of suffering". For this reader at least, it's just not that simple.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    i'm a little biased in this rating, because the art of cruelty is pretty much custom-made for me. nelson's obsessions - violence, empathy, representation, gender, horror, community, politics - are virtually identical to my own. she likes a lot of the same art as me too (ana mendieta, william pope l., paul mc carthy) - and even hates some of the same stuff (funny games, for example). in addition, she writes in a personal, theoretical-but-accessible style not unlike rebecca solnit or susan sontag i'm a little biased in this rating, because the art of cruelty is pretty much custom-made for me. nelson's obsessions - violence, empathy, representation, gender, horror, community, politics - are virtually identical to my own. she likes a lot of the same art as me too (ana mendieta, william pope l., paul mc carthy) - and even hates some of the same stuff (funny games, for example). in addition, she writes in a personal, theoretical-but-accessible style not unlike rebecca solnit or susan sontag that i also find irresistible. there was pretty much no way i was giving this less than 5 stars, haha... beyond all that, this is a deeply personal look at images/representations of violence. accordingly, there are big name people that never show up in the analysis, as well as some idiosyncratic digressions that reflect the author's interests. so if you're looking for a rigidly arranged analysis of contemporary culture, you might find yourself disappointed by the digressions into eastern spirituality or the fact that yoko ono shows up more often than francisco goya as the subject of analysis. i found all this refreshing. nelson realizes that "cruelty" is too immense a subject to cover with any kind of grand authority, so she gets right to the work she really has something to say about. she jettisons a lot of crapola along the way too - i can't tell you how happy it makes me that this book does NOT include a few token pages about the chapman brothers.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Adam Dalva

    Sharp, well-thought-out, relevant survey of cruelty in 20th century art, centering loosely on Artaud and engaging with questions of artistic obligations w/r/t torture, pain, and brutality. Nelson has a bad habit of over-praising her source material (everything is either "justly famous" or "iconic" or "important" and often they are NONE of these things) that became more grating as I read on, and also has a frustrating fixation on a couple of figures (Francis Bacon, Brian Evenson) who never quite Sharp, well-thought-out, relevant survey of cruelty in 20th century art, centering loosely on Artaud and engaging with questions of artistic obligations w/r/t torture, pain, and brutality. Nelson has a bad habit of over-praising her source material (everything is either "justly famous" or "iconic" or "important" and often they are NONE of these things) that became more grating as I read on, and also has a frustrating fixation on a couple of figures (Francis Bacon, Brian Evenson) who never quite hold the water that she's hoping for. But other sections, like the one on Chris Burden, are illuminating and the more personal the book gets, the better it is. Her experiences with her own students were particularly strong.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Viv JM

    In this collection of essays, Maggie Nelson looks at the role of cruelty and violence in art and poses ethical questions surrounding that topic. Her examples take in fine art, poetry, performance art, dance, film, photography and television and her criticism has a feminist and Buddhist slant. These essays certainly gave food for thought but I didn't enjoy this book as much as the other of hers I have read and loved (The Argonauts). At times, I found this one slightly rambling and repetitive. In this collection of essays, Maggie Nelson looks at the role of cruelty and violence in art and poses ethical questions surrounding that topic. Her examples take in fine art, poetry, performance art, dance, film, photography and television and her criticism has a feminist and Buddhist slant. These essays certainly gave food for thought but I didn't enjoy this book as much as the other of hers I have read and loved (The Argonauts). At times, I found this one slightly rambling and repetitive.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Arie

    “While the two words often arrive sutured together, I think it worthwhile to breathe some space between them, so that one might see “brutal honesty” not as a more forceful version of honesty itself, but as one possible use of honesty. One that doesn’t necessarily lay truth barer by dint of force, but that actually overlays something on top of it—something that can get in its way. That something is cruelty.” Mind is in a tangle but this was brilliant. Review to come. Maybe. “So long as we exalt art “While the two words often arrive sutured together, I think it worthwhile to breathe some space between them, so that one might see “brutal honesty” not as a more forceful version of honesty itself, but as one possible use of honesty. One that doesn’t necessarily lay truth barer by dint of force, but that actually overlays something on top of it—something that can get in its way. That something is cruelty.” Mind is in a tangle but this was brilliant. Review to come. Maybe. “So long as we exalt artists as beautiful liars or as the world’s most profound truth-tellers, we remain locked in a moralistic paradigm that doesn’t even begin to engage art’s most exciting provinces.” “Writing hasn’t changed a thing; when the writer puts down the pen, no matter how lucid or brutally honest his insights may have been, it is back to business as usual, which means, in this case, shooting up. This is depressing, but its honesty heartens me. It disallows the delusion that the act of writing necessarily connects us to humanity, that it will help us quit noxious substances, that it will restore us to love lost, or at least serve as a consolation. Literature is not, after all, self-help.”

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Wren

    Maggie Nelson writes: Even if and when Santiago Sierra’s diagnoses are spot-on, the pity he has expressed toward his subjects gives me pause, and evaporates whatever interest in the work I might have otherwise been able to muster. For this pity doesn’t just stand behind the scenes; it also structures the forms of the artwork at hand. As he told the BBC about 10 people paid to masturbate, “Nobody said no and for me that was very tough. When I made this piece I would go to bed crying.” It’s one thi Maggie Nelson writes: Even if and when Santiago Sierra’s diagnoses are spot-on, the pity he has expressed toward his subjects gives me pause, and evaporates whatever interest in the work I might have otherwise been able to muster. For this pity doesn’t just stand behind the scenes; it also structures the forms of the artwork at hand. As he told the BBC about 10 people paid to masturbate, “Nobody said no and for me that was very tough. When I made this piece I would go to bed crying.” It’s one thing to set up situations that aim to alert the world – even if just the art world – to the bad news of radical exploitation, even if one feels the lamentable need to exploit others to make one’s point. It’s quite another to decide in advance on the terms of human dignity (i.e., that a willingness to film oneself jerking off for money signifies that you have none), set up situations which prove (to you) that someone is utterly debased, then weep over the fulfillment of your puritanical prognostication.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sarahc Caflisch

    I am profoundly more knowledgeable and disturbed since reading this book. Highly recommended.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Iris

    i really enjoyed this -- tho 1 part im confused abt / take issue with. she talks about "daddy" where plath compares the doings of her father to those of the nazi regime, and addresses the indignation of jewish critics re: this poem, and while she makes an interesting point that plath wasn't necessarily drawing equivalencies (tho maggie nelson doesnt offer any alternatives), her ultimate point asks, "And why ring the 'appropriateness' alarm, when the injunction to behave appropriately--as both Pl i really enjoyed this -- tho 1 part im confused abt / take issue with. she talks about "daddy" where plath compares the doings of her father to those of the nazi regime, and addresses the indignation of jewish critics re: this poem, and while she makes an interesting point that plath wasn't necessarily drawing equivalencies (tho maggie nelson doesnt offer any alternatives), her ultimate point asks, "And why ring the 'appropriateness' alarm, when the injunction to behave appropriately--as both Plath and Walker know well--is but a death knell for art-making, especially for women?" but there is, or at least should be, a distinction between pushing the boundaries of 'art-making' and disregarding deeply personal / painful histories. she also compares this to one of black artist kara walker's pieces in which she states "all black people in america want to be slaves a little bit", in an attempt to equate + categorize both under the same label of 'boundary-pushing'. maybe these 2 works do question what's 'appropriate' in art - but nelson forgets that the two artists are approaching this from completely different realities. who is nelson, as a white woman, to police walker's usage of her own black history in her own art? and who is nelson, as a non-jewish person, to devalue jewish responses to abuses of their own history by other people (by plath)? and then 20 pages later nelson is saying about jenny holzer's "lustmord", it "could easily be accused of 'vicarious possession,' artist Adrian Piper's term for the 'inappropriate level of imaginative involvement' that characterizes the attempt to speak for others, especially others who have been deprived of the right to speak for themselves." she also mentions another aspect that's "politically rotten" about holzer's piece -- "the fear--or the conviction--that certain consciousnesses or hearts or events should not be rendered poetically" which then im going to ask, isnt that a death-knell for art-making, and werent u just trying to speak over / for jewish ppl and black ppl respectively. this probabbly doesnt make sense its 1am im tired. i want 2 add onto this later bc this bothers me a lot. i dont think nelson can ever understand Other Peoples' erasure / flippant uses of a very violent part of ur ethnic / racial / religious past. im still giving this 5 stars tho cos the rest of this i loved enough 2 make up for it

  12. 4 out of 5

    Pamela

    I admire Maggie Nelson for the way she approaches her subject: art (painting, writing, cinema, dance, performance art) that either employs cruelty (to the art-maker or to the audience) or depicts it. She is curious, unafraid of being or seeming "too interested," yet at the same time ready to tell us when her ethics are offended or her gorge rises. It's true: much art either courts or skirts or revels in cruelty. Does that make it offensive or bad? Clearly Nelson doesn't think so, but she also do I admire Maggie Nelson for the way she approaches her subject: art (painting, writing, cinema, dance, performance art) that either employs cruelty (to the art-maker or to the audience) or depicts it. She is curious, unafraid of being or seeming "too interested," yet at the same time ready to tell us when her ethics are offended or her gorge rises. It's true: much art either courts or skirts or revels in cruelty. Does that make it offensive or bad? Clearly Nelson doesn't think so, but she also doesn't think cruelty in art should get a free pass. She wants to know why certain acts or depictions affect us (or at least her) the way they do, why it might be worth viewing "cruel art," why certain works in this genre are powerful while others fail or even seem ridiculous. Among the artists she explores in some detail are Francis Bacon, Franz Kafka, Sylvia Plath, Brian Evenson, Lars von Trier, Kara Walker, Paul McCarthy (not McCartney--I kept misreading it!), Elizabeth Streb, Chris Burden, and Yoko Ono. If I fault the book for anything, it's that it's so compacted--the book bears the mark of being written by a very careful thinker and writer, one who has gone over and over her prose so many times that all the fat is gone. Which oddly resulted (if I'm correct) in my not always being able to follow Nelson's train of thought. I needed a little more hand-holding, perhaps, since not all of the artists were familiar to me and Nelson's thinking is very nuanced. I probably will need to read the book again to take in all that it has to give.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Shannon Krehely

    "I go down to the bookstore and skim shiny new memoir jacket after shiny new memoir jacket, until my mind starts to blur with blurb-speak testifying to each writer's brutal honesty, which is usually a close cousin of his or her "searing" or "unsentimental" prose, which, to be truly praiseworthy and dazzling, must also somehow shimmer onto the page "without a drop of self-pity." I wander out of the bookstore wondering, Is honesty paired with brutality a more winning, or at least a more marketable "I go down to the bookstore and skim shiny new memoir jacket after shiny new memoir jacket, until my mind starts to blur with blurb-speak testifying to each writer's brutal honesty, which is usually a close cousin of his or her "searing" or "unsentimental" prose, which, to be truly praiseworthy and dazzling, must also somehow shimmer onto the page "without a drop of self-pity." I wander out of the bookstore wondering, Is honesty paired with brutality a more winning, or at least a more marketable, combination? And why has self-pity become the spector to be avoided at all costs, in order to earn artistic seriousness, moral rectitude, and, perhaps, that all-important commodity, readers?"

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michael Dipietro

    This was incredibly eye-opening, but a little flawed. It was so satisfying to have someone take on the old avant garde tactic of "shock the audience out of their complacency" with skepticism. Nelson takes it as her premise that art that explores/practices cruelty typically uses this as its justification, and she roundly critiques it. Dismantles it, really: with many many examples from visual art, performance/body art, writing, film and more, she is able to dissect effective and interesting uses o This was incredibly eye-opening, but a little flawed. It was so satisfying to have someone take on the old avant garde tactic of "shock the audience out of their complacency" with skepticism. Nelson takes it as her premise that art that explores/practices cruelty typically uses this as its justification, and she roundly critiques it. Dismantles it, really: with many many examples from visual art, performance/body art, writing, film and more, she is able to dissect effective and interesting uses of cruelty as a tactic versus completely gratuitous ones. And all with very human anecdotes of her own life and perspective and experience of these works: one memorable example was her experience of watching an Elizabeth Streb performance right on the heels of a friend becoming paralyzed in a bike accident. I also appreciated references to her students' work at CalArts and their problematic uses of cruelty and violence. Not so long ago I was one of those students making work from the perspective of that tautology - that cruelty is justified by the audience's presupposed condition of needing (read: deserving) it. To the end of reaching some higher plane of enlightenment or agency. I now am much more sensitive to the fact that it's often just an oppositional stance to hide weak work behind; and much, much more interested in an empathetic relationship to audience. It is a self-negating principle. As Nelson states: "The most interesting of this work--past, present, or future--is or will be that which dismantles, boycotts, ignores, destroys, takes liberties with, or at least pokes fun at the avant-garde's long commitment to the idea that the shocks produced by cruelty and violence--be it in art or in political action--might deliver us, through some never-proven miracle, to a more sensitive, perceptive, insightful, enlivened, collaborative, and just way of inhabiting the earth, and of relating to our fellow human beings. For as Arendt puts it succintly in On Violence, 'The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.'" I would give this about 4.5 stars for a few shortcomings: One was that I sortof expected a conclusion that tied together all her observations, but the book was more about deconstructing themes and foci of cruelty (chapters on the face, body-as-meat, etc), than about reaching a net result. I also thought "Cruelty" itself was an ill-defined term, for all her exploration, and could have used a concrete definition as a starting point.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kusaimamekirai

    I went into this book with certain expectations and finished it in a completely different place. When Nelson titled her book "The Art of Cruelty" she emphasized the "art" part. The majority of the book discusses performance art and the nature of its interaction with us as spectators. One example I found particularly thought provoking was her examination of Yoko Ono's performance of "Cut Piece", where Ono sits silently on the stage with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience is free t I went into this book with certain expectations and finished it in a completely different place. When Nelson titled her book "The Art of Cruelty" she emphasized the "art" part. The majority of the book discusses performance art and the nature of its interaction with us as spectators. One example I found particularly thought provoking was her examination of Yoko Ono's performance of "Cut Piece", where Ono sits silently on the stage with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience is free to come to the stage and use the scissors to cut pieces of her clothing if they choose. Watching this video on YouTube, it's clear that there is an initial reluctance to be cruel to her. Many cut tentatively or small pieces. Until the end where one man gleefully cuts off huge swaths of clothing, including her bra. Nelson asks, is this cruelty? Ono willingly participates, knowing this is likely to happen, and yet as a spectator we are still taken aback by the meanness of it. Reading this book, I thought quite a bit about the dynamics of crueltynot only about the art world(which I knew little about but learned a great deal) but cruelty in our everyday lives and public discourse as well. This book can be dense and difficult to read at times but it's well worth the effort.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Patty Gone

    Nelson's book provides a context not just for the cruelty of Hollywood and television (a subject already overwrought and boring), but takes the reader into the realm of art intended to 'better' the bourgeois through its graphic nature. She's skeptical of the notion of being scared or shocked into knowledge. Because I see a rape on film or in art, does that make me more empathetic to cases of the crime in general? Does seeing atrocities or torture 'improve' me? Nelson argues that these notions pr Nelson's book provides a context not just for the cruelty of Hollywood and television (a subject already overwrought and boring), but takes the reader into the realm of art intended to 'better' the bourgeois through its graphic nature. She's skeptical of the notion of being scared or shocked into knowledge. Because I see a rape on film or in art, does that make me more empathetic to cases of the crime in general? Does seeing atrocities or torture 'improve' me? Nelson argues that these notions promote a self-righteousness. We don't need Von Trier or Haneke or Bacon gore to know what cruelty is. This is not to say Nelson argues for censorship, much the contrary, rather that cruelty can be compelling when coupled with other intentions that extend beyond didactic cruelty.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Francesca

    I think it would be interesting to read this as a horror fan and see where our thought processes may differ or match up.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Marc

    I read this almost two years ago and took so many notes and thought so highly of the book, I could never wrestle myself into attempting a review. One of the many joys of reading Nelson, is how she invites the reader along for her intellectual journey. With that in mind, or out of pure laziness (you can decide), I'll simply share my notes (things that stood out, thoughts I had, stuff I wanted to look up, etc.)... -------------------------------------------- P5: “This book asks different questions. I read this almost two years ago and took so many notes and thought so highly of the book, I could never wrestle myself into attempting a review. One of the many joys of reading Nelson, is how she invites the reader along for her intellectual journey. With that in mind, or out of pure laziness (you can decide), I'll simply share my notes (things that stood out, thoughts I had, stuff I wanted to look up, etc.)... -------------------------------------------- P5: “This book asks different questions. It asks whether there are certain aspects or instances of the so-called art of cruelty---as famously imagined by French dramatist and madman Antonin Artaud ---that are stil wild and worthwhile, ow that we purportedly inhabit a political and entertainment landscape increasingly glutted with images---and actualities---of torture, sadism, and endless warfare. It asks whether Artaud’s distinction between a coarse set of cruelty, based in sadism and bloodshed, and his notion of a “pure cruelty, without bodily laceration” can be productively made, and to what end. “From the point of view of the mind,” Artaud wrote, “cruelty signifies rigor, impacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination.” / I am attracted to this precision, this sharpness, this rigor. Why Artaud and so many others have muddled it up with cruelty, I do not know. That is another of this book’s questions.” -------------------------------------------- P9: “One of this book’s charges, then, is to figure out how one might differentiate between works of art whose employment of cruelty seems to me worthwhile (for lack of a better word), and those that strike me as redundant, in bad faith, or simply despicable.” -------------------------------------------- - Nelson’s dedication to nuance, grey areas, inquiry, and honesty strike a chord with me. -------------------------------------------- - Viewer/reader as spectator--is this a passive role? Is some art a form of cruelty to the spectator depending on what they expect or what they are given (in terms of either context, knowledge, or control)? -------------------------------------------- P29: “For the mainstream thrust of anti-intellectualism, as it stands today, characterizes thinking itself as an elitist activity. And even if one were to get excited about leaving the contortions of mental effort behind, today’s anti-intellectualism makes no corollary call for us to return our fingers to blood and dirt, to discover orgiastic bliss, to become more autonomous in our ability to fulfill our basic, most primal needs, or to become one with the awe-inspiring forces of the cosmos.” The alternative to this would be a kind of hollow consumerism… or what? Simple short-term gratification based around distracting lowest-common-denominator entertainment? My take, not Nelson’s: Spectator as active couch-potato monitoring border in example of Texas Virtual Border Watch Program ala BlueServo -------------------------------------------- P40: “But after nearly 200 years of photography, it may be that we are closer than ever to understanding that an image---be it circulated in a newspaper, on YouTube, or in an art gallery---is an exceptionally poor platform on which to place the unending, arduous, multifaceted, and circuitous process of “changing the world.” (Abu Ghraib photos; desensitizing, leading to false beliefs vs. masking knowledge) -------------------------------------------- - Journalists to look up: Jane Mayer, Mark Danner, Scott Horton -------------------------------------------- - Film: Ryan Trecartin’s I-Be Area | Background/Summary -------------------------------------------- Commenting how the images that stay with you are rarely the ones that are good art or that cause effective displacement; quoting dramatist Richard Foreman on the “aesthetics-of-amnesia”: “The image of the Marlboro man riding his horse and smoking a cigarette has stuck with me for many years---and so what? It’s garbage. It’s kitsch. All it means is that the image seduced me, that it pushed a button that was ready to be pushed, and I responded. It didn’t widen my sensibilities, compassion, or intuition. Whereas an art that affects you in the moment, but which you then find hard to remember, is straining to bring you to another level. It offers images or ideas from that other level, that other way of being, which is why you find them hard to remember. But it has opened you to the possibility of growing into what you are not yet, which is exactly what art should do.”” -------------------------------------------- Stories: - Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman - Jane Bowles, Plain Pleasures - Mary Gaitskill, The Agonized Face Writers: Paul McCarthy, Brian Evenson, Chris Burden, Michael Haneke, Martin McDonagh, Otto Muehl Renaissance text: Disputatio nova contra mulieres, qua probatur eas homines non ess “a new argument against women… “ double standard of not allowing women to be violent, cruel, sexual, etc. Anne Carson poem, “The Glass Essay” -------------------------------------------- Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 performance art letting audience have its way with her; contradictions of being human where beauty may compel us to appreciate or protect it or feel the urge to injure or destroy it Aristotle’s theory of catharsis whereby art provides an outlet for the viewer to confront or release the “bloodlust” already inside; artists like Mike Kelley projecting their problems on to others vs. the polar opposite position of John Cage who tried to “wake” people up without violating their boundaries. -------------------------------------------- (NSFW!) Santiago Sierra’ 10 People Paid to Masturbate where he humiliates people to show how humiliating their circumstances are: “It’s one thing to set up situations that aim to alert the world---even if just the art world---to the bad news of radical exploitation, even if one feels the lamentable need to exploit others to make one’s point. It’s quite another to decide in advance on the terms of human dignity (i.e., that a willingness to film oneself jerking off for money signifies that you have none), set up situations which prove (to you) that someone is utterly debased, the weep over the fulfillment of your puritanical prognostication.” Opposite artistic intent with Diane Arbus photos… ? (can't remember if this was my question or Nelson's... must have been Nelson's since I only know Arbus by name and wouldn't be able to question her work but she's described as "attempting to normalize maginalized groups" and issues of fair representation) -------------------------------------------- P130: “Mostly I want to point to third things---unruly, inscrutable, multivalent, un-ownable third things---without knowing exactly what they have to say or teach. For when things are going well with art-making and art-viewing, art doesn’t really say or teach anything. The action is elsewhere.” -------------------------------------------- P149: “In other words, the addict, much like the artist, finds himself using artifice to strip artifice of artifice. The whirlpool grabs another limb.” attempt to break through numbness, pain; to erase the barrier between reality and art -------------------------------------------- Tennessee Williams quote: “All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.” When “brutal honesty”--often heralded in memoirs bleeds over into cruelty--Nelson’s friend refers to Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking as “widow porn”; reminds me of my reaction to Knausgard’s My Struggle; “While the two words often arrive sutured together, I think it worthwhile to breathe some space between them, so that one might see “brutal honesty” not as a more forceful version of honesty itself, but as one possible use of honesty. One that doesn’t necessarily lay truth barer by dint of force, but that actually overlays something on top of it---something that can get in its way. That something is cruelty.” -------------------------------------------- Book: Parents and Children by Ivy Compton-Burnett -------------------------------------------- Yes Men satirizing government and those in power as posing as them--line between misleading victims and exposing graft/greed/neglect -------------------------------------------- P171: …"[Adam] Phillips explains, psychoanalysis gets interesting when it shifts the focus from making us more intelligible to ourselves to helping us become more curious about how strange we really are. And so, I would argue, does art.” -------------------------------------------- Meat-making of art/porn/literature/performance art/etc; P183: "Using camera work that can have more in common with laparoscopic surgery than with cinema, hard-core porn knocks itself out to get supranaturally close to the body’s capacities for contact and concentration. The closer you go---that is, the more hard core it gets---the more abstract it becomes. And the more abstract it becomes, the deeper the mystery of why it works---why watching close-ups of throbbing pink body parts moving in and around each other instantly turns most of us on.” -------------------------------------------- Pope L’s How Much is that Nigger in the Window -------------------------------------------- P219: “As any ascetic can tell you, lucidity often arrives via subtraction, via impoverishment. But as any anorexic or self-cutter knows, it can be difficult to know when to stop chiseling.” Yayoi kusama’s ‘67 Self-Obliteration video Otto Muehl’s Kardinal film - The impact of obliterating/distorting the face--Nelson mentions Bacon, Plath--mentally, I segue to HenryDavidJr and a recent Halloween makeup post on FB -------------------------------------------- P250: “Bacon was one of those who insisted that humans will always suffer, no matter how just their circumstances, and that to argue otherwise is to deny a fundamental aspect of the human condition. He was right, of course, which is why any commitment to social justice that cannot acknowledge the existence of basic pain---that is, suffering that will exist for the human subject no matter how equitable or nourishing its circumstances---will end up haunted by bewilderment and disillusionment… But to obliterate, happily and eagerly, the distinctions between avoidable pain and basic pain is another story. It speaks of a different taste---that of wanting to amplify basic pain, valorize it, cour it, exalt it." More Francis Bacon paintings: Jet of Water, Blood on Pavement -------------------------------------------- P265: “The most interesting of [the unmentioned] work---past, present, or future---is or will be that which dismantles, boycotts, ignores, destroys, takes liberties with, or at least pokes fun at the avant-garde’s long commitment to the idea that the shocks produced by cruelty and violence---be it in art or in political action---might deliver us, through some never-proven miracle, to a more sensitive, perceptive, insightful, enlivened, collaborative, and just way of inhabiting the earth, and of relating to our fellow human beings.” -------------------------------------------- Definitions I Looked Up (2 years after reading the book!): marasmus | sublunary | splenetic | adumbrating -------------------------------------------- [I should have just written a review. It would have taken a lot less time than looking up all these links. Learning the hard way is my favorite form of self-cruelty... ]

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sara Deon

    Maggie Nelson is confirmed as one of my favorite authors and essay writers. Although less personal than The Argonauts, The Art of Cruelty is an astonishing text which examines representations of cruelty and violence through the prism of art, literature and movies. I had to constantly pause it in order to write down the references she makes; the excerpt "Everything is nice" is one of the finest and most nuanced pieces of criticism I've ever read thus far. Nelson is just like Bowles, "roaming a wo Maggie Nelson is confirmed as one of my favorite authors and essay writers. Although less personal than The Argonauts, The Art of Cruelty is an astonishing text which examines representations of cruelty and violence through the prism of art, literature and movies. I had to constantly pause it in order to write down the references she makes; the excerpt "Everything is nice" is one of the finest and most nuanced pieces of criticism I've ever read thus far. Nelson is just like Bowles, "roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin".

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nels Highberg

    I read this book when it was published and reread it this year. It's heavy, and there are times I had to reread--especially early on. But the ideas are deep and explored with nuance. I have so many names circled to learn more about. I think Maggie Nelson is the best critic writing today. I read this book when it was published and reread it this year. It's heavy, and there are times I had to reread--especially early on. But the ideas are deep and explored with nuance. I have so many names circled to learn more about. I think Maggie Nelson is the best critic writing today.

  21. 4 out of 5

    sevdah

    I loved her most recent book, The Argonauts, a very personal look at sexuality, desire, parenting and gender, and this was what brought me to The art of cruelty. Took me a while to finally be able to brace it (it's not an easy read by any means), and while I don't agree with everything she says, this meditation on images and performance of violence in art was excellent. What a writer Maggie Nelson is. Her pages are as if illuminated from within, a text that carves deep into meaning instead of pi I loved her most recent book, The Argonauts, a very personal look at sexuality, desire, parenting and gender, and this was what brought me to The art of cruelty. Took me a while to finally be able to brace it (it's not an easy read by any means), and while I don't agree with everything she says, this meditation on images and performance of violence in art was excellent. What a writer Maggie Nelson is. Her pages are as if illuminated from within, a text that carves deep into meaning instead of piling on and on.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Allison Floyd

    Oh, where to begin? At the end, of course! I could hardly do better than to cite Nelson's conclusion (Spoiler alert! Although, not really. After all, this isn't a murder mystery, but a rumination on the mystery of the murderous urges, as they pertain to art): "It allows for a practice of gentle aversion: the right to reject the offered choices, to demur, to turn away, to turn one's attention to rarer and better things. Preserving the space for such responses has been one of this book's primary a Oh, where to begin? At the end, of course! I could hardly do better than to cite Nelson's conclusion (Spoiler alert! Although, not really. After all, this isn't a murder mystery, but a rumination on the mystery of the murderous urges, as they pertain to art): "It allows for a practice of gentle aversion: the right to reject the offered choices, to demur, to turn away, to turn one's attention to rarer and better things. Preserving the space for such responses has been one of this book's primary aims. Of equal importance has been making a space for paying close attention, for recognizing and articulating ambivalence, uncertainty, repulsion, and pleasure. I have intended no special claim for art or literature—that is, no grand theory of their value. But I have meant to express throughout a deep appreciation of them as my teachers. For, as Barthes suggests, insofar as certain third terms—however volatile or disturbing—baffle the oppressive forces of reduction, generality, and dogmatism, they deserve to be called sweetness." I think this book succeeds admirably well to these ends. If anyone can make the contemplation of such a difficult and unsettling subject more rewarding, edifying, and yes, in parts, pleasurable, I would say to that person, "Gee whiz". Recommended for anyone who has ever been disturbed by a form of creative expression—and then found herself going back for more.

  23. 5 out of 5

    TinHouseBooks

    Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine): You’d be hard-pressed to find a more deft read on cultural uses of violence than what Maggie Nelson offers in The Art of Cruelty. More even than I admire what the book has to say, I’m awed by the writing itself. Nelson conjoins and balances the instances that build her case in a way that makes me think of Calder’s mobiles, where the movement of one remote element of the project quietly pushes the others into motion until the whole pi Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine): You’d be hard-pressed to find a more deft read on cultural uses of violence than what Maggie Nelson offers in The Art of Cruelty. More even than I admire what the book has to say, I’m awed by the writing itself. Nelson conjoins and balances the instances that build her case in a way that makes me think of Calder’s mobiles, where the movement of one remote element of the project quietly pushes the others into motion until the whole piece is spinning. Elisabeth Pusack (Intern, Tin House Magazine): Nelson talks about all the juicy stuff–Michael Haneke, the Vienna Actionists, Ana Mendieta, Lars von Trier. She has no blanket policies about when violence in art is illuminating and when it is gratuitous. Instead she charts her visceral reactions–both revulsions and attractions. I got really riled up, sometimes rallying behind her and sometimes wanting to call her up and argue! This kind of impressionistic criticism is really inspiring. Her approach is still kind of haunting me.

  24. 4 out of 5

    John Pappas

    Nelson takes as a starting point Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty and explores its relevancy in a world where representations of spectacular violence are commonplace. Focusing on contemporary or modern artists such as Bacon, Krueger and Abramovic, filmmakers like Michael Haneke and writers like Kafka and Plath, Nelson presents a panoramic view across disciplines of the meanings and uses of works that use violence to disturb and unsettle us so profoundly as to preclude the return to everyday life unch Nelson takes as a starting point Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty and explores its relevancy in a world where representations of spectacular violence are commonplace. Focusing on contemporary or modern artists such as Bacon, Krueger and Abramovic, filmmakers like Michael Haneke and writers like Kafka and Plath, Nelson presents a panoramic view across disciplines of the meanings and uses of works that use violence to disturb and unsettle us so profoundly as to preclude the return to everyday life unchanged or untransformed. At once a profound meditation on violence, art and the representation of the corporeality of the human body, and a grippingly relatable analysis of artwork Nelson finds personally transformative or transgressive, this is a highly prescient, thought-provoking and necessary work. Loved it.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Courtney

    This is a really incredibly book. It's written brilliantly, comprehensively, poetically, personally, and with impressive organization. Nelson examines an array of art that is cruel, exploring meat, death, cannibalism, terrorism, rape, and other horrors of human life. She analyzes film, sculpture, performance art, literature, and political news. Her skill at selecting key passages and fragments of all of these works is astounding, and she brings us to unsettling and possibly redemptive places as This is a really incredibly book. It's written brilliantly, comprehensively, poetically, personally, and with impressive organization. Nelson examines an array of art that is cruel, exploring meat, death, cannibalism, terrorism, rape, and other horrors of human life. She analyzes film, sculpture, performance art, literature, and political news. Her skill at selecting key passages and fragments of all of these works is astounding, and she brings us to unsettling and possibly redemptive places as viewers, as witnesses, as humans. She includes some wonderful quotes from John Waters as well. I wish I had read this while writing my dissertation. I'd recommend it to my nihilist friends, to my freshman art students, to people I don't like. She is an excellent writer.

  26. 5 out of 5

    June

    Good luck trying to write a description of this book. The jacket copy doesn't do it justice. I feel like I've just sat through a semester of Art History with Susan Sontag as the professor. Fantastic--but my brain hurts a little. Good luck trying to write a description of this book. The jacket copy doesn't do it justice. I feel like I've just sat through a semester of Art History with Susan Sontag as the professor. Fantastic--but my brain hurts a little.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Myles Curtis

    Nelson describes her destructive fantasy of the writing task as "incinerating layers of crap rather than tossing more of it into the landfill" - the brilliance of this book is how much light her incineration gives on some of the most dense and densely-discussed aspects of art, lit, and violence. Nelson describes her destructive fantasy of the writing task as "incinerating layers of crap rather than tossing more of it into the landfill" - the brilliance of this book is how much light her incineration gives on some of the most dense and densely-discussed aspects of art, lit, and violence.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jake Oelrichs

    Full review is here... https://wordpress.com/view/jakestakes... I have a particularly warm and loving aunt who is a librarian and a mom too. I remember a time at her house when I found myself trying to defend my love of David Lynch to her while sipping tea. I was at a bit of a loss, and it was a pretty uncomfortable experience. Anyone who has ever experienced confusing tensions or misgivings about their admiration of certain violent or disturbing paintings, novels and films will find this book fa Full review is here... https://wordpress.com/view/jakestakes... I have a particularly warm and loving aunt who is a librarian and a mom too. I remember a time at her house when I found myself trying to defend my love of David Lynch to her while sipping tea. I was at a bit of a loss, and it was a pretty uncomfortable experience. Anyone who has ever experienced confusing tensions or misgivings about their admiration of certain violent or disturbing paintings, novels and films will find this book fascinating. It is a brilliantly critical and nuanced exploration of the relationship between art and cruelty. Trying to define art in contradistinction to entertainment is a mugs game. The two always bleed into each other and exist on a spectrum. Considering where a movie or book is on that spectrum is a much more worthwhile way to go about it. It’s relatively easy to criticize the use of violence on the extreme entertainment end of the spectrum. Shows like Game of Thrones appeal to our nostalgia for sword fights, dragons and zombies, and then generously sprinkle in the titillating smut, rape, torture-porn, and general mutilation to keep watchers transfixed. But what about the graphic gore of David Lynch, or the violence in Michael Haneke’s films? This is where it becomes more interesting. It’s more difficult to grapple with violence or cruelty in art because the motives are ostensibly better, or at least more complicated – truth, knowledge, heightened awareness and sensation, questioning and curiosity. However, the word art can also function as a convenient alibi for all sorts of crappy, ulterior motives. Did it ever seem to you that an artist was using violence for shock value and publicity? Sometimes I wonder if certain artists preciously cultivate an aura of darkness and gravitas so as to woo viewers and dealers, just like that shyster on the dating-site who plays the dark-and-mysterious type to get some ‘action’. When is cruelty and violence in art worthy of our attention and deserving of our thought? How the hell do you defend those scenes in Blue Velvet to your favourite auntie?! Maggie Nelson tackles these tangles with aplomb. She is scholarly and imaginative. Her criticism is incisive and free of moralizing or didacticism, and there are many slick callings of bullshit – for example, her answer to those who defend gratuitous violence in entertainment by relating it to Greek plays and their socially cathartic benefits. “When Aristotle used the term ‘catharsis’, he was talking about Greek tragedies, which are, without a doubt, violent, often gruesomely so (although a tragedy has the most violent acts take place off-stage). What was at stake for Aristotle vis-a-vis catharsis, were the emotions of ‘pity and terror’ aroused by the play, not the ability to hold down one’s lunch while watching a woman being forced to drink internal organs that have been ground up in a blender.” (a reference to the movie Captivity) Perhaps this metric is one way to gauge where a movie is on the entertainment-art spectrum. Does the violence seem like an end in itself or a means towards something else, such as pity or scrutiny. David Foster Wallace puts it so nicely in his essay, David Lynch Keeps His Head, that I can’t resist including this quote. “Unlike Tarantino, D. Lynch knows that an act of violence in an American film has, through repetition and desensitization, lost the ability to refer to anything but itself. This is why violence in Lynch’s films, grotesque and coldly stylized and symbolically heavy as it may be, is qualitatively different from Hollywood’s or even (Tarantino’s) anti-Hollywood, hip cartoon-violence. Lynch’s violence always tries to mean something. Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching someone’s ear getting cut off; David Lynch is interested in the ear.” The title of Maggie Nelson’s book expands off of the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ as it was coined and practiced by the surrealist poet and playwright Antonin Artaud. She links Artaud, Francis Bacon, Eugene Ionescu, and other modernists to “shock and awe” artistic movements like Surrealism, Futurism and Dada, and also to the iconoclastic figures of Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade. She then branches out to engage with more recent and contemporary visual artists, performance artists, writers, poets, film directors, and philosophers. Painter Francis Bacon, a key figure in this book, was as provocative with words as he was with his macabre images. He claimed that the singular goal of his art was to ‘return us to life more violently’. Playwright Eugene Ionesco seems to have shared Bacon’s objective. He wrote, ‘To tear ourselves from the everyday, from habit, from mental laziness which hides from us the strangeness of reality, we must receive something like a bludgeon blow.’ Nelson asks whether contemporary art making is stuck in habits of thought from a century-old, revolutionary avant-guard modus operandi that is somewhat dated and perhaps out of place in our violence-saturated media landscape, in which the image dominates. She responds to Ionescu’s words. “If such recourse to inflictions appeared once in a blue moon, it might not seem so strange. But given how often it recurs in twentieth and twenty-first-century artistic rhetoric, I feel compelled to ask, what kind of knowing is this, that is supposedly accomplished by striking?” I can’t help but wonder if people submit themselves to such ‘striking’ simply to escape their boredom? Does it actually ‘bring us to life’ as Bacon and Ionescu would wish, or just leave us feeling concussed in an internet-age already awash with images of global catastrophes, and brutality? Are we so desensitized to all of this that we need further overwhelming sensory assaults from art and entertainment to pass the time? Artists argue that their purpose in ‘striking’ and provoking is to shake people awake to some kind of truth or reality, or even just an enlivening new perspective. I like this idea and believe that good art often does this. But the idea is a bit of a pandora’s box too. ‘Truth’ and ‘reality’ are tricky words, and artists seem to take all sorts of ham-fisted liberties with them. This passage of Nelson’s is brilliant. “The artist standing bravely in the face of the (inconvenient, brutal, hard-won, dangerous, offensive) truth, the artist who refuses to ‘evade facts’, or who can stare down ‘what the world really looks like’ – what could be more heroic? Critics love the rhetoric used by artists such as Arbus and Bacon because it bolsters the sense that art and artists can rip off the veil, they can finally show us what our world is “really like”, what WE are really like. I mean it as no slight to these artists (both of whom i admire), nor to the practice of truth-telling (to which I aspire) when I say that I do not believe they do any such thing. Bacon shows us Bacon figures; Arbus shows us Arbus figures. This isn’t to say that Bacon’s paintings don’t tell us quite a bit about the human animal, especially when caught in a spasm of despair or carnage, or that Arbus’s photos don’t communicate quite a bit about the human animal in its freakiness, loneliness, absurdity or abstruse ecstasy.” ‘Truth’ can be a convenient alibi for subjecting one’s audience to all kinds of things, or even just publicly indulging in one’s own inclinations and obsessions. Even assuming that a truth is genuinely worthy of attention and consideration, the question remains, what does that knowledge do? What is the effect or usefulness of conveying such truths, and what exactly is the artist’s intent behind doing so? Also, is it really new knowledge? If not, what is the effect of getting banged over the head repeatedly with what we already know? This is a big muddy area that Nelson digs into with her analysis of individual artists and artworks. I love how she skillfully ferrets out the ways in which certain artists are dishonest with their audience, and even, plausibly, with themselves. Is an artist actually revealing or mirroring the dark truths in the hearts of their audience, as some claim to? To what extent are they just projecting themselves onto others? Nelson calls bullshit on writer Brian Evanson who said in an interview, ‘I disturb nobody – I only give them an occasion for disturbing themselves….[my readers] have externalized their fears in me, but what they really fear is what they see of themselves in the stories.’ It sounds as if Evanson is trying to wipe his hands clean with this kind of slick gab. Nelson compares a quote from the equally disturbing video artist Mike Kelley which totally flips the script. ‘I make art in order to give other people my problems.’ This refreshing honesty starkly contrasts Evanson’s presumptuous condescension. In the cases of Artaud, Bacon and Sylvia Plath, Maggie Nelson’s ambivalent admiration makes things more interesting. She struggles throughout the book to hold them to account while ultimately defending them as well. She questions Bacon’s recourse to ‘Truth’. He claims his art is accessing “the brutality of fact”. She questions whether, “he is simply illuminating his own vision, justifying his own practice or predilections.” It seems to me that the problems here are more to do with Bacon’s spoken rhetoric about his art, rather than one’s experience of his paintings speaking for themselves. I wonder if Bacon relished provoking with words, or if he, like many artists (I’ll wager), had to grudgingly play that publicity game in order to advance himself. Why become a painter if you can communicate what you want to in words? The painters I know personally absolutely hate having to talk about their paintings. Nelson does come around to Bacon’s defence though. I share her admiration for his genius and originality. She characterizes the subject of his art as our “situation of meat”, but suggests that while looking at his paintings, “a fierce kind of empathy can arise”. She continues, “If, at the very least, we are human, we must concede that humans evidence an ongoing interest in becoming, at certain times, and in certain contexts, things, as much as in turning other people into things. The spectre of our eventual ‘becoming object – of our (live) flesh one day turning into (dead) meat – is a shadow that accompanies us throughout our lives[…]this shadow is thicker for some than others. Certainly it was thick for Bacon.” According to Nelson, the same could be said about Sylvia Plath whose poetry she characterizes as a “dark generosity”. What a compelling description! It seems like a challenge, and an invitation to open up, in spite of the risks, to these kinds of artists, especially when it feels like their art is communicating in a non-didactic way, and is leaving space for processing and interpretation. With evolutionary biology and 20th century history in mind, (all of history for that matter) it’s hard to just dismiss Bacon’s idea of “the brutality of fact”, or Plath’s “O-gape of complete despair”. As a species, we seem uniquely able to comprehend our own mortality, and, paradoxically adept at going through our lives with seeming disregard for this fact. We display a, perhaps corresponding, propensity for sadism and destructiveness. We also have a talent for denying or just being oblivious to these things in ourselves. (For a fascinating evolutionary-psychological angle on our surprising ability to live in denial of death, check out the book ‘Denial: Self-deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind’, by scientist/physician Ajit Varki.) It would seem that people have varying levels of awareness or access to these types of realities. I agree with Nelson that “this shadow is thicker for some than others.” And I like her idea that art which you may find disturbing can nevertheless be motivated by a “dark generosity“ and result in “a fierce empathy”. Art can be a miraculous transmutation of an artist’s suffering, anxieties, or any intense experience, into a gift. That gift may be experienced as an unsettlingly alien taste of their world. Suffering need not remain isolating and meaningless. D.F.W.’s descriptions of depression in his novel Infinite Jest come to mind. I could never have known that such a kind of depression existed before reading that. I can’t blame a friend of mine for finding those descriptions too hard to take, and feeling assaulted by them. Nor do I judge myself for finding them gripping and revelatory. I’d add that films are not as ideal for this type of artistic communication. The moving image is intrinsically bossier than other mediums. (I’ve included another passage from David Foster Wallace’s essay on Lynch that perfectly describes this aspect of the film medium. It’s at the end of this review if you’re curious.) The written word does not affect the flight-or-fight-response parts of the brain in the way that images do. Also, you can put a book down and take a break, or just let your mind trail off on digressions. A painting is an image, sure, but it is a frozen one that you can walk around. Nothing has quite the same power to emotionally brutalize than the sound and motion picture. It’s no surprise to me that several film directors come under heavy attack in The Art of Cruelty. Speaking of which, it was so satisfying to see Nelson call bullshit on filmmaker Michael Haneke for his supposedly high-minded art-film and anti-Hollywood satire Funny Games, along with its recent American remake. This Palme d’Or-nominated film was recommended to me years ago by a good friend. I regretted watching it. As a footnote to this review, I’ve included a long critique of this acclaimed film with some of Nelson’s thoughts on it too. Interestingly, the film features a John Zorn (his band Naked City) soundtrack. Zorn is a consummate businessman, as well as a great composer and sax player. Naked City’s music, per se, is amazing and original, but Zorn’s marketing and cover art seems like titillating gore and smut to me. He presents it as ‘Art’ and ‘Truth’, but mainly it’s just a sales tactic. Nelson also calls bullshit on filmmaker Lars Von Trier, and many less famous authors and performance artists. As a counterpoint to all of the artists mentioned in this review hitherto, she discusses John Cage’s musical philosophy, and Bertolt Brecht’s theatre of activist, social engagement. Their art can be just as unsettling, enlivening and subversive, while seemingly free of cruelty. I’d add Marcel Duchamp and Jim Jarmusch, as glowing examples, to that unique list. (the rest of this review is avail at https://wordpress.com/view/jakestakes...). Goodreads has a 15,000 character limit.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

    'The Art of Cruelty' is a book by Maggie Nelson which is about things that are, in the words of the author, not nice. Shouldering aside the semantic ambiguities of defining exactly what is meant by ‘cruel’, the book leans heavily on a sense of knowing it when it is seen. An instinctive feeling of revulsion, followed by a certain compulsion to investigate further. An unwillingness to break the gaze because of what the viewer feels, in spite of whatever they might believe. The works under discussi 'The Art of Cruelty' is a book by Maggie Nelson which is about things that are, in the words of the author, not nice. Shouldering aside the semantic ambiguities of defining exactly what is meant by ‘cruel’, the book leans heavily on a sense of knowing it when it is seen. An instinctive feeling of revulsion, followed by a certain compulsion to investigate further. An unwillingness to break the gaze because of what the viewer feels, in spite of whatever they might believe. The works under discussion here seem intended to leave their audience feeling like the unhappy student quoted here, with reference to a controversial novel by Brian Evenson: ‘I feel like someone who has eaten something poisonous and is desperate to get rid of it.’ It is a book about the visual arts, performance, poetry and film, clearly informed by many of years of study and teaching. But it’s also a book about a writer struggling to account for her feelings of fascination/repulsion towards some of our society’s most startling artistic productions. It suffers from a certain surfeit of ambition: it struggles to pin down exactly what a ‘cruel’ work of art is, beyond a tendency towards shock or violence, either in its expression or representation. And at times it is hard to detect a thesis; sometimes the thread of the argument is lost in a blizzard of quotation. Yet it’s exactly this lack of polish, this sense of awkward self-remonstrance, that makes the book so endearing. It takes the work of Antonin Artaud as its starting point, and specifically his term ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’. Derived from his book The Theatre and its Double, this was an approach to performance outlined in stark, boldly abstract terms: ‘Everything that acts is a cruelty…It is upon this idea of extreme action, pushed beyond all limits, that theatre must be rebuilt…’. Founded in the abolition of concepts like ‘performers’ and ‘audience’, Artaud’s actual performances were startling, violent works, and rarely executed properly in his lifetime; his work was difficult, and he suffered terribly from mental illness. Nelson’s contention is that he was an artistic failure, though his theories were highly prescient. Some, but not all, of the other artists presented here fall into that category too; interesting to read about, but in execution alienating, dull or confused. Like Artaud they seem against theory in principle, yet were it not for theory their reputation would have vanished. I can’t muster any interest in the works for which Chris Burden became notorious, for example — filming himself crawling half-naked over broken glass, or being shot in the arm — but perhaps that says more about our current over-exposure to violence than it does the value of his actions.  The book somehow manages to be both sprawling and narrow in its interests: it covers a vast range of material, but it rarely steps outside the kind of thing which we might find in a well-stocked university library. Today there are vast swathes of Western culture that might fittingly be described as ‘cruel’, but which are barely touched upon here. Violent sports, video games, graphic novels, horror fiction, pornography, pop music and mainstream movies all seem to fall outside the book’s purview. This is fair enough, of course; though to me it seems like a decision prompted by inherent value judgements that ends up limiting the expressive range of the writing. The films of Ryan Trecartin, for example, are praised to the skies for their remarkable expressive qualities — ‘a riotous exploration of what kinds of space, identity, physicality, language, sexuality, and consciousness might be possible once leaves the dichotomy of the virtual and the real and behind, along with a whole host of other need-not-apply boundaries’ — but this, combined with the compulsion to quote from other approving authority figures, ends up telling the reader very little about what it is like to actually experience these films. Despite the fact that Trecartin seems to have been lauded by establishment art critics, it seems to me that most of his influences most of them have very little to do with established art. It’s as though Warhol were described only in terms of his brushwork and printmaking, with no mention of contemporary trends in media production. It’s bizarre to encounter Trecartin’s work after reading this; for me it’s shot through with the kind of hyperactive, unsophisticated viral culture that circulated in the earliest days of the internet, and it seems odd to pretend these influences don’t exist because they have everything to do with play and little to do with art.   Nelson’s approach is unashamedly highbrow, and she’s lightly scathing about the lack of value she finds in current approach to pop culture criticism: ‘I’m not saying there’s no fun or value or necessity in this work anymore; maybe there’s more than ever. I’m just saying that for me, personally, it feels like a dead end. The cultural products now seem designed to analyse themselves, and to make a spectacle of their essentially consumable perversity.’ There’s a lot to agree with in this statement — god knows what Nelson would make of Game of Thrones — but it’s also a nice illustration of the novel’s typically enjoyable one-two stylistic punch. First the brusque avowal of a position; then a light-hearted refusal of it; followed by a final, definitive statement of intent. It’s the old cliche about ‘I’m not saying / I’m just saying’ — yeah, actually you are saying exactly that thing you’re not saying. If this were an academic paper, surely only the third sentence would be permissible. This is typical of the author’s bobbing and weaving throughout here — it makes for an entertaining, conversational read, but at times it’s difficult to unpick exactly what we are supposed to take home. The effect is a little like sitting in on a seminar with a group of funny, opinionated, well-read people who have not yet decided ‘how to feel’ about something that has affected them greatly. But perhaps the idea that we have to reach a definitive position on ‘how to feel’ about everything is itself the problem.  The book is actually at its most entertaining when it is at its most incomplete. The sequence following the quote above departs entirely from its format and switches into the author’s reaction to the billboards advertising a horror movie that suddenly appeared around Los Angeles in 2007: ‘…you call to complain, disliking the sound of your Tipper-Gore-esque voice. You hang up and start worrying about the free-speech implications of your protest, so you turn to Noam Chomsky and ponder hard questions about manufactured consent and the meaning of free speech in an everything-is-owned-or-for-sale world, then to Jurgen Habermas, to ponder the meaning of public space is an everything-is-owned-or-for-sale world…So you wonder how to tell what emanates from where, and how you might balance your visceral outrage against the Captivity emanations with your deep veneration of writers from Sade to Jean Genet to Dennis Cooper to Heather Lewis to Pat Califa to Benjamin Weissman, and ask yourself if you can keep resting on some quasi-nostalgic and most certainly elitist (but not-wholly-without-significance) between high and low art, or the value of the complex and essentially private written word versus that of the mass marketed, in-your-face media image…’ It goes on for another page or so like this. And this model of throwing up endless little questions that it doesn’t stop to answer is essentially the model pursued for the rest of the book. It models exactly the author’s own frustrations with the cul-de-sac of pop culture criticism previously expressed; but it makes no attempt to find a new model, nor does it entirely escape the same trappings. What is this if not making a spectacle of an essentially consumable perversity? And yet this is the closest the book comes to a clear picture of the current predicament of anyone who would try to write about the most extreme examples of culture. A little learning is a dangerous thing; the weight of critical theory in this field is so considerable that it ends up stifling the original reaction which brought you to it in the first place. But that is worth preserving — and so, perhaps, is the associated confusion.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Fraser Kinnear

    Cruelty has always been represented in art. For most artists, that representation was accompanied with a judgment: "See how cruel this was? This is wrong." However, some artists have chosen to channel curelty to recreate it, to force a confrontation for their audience. Through these attempts, the "ambivalence, uncertainty, repulsion, and pleasure" of cruelty comes to the foreground. Is this kind of art redeemable? Is it worth our time? What can we get out of it? How do you differentiate cruelty i Cruelty has always been represented in art. For most artists, that representation was accompanied with a judgment: "See how cruel this was? This is wrong." However, some artists have chosen to channel curelty to recreate it, to force a confrontation for their audience. Through these attempts, the "ambivalence, uncertainty, repulsion, and pleasure" of cruelty comes to the foreground. Is this kind of art redeemable? Is it worth our time? What can we get out of it? How do you differentiate cruelty in art between the worthwhile and the despicable? Maggie Nelson casts a wide survey of artists to answer this question. Her subjects include: Francis Bacon, Sylvia Plath, the Marquis Du Sade, Paul McCarthy, Ana Mendieta, the Viennese Actionists, Franz Kafka, Chris Burden, the Yes Men, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Diane Arbus, William Pope.L, Yoko Ono, Kara Walker, Martin McDonagh, the producers of Fox's show '24'. She has so much to say on the topic, it's wonderful art criticism. Nelson has a dangerous armory of images to pull from, and she pierces her analysis with far sharper language than I'm able to muster :-P It's relentless, here's a good example: The game for [Francis] Bacon was to paint the human figure with inexorable precision and equally inexorable distortion. A smattering of arrows repeatedly draws our attention to certain smears of color, certain areas of the body or canvas, for no other apparant reason other than to tell us that, however profound the distortion may be, we are not to be excused from the task of focusing. We are not to collapse amid the loneliness, injury, or carnage into a state of diffuse or shocked bewilderment. The painting's aim, for "the right degree of bewilderment" as Henry James once put it, which for James most certainly did not mean allowing for sloppiness or randomness with bewilderment as an excuse. We are to remain alert. Alert pervs. Alert detecties. If anything, cruelty is engaging, interesting. Nelson herself appears to have had enormous fun writing this book, and I reading it. So many varieties, so many phylum in the kingdom of cruelty. Nelson herself appears to judge some as more redeemable than others. Mysogyny and political violence and oppression (see Abu Graib, the show 24) rank poorly. I surprised myself when had some trouble just viscerally getting through some of Nelson's passages on cutting (is it some deep seated squeamishness?). Nelson’s writing around Ono’s Cut Take were what I have in mind. Unrelated to cutting, McCarthy’s "Family Tyrrany" and Fassbinder "In A Year of Thirteen Moons" were particularly hard to get down. Who would have thought I'd get this much discomfort out of a book purportedly just of art criticism? "What is deepest for [Francis] Bacon is sensation, not psychology. And the peeling away of psychology from sensation occasions a certain sort of pain. The pain of extinguishing the story behind the suffering, and of contending directly with the sensation of suffering itself." How much credit does Nelson give for recreating the real thing? Hard to say "In other words, truth, in art, is but a feeling. An itinerant one." Or, more at length: Critics love the rhetoric used by artists such as Arbus and Bacon because itbolsters the sense that art and artists can rip off the veil, they can finally show uswhat our world is “really like,” what we are really like. I mean it as no slight tothese artists (both of whom I admire), nor to the practice of truth-telling (to whichI aspire) when I say that I do not believe they do any such thing. Bacon shows usBacon figures; Arbus shows us Arbus figures. This isn’t to say that Bacon’spaintings don’t tell us quite a bit about the human animal, especially when caughtin a spasm of despair or carnage, or that Arbus’s photos don’t communicate quitea bit about the human animal in its freakiness, loneliness, absurdity, or abstruseecstasy. Their works do all this, while also remaining products of their notoriously particular view of the world. There is absolutely nothing strange aboutthis paradox, unless you’re looking to art to tell you “how things are,” rather thangive you the irregular, transitory, and sometimes unwanted news of how it is to be another human being. Absolutely want to read it again

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