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The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

by Maggie Nelson
W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2012
304 pp. Trade, $24.95; paper, $16.95
ISBN: 978-0-393-07215-0; ISBN: 978-0-393-34314-4.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard
New York, NY 10019 USA


I was initially attracted to this book by way of its title. Discussing the art of cruelty may reveal something about it that I had not thought of or encountered before, whether in real time or virtual performance or as imaged, sounded or written. Of course, cruelty abides with and between us. We can’t escape it. We provoke it, support it, condemn it or shy away from it as we can. It resonates or it does not, it leaves us shaken or numb, or passes through us as simply another incident among all too many we have managed to endure. Being a victimizer or victim, of course, is something else, and there the term “art” loses meaning. When directly inflicting pain or having it inflicted on you, what space is left for you to find significance within it: little to none. And for those others who may watch, are they anything more than voyeurs? Commanding agents to do your dirty work can open the door to a kind of artistry, however horrifying it might be. But even here the terms bifurcate and ethical considerations come to the fore, as they should.

So this book offers perspective on what makes the representation of cruel acts, and cruelty, artistic, and what does not. That is to say, what gives to such acts the values we attribute to art and the values we attribute to bad faith or simple disgust: from personal revelation, the clarity in embracing something you did not before in just this way, or a revalued ambivalence, for example, about the work and how it plays or culminates or something of both, to an exorcism of, or service to, neurotic, agit prop or other compulsions which might shock but rarely inspire.

In each case for Nelson, attentiveness couples with nuance before the work, and that relationship is primary. That she does not practice what she preaches methodically, lending to her discourse an aleatory character, doesn’t prevent her from making use of it well enough – an aspect, I am sure, that contributes to the notice her book has received. She plays intellectually, her subjects artistically. Shall I mention just a few? There is Sade, Nietzsche, Artaud, Dix, Kafka, Brecht and more currently Abramovic, Fassbinder, Mendieta, Antin, the Yes Men, Holzer, and others, a compendium of creators we have encountered in one or another ways, balanced on both ends by Bacon and Plath with a tether to Buddhist perspectives that sometimes left me curious, not so much as to why but why not; it’s about time.

Nor does she avoid questioning the rote tradition that “avant gardes” do violence to what preceded them, the better to gain advantages precise to their momentum. Complicating this, of course, is the need, as expressed by those she admires, with few exceptions, to do just that -- to strip away, excoriate, cleanse, subvert and otherwise defenestrate given values and styles; as if such aggression best enabled them. Certainly, it is a phenomenon worth discussing despite the oft-echoed death of the avant garde. Somehow, ghost or not, it stalks us. And somehow its predicates illuminate and beguile. What else have we less played out here but a kind of compassion that we rarely acknowledge or use, including the deep possibility of humor and irony by way of it, and other riches still largely in the wings?

Most striking for me about this book, though, is its temporality. By that I mean two things: its currency, in terms of the artists, writers and film-makers Nelson explores, with one composer, Cage, and their value over time. While explaining why a work interests her and may interest us, I also came away with a peculiar sense of evaporation, of entering an alternate or parallel scheme whose values slip away. This is not to say that Nelson forgoes her aim. She doesn’t. But, and perhaps this is a sign of the times, it diffuses into a shifting landscape where insights emerge and vanish, and whose overall significance diminishes as a result. If I bring into this consideration the ever-present tides of real politick, whose cruelties are immediate or insidious, and the deluge of virtualities that orbit about them, this act of interpretation enervates as much as it enlightens.

To her credit, Nelson also knows that boredom can change or challenge a reader’s perception, as it has my own, and that art, if it seeks something more than a shallow intensity, needs boredom, or the space or lack of space it invokes as counterpoint. Like Nelson, I too look for that intercession or suspension that any work can foil by virtue of its medium or mechanism too rigorously projected. Failure here is thus a kind of triumph. Because, like her, I seek in art the humanity we have all too much lost to acts of cruelty that, on their own, asphyxiate.

This is one reason why her book is important enough. At times it breathes and allows us to breathe with it. At other times its breath dissimulates the communion it seeks. The contradiction is intriguing. I only wish, given her expansive reading and discretion about art, she would use both more intensively. Her concluding chapter, “Rarer and Better Things” points to this although I’m not quite sure what she means. So, too, her book subtitle, “A Reckoning,” which, for me at least, she has yet to make with cruelty and the art that represents it and us, or some vital part of us that makes us what we are and least or best desire to be.

The book is broken into 16 chapters. I will mention a few of their titles to indicate what Nelson deals with, not without personality, and what you may gain from: Styles of Imprisonment; Captivity, Catharsis; Nobody Said No; A Situation of Meat; Precariousness; Face…

The art of cruelty remains with us, a mirror to who we are, a looking glass to what we might become, given the desire to transform the images that compel us, and the actions that sometimes define us.

Last Updated 8 September 2012

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