Sunday, June 11, 2023

Review: The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson

I kinda struggled with this book for the first couple chapters, but to be honest, that one is on me. I went in expecting something on the art of cruelty — should it ever be wielded, and if so, how? That is, I was expecting something along the lines of Yves Winter’s Macchiavelli and the Orders of Violence. In that text, Winter looks at the historical context in which Macchiavelli was writing, and from this perspective, proffers a model for how to understand violence (and cruelty, which he defines in Machiavelli's terms as lethal violence that upsets the social expectation of dignity and bodily integrity). Although the title is The Art of Cruelty, the subject matter is cruelty in art — something very different, and once I shifted my frame of reference, I felt better able to swim through Nelson’s waters.

In The Art of Cruelty, Nelson reflects on various meditations on cruelty in art and media (or reactions of people who accuse specific works of art of excess cruelty). She strolls through theatre (e.g., Antonin Artaud), visual arts (e.g., the other Francis Bacon), performance art (e.g., Yoko Ono), pop culture movies (e.g., Quentin Tarantino), poetry (e.g., Sylvia Plath) and mainstream news (e.g., Bill O’Reilly). Initially I found myself probing for why these examples of these genres were selected and not some others. Learning that Nelson taught an undergraduate seminar with the same title as this book made a lot of pieces fall into place: it should be approached as a tour through the hot topics of 2001-2011 (when this book was published and when she taught her seminars) and of academic discussions around contemporary art. This also explains why my expectations that Nelson would cast judgement on this or that object of art as “warranted” or “good” use of cruelty were constantly disappointed: Nelson presents many examples but seems very careful not to conclude too much about them.

“[The Neutral] 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 of literature – that is, no grand theory of their value. But I have meant to express throughout a deep appreciation of them as my teachers.” 

I could see this approach working well in a context where the examples are encountered and debated collectively. But I wasn’t reading this book in a group or seminar, so I had to have a debate with myself. Perhaps in a university classroom, Nelson provides a little more guidance to structure the debate. I found very little structure present in this book, which is grouped mostly according to topic (theatre, pornography, beauty, etc). Without a better guide, I turned to the aforementioned Winter for help. His triadic model of violence, consisting of object, subject and audience, is helpful for examining cruelty in art. Who does the artist put in the role of object and subject, and do they include an audience within the frame, or is the audience only the viewer? Winter also discusses the political role that hate (collective, unites people in action) and fear (isolating, inhibits action) play — this too would be a useful lens: does a cruel work of art cause us to hate or fear something? 

I think if Nelson had used these frames for examining cruelty, the examples she picked would have been a little more varied, and the discussion a little more interesting. For example, she discusses at some length the reaction to the horrors committed by the US military in Abu Ghraib, made public in 2004, but highlights only American reactions. As she points out, this “model of shaming-us-into-action-by-unmasking-the-truth-of-our-actions cannot hold a candle to our capacity to assimilate horrific images, and to justify or shrug off horrific behaviour.” But in Abu Ghraib, the perpetrators of the cruelty are the Americans — the same group she presents as the audience. In the triad model (object, subject, audience), we are missing two parties: how did those in the territories invaded by the US react to these images? How did those in uninvolved countries react? Did it elicit fear? Or hatred? (Or, perhaps it registered as only one more action to add to the pile.) Either way, I think these parts of the triad would have been unlikely to shrug off or justify such horrific behaviour.

Despite its lack of theoretical framework and its US-centric focus, Nelson does pull together philosophical comments on cruelty from a variety of sources (Nietszche, Adorno, Plato, Derrida, etc) and it was fun to see these very different approaches collaged together. It was also an interesting time capsule: many issues it presents (for example, Stephen Colbert's "truthiness", and reality TV) were fiery topics of debate just as I was entering adulthood and I haven't really examined them since.

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