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The Art of Cruelty

A Reckoning

by Maggie Nelson

Hardcover, 288 pages, W W Norton & Co, List Price: $24.95 |


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The Art of Cruelty
A Reckoning
Maggie Nelson

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Book Summary

Discusses whether the brutal imagery present in today's reality and entertainment will shock society into a less alienated state and help create a just social order or whether focusing on representations of cruelty simply makes society more cruel.

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Excerpt: The Art Of Cruelty: A Reckoning

One should open one's eyes and take a new look at cruelty," Friedrich Nietzsche exhorted in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), in which Nietzsche famously attempts to lay waste to traditional notions of morality, especially those associated with Christianity. Nietzsche hoped that, in catapulting beyond the poles of good and evil, kindness and cruelty, the true energy and strength of mankind would be liberated: in art as in life, this energy — which Nietzsche termed our "will to power" — would pour forth; it would dance; it would shine.

The next century — with its unthinkable wars, premeditated and spontaneous genocides, rapacious exploitation of resources, environmental catastrophes, and systemic injustices of all kinds — provided ample opportunity to take this new look. Many of the century's art movements (Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Viennese Actionism, the Black Arts Movement, and so on) made complicated contributions to this conversation, in that many artists associated with them hoped to mount a forceful protest against such cruelties, while they also derived much of their inspiration, rhetoric, and strategy from a bellicose avant-garde tradition with thinkers such as Nietzsche at its root. To complicate matters further, the twentieth century brought an explosion in the human capacity to create and circulate images, via technological inventions such as film, television, Internet, digital photography, and countless other means. Given brutality's particularly fraught relationship with representation, twentieth-century art that concerned itself with its depiction or activation often found itself in turbulent ethical and aesthetic waters.

By now, it is something of a commonplace to say that twentieth-century art movements were veritably obsessed with diagnosing injustice and alienation, and prescribing various "shock and awe" treatments to cure us of them — a method Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke usefully, if revoltingly, described in a 2007 interview as "raping the viewer into independence." (Art critic Grant Kester has described this approach more gently, calling it the "orthopedic aesthetic.") In short, the idea is that there's something wrong with us, from the get-go — be it the mark of original sin (or, conversely, as Nietzsche would have it, adherence to the "slave morality" of Christianity), alienation from our labor, a fatal rift with Nature, being lost in a forest of simulations, being deformed by systems such as capitalism and patriarchy, Westernization, not enough Westernization, or simply "an epistemological lack," as Kester has put it — that requires forceful (i.e., orthopedic) intervention to correct.

This premise is so ubiquitous that it allows phony wagers such as Haneke's to go largely unchallenged, in both artistic and political arenas. It isn't that many serious thinkers loudly profess to believe in them anymore, but rather that the habits of thought which have accrued around them remain largely intact, even when their core has been roundly disavowed. As anarchist anthropologist David Graeber puts it in an excellent short essay, "The Twilight of Vanguardism," "Revolutionary thinkers have been declaring the age of vanguardism over for most of a century now. Outside a handful of tiny sectarian groups, it's almost impossible to find radical intellectuals who seriously believe that their role should be to determine the correct historical analysis of the world situation, so as to lead the masses along in the one true revolutionary direction. But (rather like the idea of progress, to which it's obviously connected), it seems much easier to renounce the principle than to shake the accompanying habits of thought." This book attempts such a shaking.

There are, of course, major trends in contemporary art that have set themselves explicitly apart from the vanguardist, shock-and-awe strategies just described. Indeed, while writing, I have been often haunted by the fact that much, if not most of the art surrounding me at present follows a different trajectory altogether — one that goes by the name of relational aesthetics (or conversational art, or social practice, or community-based art, or littoral art, or as Kester — one of this work's most articulate champions — prefers, "dialogical" art). For Kester and others, these out-of-the-gallery projects, typically based on community engagement and interactive dialogue, offer the freshest, most viable response to what Kester calls "the most pressing questions facing us in the twentieth century: How do we reduce the violence and hatred that have so often marked human social interactions? How do we, in short, lead a 'non-fascist' life?" There is much to admire here, as well as much to question. But in the end, such projects remain outside this book's purview, if only for the simple reason that they are most always predicated on the desire to lessen the amount of cruelty and miscommunication in the world, rather than to explore or express it.

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 still wild and worthwhile, now that we purportedly inhabit a political and entertainment landscape increasingly glutted with images — and actualities — of torture, sadism, and endless warfare. It asks when and whether Artaud's distinction between a coarse sort 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, implacable 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. In his interviews with David Sylvester, painter Francis Bacon, one of this book's recurring subjects, put it this way: "Who today has been able to record anything that comes across to us as a fact without causing deep injury to the image?" Bacon, being fairly convinced of this formula, did not expect an answer. I do. I want to know whether he is truly onto something about the relationship between injury and fact, clarity and cruelty — or whether he is simply illuminating his own vision, justifying his own practice or predilections. Bacon's suggestion that an image can sustain (or cause) injury will also come up for debate; this book will consider the question vis-à-vis literature and words as well as visual art. Throughout, the aim is to attend closely to the different excitements and effects of this "pure cruelty" (such as precision, transgression, purgation, productive unease, abjectness, radical exposure, uncanniness, unnerving frankness, acknowledged sadism and masochism, a sense of clearing or clarity), while also staying keenly attuned to the various sophistries and self-justifications that so often attend its valorization.

Many have expressed concern about the ethical or even spiritual effects of meditating on such questions. I count myself among them. "It is possible that the contemplation of cruelty will not make us humane but cruel; that the reiteration of the badness of our spiritual condition will make us consent to it," wrote Lionel Trilling. Generally speaking, I think Trilling is right. The Buddha thought so too, which is why he advised his followers to meditate on compassion, which causes "any cruelty [to be] abandoned." Contemporary Buddhist figures like Thich Nhat Hanh advise against taking in or meditating on cruelties and violent spectacles at all, as to do so, Hanh says, only sows seeds of aggression, thereby increasing the presence of aggression in our minds, our relationships, and the world.

Generally speaking, I believe all that to be true. I believe that the obsessive contemplation of our inhumanities can end up convincing us of the inevitability of our badness, and that we likely do ourselves a grave disservice by staying riveted by top-of-the-hour, ad nauseam "proof " that humans always have steadily pursued (and, the spurious logic goes, thus always will pursue) the bloody businesses of genocide, state-sponsored war, terrorism, and individual acts of sadism across space and time. I agree that if we don't turn our attention away — or at least broaden our focus — we run the risk of floating further and further into the state described by Walter Benjamin as "an alienation that has reached such a degree that [mankind] can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order." I agree with Benjamin when he argued that this state better enables us to sweep ourselves along the road to brutal forms of self-organization, such as fascism. Or forget fascism — a term whose historical and ontological specificity is being erased daily, as Fox News searches for adequately incendiary terms to superimpose across images of Barack Obama. Why not face the brutal form of self-organization we've already got — capitalism — described by Rosa Luxemburg in her 1915 Junius Pamphlet in terms still applicable today: "shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands."

Why, then, would I want to spend so much time thinking about cruelty?

It is possible that its contemplation will make us more cruel, said Trilling. He didn't say for sure.

Cruelty, as the Buddhists see it, is the far enemy of compassion. Compassion also has a near enemy — that is, an enemy that so closely resembles it that it can be difficult, albeit utterly crucial, to differentiate between them. This near enemy is called idiot compassion. I would like to understand more about compassion, and I am gambling that one way of doing so is to get to know its enemies, near and far. I realize that this approach risks looking, for a time, at our condition through the wrong end of the telescope, albeit the more commonly used one.

But perhaps I'm fooling myself. Perhaps I'm not really all that interested in compassion. Certainly it has less grip than conflict, as screenwriters everywhere preach. Certainly it doesn't "return us to life more violently," as Bacon so often named the singular goal of his art. Would it be a relief to give up, as Bacon did, on the idea of compassion altogether? "I'm not upset by the fact that people do suffer," said Bacon, "because I think the suffering of people and the differences between people are what have made great art, and not egalitarianism."

Welcome to Bacon's bracing allure (which resembles that of Artaud, and of Nietzsche), which posits this "violent return to life" as a way to restore us, or deliver us anew, to an unalienated, unmediated flow of existence characterized by a more authentic relation to the so-called real. Unlike so many avant-gardists and revolutionaries, however, Bacon does not think or hope that this restored vitality will bring about the subsequent waning of inequalities, injustices, or radical forms of suffering. Quite the contrary: for Bacon (as for Nietzsche), some people were put on the planet to dominate and some to be dominated, and that's exactly as it should be. Rather than purport that this "violent return to life" is somehow in keeping with the goals of social justice, Bacon prefers the brutal whirlwind in and of itself, with all its attendant cruelties.

In any case, one thing seems clear: whether or not one intends for one's art to express or stir compassion, to address or rectify forms of social injustice, to celebrate or relieve suffering, may end up irrelevant to its actual effects. Some of the most good-intentioned, activist, "compassionate" art out there can end up being patronizing, ineffective, or exploitative. And, of course, vice versa: much of the work that has no designs on eliciting compassion or bringing about emancipation can be the most salutary, the most liberating. This paradox is central to this book's enterprise. For not only do our work and words speak beyond our intentions and controls, but compassion is not necessarily found where we presume it to be, nor is it always what we presume it to be, nor is it experienced or accessed by everyone in the same way, nor is it found in the same place in the same way over time. The same might be said of cruelty.

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. For obvious reasons, I plan to focus more on the former than the latter. But the boundaries between the two can be difficult to police or track, sometimes within the same work. Sometimes it's as simple as the difference between a piece of good art and a piece of bad art. Sometimes it's a gut feeling — one of those notorious I-know-it-when-I-see-it type of things — that arrives when I behold brutality being used as a bluff, or a bludgeon. Cruelty bears an intimate relationship to stupidity as well as to intelligence, and I am not interested in stupid cruelty, of which the world is overfull. (This includes most cruelties brought about via conformism, especially conformism to misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, or racist norms. It also eliminates from consideration works that strike me as fatally sophomoric or weak-minded, such as the plays of Neil LaBute.) At other times, the differentiation is more complicated — more flickering, more undecidable. This is especially so when one is watching an eminently good artist, such as Paul McCarthy, Ana Mendieta, Sylvia Plath, or Brian Evenson, slide in and out of various types of cruelty, often to uneven effect, or lurching between them, bumper-car style. Staying onboard for such a ride can generate a good amount of ambivalence, volatility, attraction, and repulsion. Some of this, I enjoy. Much — perhaps most — I do not. Nonetheless, I persist. This book is also about that persistence.

Freud — or at least the Freud of "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" — might have understood this persistence as the natural engine of a certain kind of art-making and art-viewing. Freud generally held to Aristotle's art-as-catharsis theory: that art (or, for Aristotle, tragedy in particular) is a place where spectators can come to experience pain as both enjoyable and purgative. Aristotle focused on pity and fear as the two emotions aroused, and subsequently subjected to catharsis, by tragedy; Freud expanded the idea to account for emotional responses beyond pity and fear, as well as to works not classically defined as tragedies. Freud argued that our enjoyment stems from art's ability to offer — perhaps to viewer and creator alike — retroactive mastery of traumatic experiences that one's defenses failed to deflect adequately from the organism at the time of original impact or injury. The "compulsion to repeat" the trauma — be it in art, nightmare, or waking life — is the organism's attempt to master the surplus anxiety that the original incursion produced. Of course, these attempts typically fail, often to catastrophic effect — in which case art can be seen as a relatively innocuous arena in which to showcase the failure — to enjoy, as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has put it, our symptoms.

Freud's theory offers some real explanatory power. Nonetheless, it accounts only in part for many of the artworks, experiences, and impulses that this book chronicles. For here I am less interested in — and less convinced by — art's capacity (or desire, be it fulfilled or unfulfilled) to purge or master, and more interested in and convinced by its capacity to offer unpredictable insight into what some Buddhists have called "styles of imprisonment": the sometimes simple, sometimes intricate ways in which humans imprison themselves and their others, thereby causing suffering rather than alleviating it. This book therefore focuses primarily on works that give clear pictures of these knots or binds, rather than on those that hope to offer a map out of them.

Such a focus owes much to Scottish anti-psychiatrist R. D. Laing, whose 1970 book Knots sketches out the various looping, self-imprisoning patterns of thought that he observed in his patients' psyches. By spatializing, on the page, the language, shape, and circulation of each particular "web of maya," Knots makes clear that these knots hold compelling formal as well as psychological interest. They have, as Laing puts it, "a formal elegance." This book shares such an appreciation.

This focus is not cynical. Rather, it stems from my belief in the paradoxical yet sage statement once made by the poet Fanny Howe, that "the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn't." This focus does elide, however — unforgivably, perhaps, for some — works whose principal goal it is
to impugn the causes or agents of the cruelties at hand. For this reason, anyone looking for a book that champions art whose main point is either an outraged "Never again should this terribly cruel thing be allowed to occur," or, conversely, a resigned "Ah, isn't life always and inevitably this way," should probably put this one down. For what I'm calling "art of cruelty" is specifically not art that expressly aims to protest, ameliorate, make meaningful, cast blame, or intervene in instances of brutality. To the contrary: much of the art considered here could be fairly charged with adding more cruelties — both real and represented — to an already contemptible heap.

Sometimes, as we shall see, the cruelty stays within the confines of the page or the gallery wall, which makes it slightly easier to talk about or defend. Other times, the cruelty seeps out to the viewer more directly, further troubling the ethical waters. This book diagrams a wide range of such charged instances in recent art and culture, and takes a new look at what is found there. It does not offer what, to my mind, can only be false or moralistic solutions to intractable ethical and aesthetic problems.

Many of this book's subjects are American, though by no means all — indeed, part of its point is to range widely and idiosyncratically, with no pretension toward the exhaustive. And while it isn't about American art or politics per se, it's clear to me now — and will likely be clear to the reader — that its concerns were shaped by the context in which it was initially conceived: the final years of the second administration of George W. Bush, a time in which there was no shortage of cruelties to contemplate. This was also a time in which the notion of "moral complexity" came to be defined — at least by proponents of the so-called war on terror — as a willingness to be "intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to protect what we love," as one 2008 Wall Street Journal editorial (by conservative commentator Andrew Klavan) urged, without a shred of irony. Such a formulation struck me then, as it does now, as a cruelty of the highest order — one worthy of our analysis, and, I hope, our refusal.

Contrary to the miserable, self-justifying proclamations of Klavan's editorial, true moral complexity is rarely found in simple reversals. More often it is found by wading into the swamp, getting intimate with discomfort, and developing an appetite for nuance. "Make no mistake: this is not about more intellectual sophistication," writes Roland Barthes in The Neutral. "What I am looking for ... is an introduction to living, a guide to life (ethical project): I want to live according to nuance. Now there is a teacher of nuance, literature; try to live according to the nuances that literature teaches me." Such a project generally gets a bad rap in our culture: nuance is all well and good for the ivory tower, people say, but in the "real" world, what position are you going to take? Whose side are you on? Where will you land at the end of the day, or at the end of days? This book does not shrink from expressing strong opinions, from "taking sides," when it feels the need to do so. But at the end of the day, its greater aspiration is Barthes's: to live according to nuance. By definition, there is no master sketch for what such a thing might look like. It can only be an experiment.

From The Art Of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson. Copyright 2011 by Maggie Nelson. Reprinted by arrangement of W. W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.