Review of Maggie Nelson’s Art of Cruelty

People are cruel. Why so? is a question dwelled upon by many artists and authors the world over. Its undeniability has made it the subject of the creative efforts of the artists and writers Maggie Nelson puts forth in her 2011 book, The Art of Cruelty. Cruelty is ubiquitous to the human experience and seemingly no escape from it. Many artists take the subject matter of cruelty head-on, and Nelson attempts to uncover artists’ motivations and the cultural repercussions; these motivations are often reasonable, but often, like cruelty itself, they are not.

A wealth of new material for readers yet exposed to art criticism and Avant-garde art. Nelson’s writing, approachable to audiences outside of the critical art-theory genre, here, seems desensitized to many of the artworks she expounds on. This desensitization is perhaps resulting from her exhaustive exploration into artists best known for tackling human cruelty. Like when she agrees with feminist commentator Germain Greer’s take on the performance art of The Viennese Actionists. The Actionists were doing work in the aftermath of the Second World War, if perhaps only the psychological aftermath. Greer considered the work to be “quickly ridiculous, a witless testament to a ludicrous white-boy suppression, Austrian-style, literally trying to whip itself up to Wagnerian proportions.” When not experienced firsthand and in person, performance art is always a watered-down version of its original. Had she been in the same room as Otto Muel as he flailed dead and bloody animals, she may have been more impacted. The Actionists’ art was a direct result of the lasting trauma of the War. Also, had Nelson ever been anywhere close to atrocities of War, she may be less quick to discount their pain. However, a valuable critical analysis may not require beforehand empathy toward the artists’ experiences. Later performance artists like Ron Athey and Franco B. are mentioned but without the more aptly placed white-boy suppression designation.

The writer and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, known for his radical take on the spirituality of the Gospel, said, “Pain not transformed is transmitted.” Another such adage is “Pain shared is pain lessened. “Much beyond a comprehensive report of art considered to be about cruelty or cruelness itself, The Art of Cruelty is a book about art theory. So for what, then, have we committed these representations and reiterations of human cruelty to public memory. Granted, “for what?” is a question that ought never to have an answer when asked about art, not by any good art theorist. After all, the artworks mentioned have been celebrated, exhibited, and reproduced and are considered historical achievements. Had they not, they would not be on the pages of this book. Nelson’s writing strength is her foray into art theory, delivering such concepts to readers throughout the book. Like in the chapter Theaters of War, where she mentions concepts put forth by Jacques Ranciére and who is mentioned again in the chapter Great to Watch. To come to a closer understanding of why cruel art inhabits our social and visual sphere, Nelson employs Ranciére’s term “redistribution of the sensible.” Under this notion, artists who create works surrounding the realities of human cruelty are actors in our world that expand and “celebrate the bounty of representational and perceptual possibilities” and are “literally changing what we can sense.” Implied is a sort of expansion of consciousness that motivates artists and audiences to create and consume works about human cruelty. Nelson quotes Ranciére again concerning the viewer’s consent, and after mentioning the emancipatory gesture of walking out of a theater during gratuitous portrayals of rape on film. Ranciére says the principle of emancipation is the dissociation of cause and effect. He calls this aesthetic efficacy — a paradoxical efficacy that escapes representational mediation and ethical immediacy.

These artists materialize (Nelson uses the word crystalize) cruel imaginings and share them with us. There is a degree of risk on both parties, artists, and the audience in this sharing. These representations of human cruelty are visually life-like, detailed, and accurate simulations

of the real thing. We experience films from a safe psychological distance, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Lars Von Trier’s Golden Heart Trilogy attempt to bring audiences into a fictional world of human cruelty. Also discussed are instances when art makes no effort to seem real but with a more jarring psychological effect. Nelson focuses on Paul McCarthy’s 1987 Video Family Tyranny. In the video, McCarthy plays the role of a father who carries out acts of child abuse toward the assembly of objects that closely resemble a human child’s figure. For Nelson, this slap-stick representation of abuse that’s not the real thing “liberates the abuse from the burden of believable representation.” Thereby confronting viewers with its intended message on a more profound level.

Nelson compares violence in McCarthy’s Family Tyranny to Herman Nitsch’s Orgies-Mysteries Theater that presents itself as sacred violence or as the act of beholding the art as a sacrificial offering. Nitsch is a founding member of the performance art group Vienna Actionists. Orgien Mysterien Theater has performed in several variations since the 1960s. In the summer of 1998, at a castle grounds in Austria, Nitsch realized the ultimate manifestation of his Orgies Mystery Theater as a 6-day long “game” including multiple performers who carried out plays involving animal crucifixions, ecstatic dancing, action paintings with blood and entrails, and music. Nelson sees Nitch’s grandiose visions of pain sharing, which he admits creating for catharsis and purgation, as self-mythologizing. Nelson asserts Rancière, “art is emancipated and emancipating when it stops wanting to emancipate us.”

Undoubtedly all the artists and writers take an immense risk when presenting their artworks, given the nature of their subject matter. They risk being demonized and ostracized by the media, the public, professional institutions, gallerists, publishers, and others close to them.

Nelson speaks to this by mentioning Historian Jane Blocker’s term borrowed from High Finance corporate capitalism “Risk Transfer.” Nelson does not skirt capitalistic cruelty woven of the systems and structures of the art world. This category’s artwork involves employment and payment (some offer nothing) to individuals who cannot refuse the relatively small sums to participate in performances. Artists too can participate in the exploitative nature of people needing money. Their art serves two purposes, the artists pay their performers and what comes out is a powerful work of art that makes a strong statement about capitalism’s running entanglement in the art-making process. Better known for this is Santiago Sierra’s “160cm Line Tattooed on Four People.” He paid four prostitutes who permitted him to ink a continuous line across each of their backs permanently. Richard Serra, an artist, is not typically thought about in this category of risk transfer artists, but Nelson mentioning that one of his sculptures collapsed and killed an installer. These artists take considerable risks in doing these works and pay others to share in that risk. Those paid, however, their names are often completely forgotten where the fame and notoriety go to the artist. These artists are often then paid fat sums of money to present their works in Museums, art institutions, and galleries. These artists make objects out of their human subjects, essentially dehumanizing them, no longer human beings but human objects.

Cruelty is a human truth, as is human violence. If so, then artists who deal with cruelty are truth-tellers. Like all who seek to answer “why bad things happen to good people?” Nelson turns to religion. She mentions just two, a number that is too few. They are Christianity and Buddhism. However, more apt than scripture and perhaps more accurate is Barbara Kugers LACMA banner that reads “IN VIOLENCE WE FORGET WHO WE ARE.” Nelson wonders if essayist Simone Weil would agree if she were alive to read it. From Weil’s essay, The Illiad, or the Poem of Force, she quotes, “force is that which turns both its wielders, and it is victims into things.”

Somewhat on the topic of religion is Chris Burdens’ correction to The Golden Rule, which is at the center of the Christian faith. He says the Real Golden Rule is not “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is actually “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” She mentions this in a chapter about the consent of audience members. People want cruelty done to them, like “super-masochist” artist Bob Flanagan. It is their desire, and they give consent to receive cruelty complicating what is cruel. The person carrying out the wishes of the Sado Masochist, are they cruel or are they kind? We go on to consider the freedom to choose cruelty as a human right rather than a failing. Nelson sides with this definition of kindness from the book On Kindness by Adam Philips and Barbara Taylor, “The ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself.” The concept of “free-agent” is introduced in this same chapter when writing about the main character in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer is a female character written by a man whom Joan Didion urges feminists not to overlook for her free agency to choose “the wrong husband.”

On violence caused by words, Nelson includes Kafkas’ story, The Penal Colony. Prisoners are subject to the torture of having a word pierced onto their body repeatedly by a machine until shredded to pieces — the word being that of their crime. Nelson claims this device serves as an allegory for writing itself, quoting Kafka on why we read books, “if the book we are reading does not shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading in the first place.” Words can be so cruel, even torture, when they waste our precious time. Later in this same chapter, we find works from Kara Walker and Sylvia Plath, deemed “self-mythologizing” and cruel for their aims. Walker wields her daughter into her work about the institution of slavery, who voiced a part of a slave in her piece “8 Possible beginnings.” Nelson claims both Plath and Walker are transfixed more by the psychology and erotics of oppression than by liberation. Quoting Plath’s line from

her poem Daddy, “Every woman adores a Fascist” and Walker’s contention that “all black people want to be slaves a little bit.” Yikes. Finally, Adrian Piper defines “vicarious possession” as an inappropriate level of imaginative involvement. Its applied to the piece Lustmord by Jenny Holzer, a “pseudo poetic text” that wraps around a space in Holzer’s iconic LEDs. A german word that means sex killing, Lustmord’s subject is the raping of women in the Bosnian War. Nelson seems to agree with Holzer’s harshest critics why so much of the text’s focus is on the abjection of the victim’s body teetering on being gratuitous. In Flash Art, critic Laura Cottingham said that Lustmord “de-brutalized, romanticized, and eternalizes rape.”

Maggie Nelson covers too many artists and their works about cruelty to include all in this review. Francis Bacon, perhaps the most widely known painter of the world of human cruelty, is named extensively, claiming twenty-two entries in the index. She covers an enormous ground in this book. Taken all together, it is indirectly a work of philosophy. It approaches the truth about life by examining what life is not or naturally should not be. Not found on any one page but instead spread throughout the book, Maggie Nelson comes as close to what the artists and writers mentioned seek, to know ourselves.

Nelson, M. (2012). The art of cruelty: A reckoning. New York, NY: WW Norton.

MFA and MA Writing Visual Critical Studies Candidate - California College of the Arts 2021