The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning
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The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

4.14 of 5 stars 4.14  ·  rating details  ·  327 ratings  ·  48 reviews
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...more
ebook, 304 pages
Published July 11th 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company
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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...more
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...more
Patrick Gaughan
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...more
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...more
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...more
"…the Neutral introduces responses that had heretofore been unthinkable--such as to slip, to drift, to flee, to escape. In a world fixated on the freedom to speak and the demand to be heard, the Neutral proposes "a right to be silent--a possibility of being silent… the right to not listen… to not read the book, to think nothing of it, to be unable to say what I think of it: the right not to desire." It allows for a practice of gentle aversion: the right to reject the offered choices, to demur, t...more
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...more
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.
Philip Bardach
My initial response to The Art of Cruelty (that I dug out of the comment field of my friend Dan's review):

"I liked The Art of Cruelty, but was also rather disappointed by it. Granted, as broad as the subject matter is, Nelson does cover a solid amount of representations of cruelty (Christ I went & watched some Actionist videos recently). Unfortunately, while I am receptive to personal writing, her personal response to the material often gets in the way with real analytic engagement or drawi...more
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...more
The challenge in The Art of Cruelty is its resolute inconclusiveness: it possesses a dynamic meta-criticism that gives, to some, the faulty illusion of hyper-intellectual posturing. In its pages is not only a lack of a mission statement, but statements meant to create the absence of a conspicuous agenda.

The Art of Cruelty is misleading, primarily because its mission lurks beneath the sheen of cultural study. The analysis here pertains to violent art incapable of redemption, and the tenuous rela...more
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...more
Ben Bush
Great interview with Nelson on the LA Review of Books podcast that made me want to read this

Nelson certainly manages to differentiate herself from Sontag's "On Photography" and "Regarding the Pain of Others", which were the two books that came to mind when thinking about the subject. If there's a bone to pick with the book, it's that it ends up feeling like she comes up with more of a survey than a theory. In general, Nelson seems to favor works that tend toward ambiquity, don't plan to save the...more
Kate Walker
Artists' fixation on violence, brutality and depravity has always bothered me. Seeing audiences line up to look at art of this nature bothers me even more. The appeal of popular films, even critically acclaimed movies such as Pulp Fiction, for example, I take to be a sign of deep cultural sickness. So, I started this book with a feeling of real gratitude that someone was addressing the subject in such a sensitive and scholarly way and I was really hoping to come to a more informed understanding...more
Ryan Mishap
Many are the questions I've contemplated answers to regarding art, transgression, shock value, ethics and morality, violence in media and other such things. Punk rock has certainly always had a shock-art component to it as well as a fascination with violent imagery, violence itself, and violating society's norms.

Maggie Nelson talks about many of these things in this book, only far more intelligently than I ever could. She also has a greater exposure to, and tolerance of, art (especially performa...more
I guess I'm not really sure what point this book was ever trying to make...It seems clear that Maggie Nelson isn't completely against cruelty (or violence or shock) in art, but then she picks on certain pieces in an arbitrary fashion. Right at the beginning, she says that maybe it isn't worth our time to explore "cruelty" when we could focus on more positive aspects of life and art, but still she wrote this book...and if it was just an exploration, that would also be fine with me. However, maybe...more
We don't have to agree [with violence and cruelty in the avant-garde], and we don't have to like it. But why let it extinguish our capacity to differentiate between the many possible kinds of association that art sets into motion . . .? Blurring out such distinctions delivers us into a world made up of simplified resemblances and amplified divergences -- in short, a world deprived of its wide array of relationality. "Really, universally, relations stop nowhere," Henry James once wrote. "The exqu...more
It's hard for me to write about why I like this book so much without just sounding like a glib reviewer, so I'll keep this short. It's a very well-argued, timely book that presents a huge variety of material in a small space while not feeling rushed or overly compressed. The arguments are strong, but not forceful or dismissive.
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...more
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...more
2.9 A careful and studious Cultural Studies look at the way cruelty is contained in art. Nelson is articulate and interesting, but ultimately unsatisfyingly indecisive. The examples and semi-theses repeat a bit clumsily and the book comes across as serious-voiced overstatement. Some of the examples are unbearable, others fascinating. Mostly it seems as if Nelson began the book without a complete idea then realized it had been covered by Barthes'The Neutral: Lecture Course At The College De Franc...more
Very interesting and thought-provoking read on a question I find myself wondering quite a bit these days. There are several artists/filmmakers/authors and works I felt were sorely missing from the discussion and some others which were included that I'm not quite sure how they really fit in, other than because the author really wanted to discuss a topic or real world event and needed a work to hang the discussion on.

I also have to agree with others who feel that the author seems to primarily equ...more
A wealth of information about so many different artists and competing ideas concerning what constitutes cruelty. Could have done with a little less Francis Bacon, though (the 20th century artist, not the other one).
If I were to write a book of criticism, I wish it could have been this one. I picked it up because I was interested in the subject matter, but the strength of Nelson's prose, style, and focus on nuance within art and within forms of cruelty in terms of imposing violent imagery on an unwarned audience lead her discussion toward an application, an internalizing of a philosophy and its complicated systems of ethics. Art is the example, but the sometimes confusing space between right and wrong, betw...more
Jeff Hoiland
i liked parts of this.
The world may have a fetish for the freedom to speak, to shout, to show decontextualised violence for the sake of shock, awe and profit, showing it all "like it is," "brutal honesty" and all that, but here is a fellow traveler who reserves the right to be silent, to reject the given choices of cruelty on display, and work towards other possibilities to resist injustice without giving in to its usual and unusual expressions.
Gregory Sotir
Great study of contemporary art and themes of transgression. A bit heavy on the modern visual art scene, at times overly academic, but still a good study and attempt to take a look at the vexing problem of humankind's predilection with cruelty. I wish she had brought it down to a more socio-cultural analysis, and also explore more of the banality of cruelty and it's normalization as a cultural and political meme.
This book was not exactly what I was expecting but brought up some points that made me rethink some of the work she dissects. She did not seem to have a clear objective other than discussing cruelty in many forms in a variety of art, literature, and film. It was still interesting even if she didn't have a strong opinion on the subject. I would have loved images to correspond with the text.
Anna Tatelman
Definitely an interesting (and appropriately cringe-worthy) read. Weaves together seemingly unrelated pieces of art -- whether grunge films, archaic texts, classic paintings, or YouTube videos -- very well. My only critique would be that I am still not entirely sure what Nelson's 'thesis,' so to speak, is -- but perhaps that is my fault and not hers.
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Maggie Nelson is most recently the author of three books of nonfiction: Bluets (Wave Books, 2009); Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, 2007), and The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press, 2007). The Art of Cruelty, a work of art criticism, is forthcoming from WW Norton. Nelson is also the author of several books of poetry, including Something Bright, Then...more
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