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The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

4.25  ·  Rating Details ·  895 Ratings  ·  98 Reviews
Writing in the tradition of Susan Sontag and Elaine Scarry, Maggie Nelson has emerged as one of our foremost cultural critics with this landmark work about representations of cruelty and violence in art. From Sylvia Plath’s poetry to Francis Bacon’s paintings, from the Saw franchise to Yoko Ono’s performance art, Nelson’s nuanced exploration across the artistic landscape u ...more
ebook, 304 pages
Published July 11th 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company
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Ellie
REVIEW

Maggie Nelson has become one of my favorite writers: intelligent, with beautiful prose written with precision, personal yet always aware and tending to the larger picture. To review a work such as The Art of Cruelty is a daunting effort. The book is extremely complex and dense. It examines what art is as much as the role of cruelty in art (and, sometimes, in life).

The catalogue of painters, sculptors, performance artists, filmmakers, philosophers, and writers is intimidating and impossible
...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
Dan
Feb 20, 2012 Dan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012
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
Iris
Jan 11, 2016 Iris rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
i really enjoyed this -- tho 1 part im confused abt / take issue with. she talks about "daddy" where plath compares the doings of her father to those of the nazi regime, and addresses the indignation of jewish critics re: this poem, and while she makes an interesting point that plath wasn't necessarily drawing equivalencies (tho maggie nelson doesnt offer any alternatives), her ultimate point asks, "And why ring the 'appropriateness' alarm, when the injunction to behave appropriately--as both Pl ...more
Sarahc Caflisch
Aug 05, 2011 Sarahc Caflisch rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am profoundly more knowledgeable and disturbed since reading this book. Highly recommended.
Pamela
Sep 02, 2011 Pamela rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 02, 2013 Patrick Gaughan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Francesca
Jul 06, 2016 Francesca marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I think it would be interesting to read this as a horror fan and see where our thought processes may differ or match up.
sevdah
I loved her most recent book, The Argonauts, a very personal look at sexuality, desire, parenting and gender, and this was what brought me to The art of cruelty. Took me a while to finally be able to brace it (it's not an easy read by any means), and while I don't agree with everything she says, this meditation on images and performance of violence in art was excellent. What a writer Maggie Nelson is. Her pages are as if illuminated from within, a text that carves deep into meaning instead of pi ...more
Patrick
Feb 19, 2017 Patrick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
'The Art of Cruelty' is a book by Maggie Nelson which is about things that are, in the words of the author, not nice. Shouldering aside the semantic ambiguities of defining exactly what is meant by ‘cruel’, the book leans heavily on a sense of knowing it when it is seen. An instinctive feeling of revulsion, followed by a certain compulsion to investigate further. An unwillingness to break the gaze because of what the viewer feels, in spite of whatever they might believe. The works under discussi ...more
Allison Floyd
Oct 13, 2012 Allison Floyd rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: i-wanna-be-smrt
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
Betty
Accessible art crit centered around the question of the purpose of cruelty in art (and pop culture)- whether exposure of cruel acts can be political action or winds up inuring an audience to violent images, whether an artist's cruelty to their subjects or audience can be justified, and, as a kind of thru-line, why violence and cruelty are frequently associated with "reality"- as in the reaction to John and Yoko's bed-in; they need to "face reality" or "be realistic", or artists who claim to be r ...more
Jacob Wren
Feb 23, 2014 Jacob Wren rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
TinHouseBooks
Mar 08, 2013 TinHouseBooks rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-we-love
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
Courtney
Aug 01, 2013 Courtney rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Vincent Scarpa
Just finished rereading this, in what seem to me especially and disconcertingly relevant circumstances, and I just can't recommend it enough. Maggie is a genius, a "student of the swirl," and, for my money, one of the most important thinkers of our time.
June
Nov 21, 2012 June rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mike
Sep 02, 2012 Mike rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Blair Hodgkinson
I have to admit, beyond knowing what I like, I'm sometimes more than a little "at sea" in the world of art, especially when it comes to modern art and performance-based art. I'm more of a "look at this great old painting" kind of guy. So I came to this book with a slight handicap, but after reading it, I find it's kindled my curiosity about forms of art I have never given much consideration before and that's commendable.

As you might expect from the title, the book studies cruelty as it is portra
...more
Whitney Moore
Mar 09, 2017 Whitney Moore rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book has changed my life! Thank you, Maggie Nelson, for affirming why I love metaphor, oxymorons, and paradox. Thank you for lifting the veil that was hiding Simone Weil from me, and thank you for saying, so incisively, that "the near enemy is idiot compassion." This book is so full of nuggets that it's an insult to select just one. But I cannot NOT share her description of playwright Jane Bowles as "roaming through a world of balloons, armed with a pin." Things like that permeate this exce ...more
Xander Mitchell
Jan 24, 2017 Xander Mitchell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Brilliant commentary and a great example of what criticism should be. While it's more a collection of notes and often deals with (very) disturbing content, Art of Cruelty is a fantastic read. I will look at visual art, film and literature through an entirely different lens thanks to Nelson.
Oliver Bateman
Apr 28, 2015 Oliver Bateman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Nelson's central point, noted in the various GR reviews by various reviewers, is essentially a sound one: one's appreciation of cruelty is always a Potter Stewart-ish "I know it when I see it" sort of thing, and leaving the exits open (and exiting when uncomfortable) is a necessary part of the package. I said as much in a recent essay about video games that appeared over at VICE: http://www.vice.com/read/violent-vide...

And many of the slow, nuanced, careful points that Nelson makes in her (bless
...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
Frank Terry
Aug 06, 2015 Frank Terry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If I'm allowed to gush, this is another perfect book, Maggie Nelson style. I think Maggie and her non-fiction contemporaries are currently doing the things our section of 21st century American literature will be most remembered for.

The places she and Eula Bliss and Jenny Boully and others are taking American non-fiction are so exquisite.

This book, though.

At first I didn't know if I would be able to keep up, it opens up very theoretically dense and I was very afraid. But after awhile things be
...more
poingu
Apr 05, 2015 poingu rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is a lot to ponder here. I wish it had been more logically ordered. Nelson moves among genres--theater, art, performance art, found art, pornography, novel, poetry, photography, art criticism--in a nondiscriminatory way. I frequently had trouble seeing the synthesis she evidently saw in her wish to discuss together representations of documented, actual cruelty (Abu Ghraib) vs. staged artful cruelty (for example, Yoko Ono's performance art, "Cut Piece"). In this way Nelson's work differs ma ...more
John Pappas
Nov 25, 2012 John Pappas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Holly
Sep 02, 2011 Holly rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011-reads
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
Thomas Feng
Dec 05, 2016 Thomas Feng rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
not unfaultable but pretty damn close, in my book. I liked especially that her approach is to continue to raise questions and look for "third ways" out of apparent contradictions; even when she stakes seemingly intractable claims (and yes, sometimes self-contradictory) they open up further avenues of questioning.. beautiful and fascinating.
Myles Curtis
Nov 17, 2015 Myles Curtis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Nelson describes her destructive fantasy of the writing task as "incinerating layers of crap rather than tossing more of it into the landfill" - the brilliance of this book is how much light her incineration gives on some of the most dense and densely-discussed aspects of art, lit, and violence.
Cary
Jun 10, 2015 Cary rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Sometimes Nelson's writing is so subtle and quiet that I have to read it over and over....and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
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Prior to the much acclaimed The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015), Maggie Nelson authored 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 ...more
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“the mainstream thrust of anti-intellectualism, as it stands today, characterizes thinking itself as an elitist activity.” 5 likes
“attempts to nail down “who we really are” most often serve as rhetorical pawns in unwinnable arguments fueled by competing agendas” 3 likes
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