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The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

4.29  ·  Rating details ·  2,182 ratings  ·  202 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
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published July 11th 2011 by W. W. Norton Company
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Jun 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
3.5 stars

A thorough, disturbing, and intelligent book about cruelty and how we interact with it today. Maggie Nelson addresses an ambitious set of questions: with so many images of war, torture, and horror available to us, how do we best process such media to motivate us to act? Why do we draw such pleasure from gory video games and humiliating reality television shows? How do we separate cruelty and violence - and can cruelty coexist with love? Nelson alludes to a plethora of performance artist
Jun 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays-shorts
I've become more and more caught by social cruelty in recent years - stopped short, eyes blinking, "You're kidding me, right?" caught by it - and I think this is because I'm growing older. I just have this tendency to imagine, in an incredibly solipsistic way, that everyone's maturing with me. That we're all in this together. That as the years pass we're all having (not the same but) similar experiences, learning similar lessons, absorbing similar outlooks on the realities of this life-thing, an ...more

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
Rob Atkinson
Jul 27, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Feb 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Adam Dalva
May 31, 2016 rated it liked it
Sharp, well-thought-out, relevant survey of cruelty in 20th century art, centering loosely on Artaud and engaging with questions of artistic obligations w/r/t torture, pain, and brutality. Nelson has a bad habit of over-praising her source material (everything is either "justly famous" or "iconic" or "important" and often they are NONE of these things) that became more grating as I read on, and also has a frustrating fixation on a couple of figures (Francis Bacon, Brian Evenson) who never quite ...more
Viv JM
In this collection of essays, Maggie Nelson looks at the role of cruelty and violence in art and poses ethical questions surrounding that topic. Her examples take in fine art, poetry, performance art, dance, film, photography and television and her criticism has a feminist and Buddhist slant. These essays certainly gave food for thought but I didn't enjoy this book as much as the other of hers I have read and loved (The Argonauts). At times, I found this one slightly rambling and repetitive.

“While the two words often arrive sutured together, I think it worthwhile to breathe some space between them, so that one might see “brutal honesty” not as a more forceful version of honesty itself, but as one possible use of honesty. One that doesn’t necessarily lay truth barer by dint of force, but that actually overlays something on top of it—something that can get in its way. That something is cruelty.”

Mind is in a tangle but this was brilliant. Review to come. Maybe.

“So long as we exalt art
Jacob Wren
Feb 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Sarahc Caflisch
Aug 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I am profoundly more knowledgeable and disturbed since reading this book. Highly recommended.
Jan 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Michael Dipietro
Oct 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
May 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
I went into this book with certain expectations and finished it in a completely different place.
When Nelson titled her book "The Art of Cruelty" she emphasized the "art" part. The majority of the book discusses performance art and the nature of its interaction with us as spectators.
One example I found particularly thought provoking was her examination of Yoko Ono's performance of "Cut Piece", where Ono sits silently on the stage with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience is free t
Patty Gone
Sep 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 06, 2016 marked it as to-read
I think it would be interesting to read this as a horror fan and see where our thought processes may differ or match up.
Oct 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I read this almost two years ago and took so many notes and thought so highly of the book, I could never wrestle myself into attempting a review. One of the many joys of reading Nelson, is how she invites the reader along for her intellectual journey. With that in mind, or out of pure laziness (you can decide), I'll simply share my notes (things that stood out, thoughts I had, stuff I wanted to look up, etc.)...
P5: “This book asks different questions.
Nels Highberg
Aug 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I read this book when it was published and reread it this year. It's heavy, and there are times I had to reread--especially early on. But the ideas are deep and explored with nuance. I have so many names circled to learn more about. I think Maggie Nelson is the best critic writing today.
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
Allison Floyd
Oct 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
John Pappas
Nov 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Myles Curtis
Nov 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jake Oelrichs
Jun 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites

I have a particularly warm and loving aunt who is a librarian and a mom. I remember a time at her house when I found myself trying to defend my love of David Lynch to her while sipping tea with her on her couch. I was at a bit of a loss, and it was a pretty uncomfortable experience. Anyone who has ever experienced confusing tensions or misgivings about their admiration of certain violent or disturbing paintings, novels and films will find this book fascinating. It is a brilliantly critical and n
Feb 19, 2017 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
Fraser Kinnear
Oct 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ugliness, art, essay
Cruelty has always been represented in art. For most artists, that representation was accompanied with a judgment: "See how cruel this was? This is wrong."

However, some artists have chosen to channel curelty to recreate it, to force a confrontation for their audience. Through these attempts, the "ambivalence, uncertainty, repulsion, and pleasure" of cruelty comes to the foreground.

Is this kind of art redeemable? Is it worth our time? What can we get out of it? How do you differentiate cruelty i
Feb 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What I love the most about Maggie Nelson’s writing is that she doesn’t tell you what to think. So much information surrounding us these days is invective or polemic. Propaganda and pat answers on all sides. Nelson resides in a realm of complications, wherein much is up to question and examination, and where answers do not need to be simple or easy or definitive.

This quality of her thinking is on full display in her examination of cruelty in art, in various forms: Artaud, performance art, the Vi
Sep 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
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Maggie Nelson is the author of nine books of poetry and prose, many of which have become cult classics defying categorization. Her nonfiction titles include the National Book Critics Circle Award winner and New York Times bestseller The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015), The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (Norton, 2011; a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Bluets (Wave Books, 2009; named by Boo ...more

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