Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Art of Cruelty

This morning in a rush to get out of the house in time to catch the usual pre-dawn bus I forgot to pick up the book I am reading and shove it into my backpack which later (on the bus) made me particularly sorry because The Art of Cruelty is such an enjoyable & well-written book. This is because Maggie Nelson is such an eager and fearless pursuer of her Big Question. She wants to talk about the significance of violence in the arts (both as concept and as depiction) while fully aware that practically every other thinker in the history of the world has already talked about this same volatile subject. I like the energy in Nelson's book and that she is persuading me to look at some unfamiliar contemporary art but I also like the fact that most of the 20th century critics and artists she quotes or references are already favorites with me – such as dear Francis Bacon & Artaud & Brecht & Marina Abramovic & dear Ivy Compton-Burnett & Hannah Arendt & Susan Sontag (the last-named a big presence, even a presiding spirit here). Nelson does talk some about pop culture / mass media, but refreshingly asserts there are severe limits on that sort of academic interrogation, so fashionable since the eighties (and Camille Paglia) and by now so predictable. I like it that Nelson lets herself moralize from time to time about what she thinks is deplorable and that she honors her own squeamishness yet never dismisses 'cruelty' in art as gratuitous or negligible. And in many particular cases she can analyze its vitality with wit. She is also very good at contextualizing. Her model intellectual is uncertain rather than certain. And I like that fact best of all.

*Image from CalArts (where Nelson teaches)