Maggie Nelson's The Art of Cruelty:A Reckoning: Do artistic portrayals of cruelty help us overcome it, or do they…

Reading between the lines.
July 11 2011 6:50 AM

The Shock of the Cruel

Do artistic portrayals of viciousness help us overcome it?

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Nelson herself can't help supplying evidence of just how difficult it is to suspend pre-emptive ethical judgment of such portrayals of cruelty in order to allow their aesthetic impact to spur unexpected moral and emotional questions. From time to time, she, too, is so appalled by what an artist does that no new perceptions on her part follow.

Shortly after having himself shot, for example, Burden agreed to be interviewed by a television station on condition that the broadcast be live. He then grabbed the interviewer and held a knife to her throat, threatening to kill her if the transmission was cut off and informing her of his intention to commit obscene acts. Although a fan of other works by this artist, Nelson found this one "stupid." This is not, I venture to say, a purely aesthetic consideration. Burden may have thought he was making a point about the power of the media, but his intent was "vastly overshadowed by the unimaginative cruelty of using a woman's mind and body, without her consent, as disposable backdrops." Clearly it matters to Nelson, as well it should, that instead of harming himself Burden was harming someone else

His art, if that is what it is, had crossed a line. But the fact that it did reminds us that such lines do exist. Were there someone out there in the world genuinely moved by Burden's hostage taking, I hope Nelson would conclude that the harm done to the interviewer should outweigh any revelations visited on this hypothetical viewer. Moral behavior can be more important than aesthetic insight, as is quite the case here.

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Nelson not only has moral objections to some of the art she describes but, as her criticism of Burden suggests, she has feminist positions to defend as well. Vivid evocations of human cruelty may force us to think in new ways. But contemporary feminism has been accompanied by its share of scolding, to use Nelson's own term, especially when it comes to depictions of violence against (or pornographic sex with) women. When her feminist sensibilities come into conflict with her openness to shock, Nelson can turn into a scold herself. She is inclined to dismiss the "chauvinistic malevolence" she finds in such male artists as David Mamet, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. (Interestingly, in a book about artistic cruelty, she does not mention Norman Mailer.) Women writers, by contrast—her list includes Jean Rhys, Joan Didion, and Marguerite Duras—are typically "fiercer in form and effect" when characterizing the uglier side of life. It is an intriguing point, perhaps, but in my view a preoccupation with the gender of an artist sets up preconditions about how we ought to experience the art, thereby undermining Nelson's own claims about what art can and should do.

Though Nelson generally steers clear of political matters, she locates herself on the left end of the ideological spectrum. Kara Walker is an African-American artist who relies on cut-paper silhouettes to depict the horrors of slavery and the injustices of racial inequality. "Truth be told," Nelson writes, "I find myself more politically interested in the phenomenon of Walker than aesthetically compelled by her work, as its formal properties leave me cold." This is an honest reaction but it leaves the implication that even a work that fails artistically (for Nelson) can nonetheless, by depicting the cruelties so prevalent in the world, make the world a less cruel place.

Alas, there exists no simple correlation between artistic representations of cruelty and left-wing politics or a quest for a kindler, gentler world. Italian futurism, with its worship of violence and love of danger, was intimately associated with fascism. So was the Japanese novelist of cruelty, Yukio Mishima. If reading Mishima opens up new worlds of perception, his politics should not matter. But for Nelson, as her comment on Walker suggests, politics do matter. Burden's willingness to be shot in the arm, she points out, was a protest against the war in Vietnam, one reason she was predisposed to view it favorably. Yet Nelson already knows what she thinks about America's aggressive wars, and no work of art is going to change her mind one way or the other. Burden's art, in other words, rather offering Nelson anything new, reinforced what she already believed.

The question of cruelty in art goes back to Aristotle and was given special attention in the last century by Antonin Artaud. Whether the artistic portrayal of cruelty serves cathartically to reduce its presence in human existence or serves mimetically to make the world even crueler is ultimately unanswerable. But artists can sometimes jolt us into reflections about human viciousness we cannot manage when we confront it in life. Whatever distaste we may feel when they thrust brutality in our faces, Nelson is right to urge that we overcome our scruples and preconceptions and listen to what they are trying to tell us. Her struggles to follow her own advice are a useful reminder of just how hard that can be.

Alan Wolfe, professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is the author most recently of Does American Democracy Still Work?

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