The Shock of the Cruel
Do artistic portrayals of viciousness help us overcome it?
In 1971, Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm by a friend, a piece of performance art that lives on in memory (and in Super 8 film footage). Two years later, Ana Mendieta took off her clothes, tied herself up, covered herself with blood—and then invited people to her apartment, thereby recreating a rape whose brutality had appalled the campus where she had been a student. (No one in that room could know it, but 12 years after that, Mendieta was to meet a violent death for which her husband of eight months was tried and acquitted.) Elizabeth Streb's choreography includes dancers who take facedown dives from a raised platform. Santiago Sierra offered prostitutes heroin in exchange for tattooing a line across their backs.
How should we react to such blatant examples of art whose purpose, or so it would seem, is to force viewers face-to-face with the human capacity for viciousness? Maggie Nelson's "reckoning" with the problem in The Art of Cruelty, as fascinating as it is frustrating, takes readers through these and similar efforts by poets, playwrights, and novelists to induce shock and awe in audiences. (The reference to the Iraq war is intentional; the photographs of what took place at Abu Ghraib suggest an image's capacity to shape—and to shake up—our perceptions of what some of us can do to others.) Ought we to praise artists who are determined to picture life as it really is, however brutal? Should we consider them either as offenders against public taste or as psychopaths whose work should be ignored at best or banned at worst? What, in the end, should we make of the work of those who plunge into the darkness to raise such questions in such deeply disturbing ways?
A Los Angeles-based poet and critic, Nelson is hardly on the side of the censors. She detests scolds, the term she frequently uses to characterize critics who lecture the artists of cruelty for their irresponsibility or indifference. But neither is she a celebrant of the heroic anarchist forcing people to confront realities they would, in their bourgeois complacency, prefer to ignore. Her open-mindedness toward questions of catharsis and its demands is what makes her book so fascinating. Her inability to offer anything like consistent answers to the questions she poses is what makes it so frustrating.
It is not Nelson's task to ask whether it is wrong to promote heroin dependency or encourage risky behavior. Neither does she, following in the tradition of Marxist criticism, ask whose interests are served by art that shocks. She says she is not concerned with the familiar question about words or images, which is whether they are true. When it comes to art, Nelson maintains, the key questions are these: "What new thoughts does it make possible to think? What new emotions does it make possible to feel? What new sensations or perceptions does it open in the body?" Traditionalists—she mentions T.S. Eliot—would find such questions unhelpful. But Nelson is, to use her term, "enthralled" by anything that helps us see or feel the world differently.
Nelson's aim is to encourage her readers to suspend, at least for a few moments, whatever repulsion they may feel toward depictions of cruelty and toward artists who use them to explore the human capacity for cruelty, in order to appreciate the efforts to lead us into unfamiliar territory. But since emotions and perceptions vary so much from one person to another, her approach is inevitably highly subjective. Though Nelson occasionally ventures into theory, The Art of Cruelty is best read as a record of one person's reactions to an impressive number of exposures to works of art, both familiar and esoteric. And in the end, perhaps an idiosyncratically personal account reveals the inescapable contradictions and tensions in the enterprise better than any tidy analysis could.
Because Nelson knows her subject so well—has such a broad range of references and comparisons—her analysis of her responses to different provocations comes with a certain authority. She says that watching the tape of Burden's self-inflicted wound forced her to pose questions about harm, culpability, and representation, including these: "Who defines harm? On whose behalf? … When and how (if ever) is it anyone's business to mandate what we do with our bodies in our lifetimes?" Even after learning that one of Streb's dancers broke her back in a fall in Wild Blue Yonder, Nelson tells us that the performance "ended up being one of the most moving experiences I've had, in that it transported me from protesting our bodily vulnerability to accepting it, then cheering it on, come what may."
If Nelson is moved by such things, all the more power to her for acknowledging as much. But the more ambitious point she is trying to make—about the power of a self-consciously contrived spectator experience to reconfigure moral assumptions—gets lost. Anyone who believes that Streb takes dangerous risks with her dances or that Sierra is a voyeur and a sadist, as I am included to do, instead of having their perceptions broadened, is likely to have their preconceptions reaffirmed.
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?
Photograph of Maggie Nelson by Harry Dodge.