The Shock of the Cruel

Do artistic portrayals of viciousness help us overcome it?

Maggie Nelson

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.

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.

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.