Book Review: Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty

In 1972 the performance artist Chris Burden laid down on a busy street in LA, placed two flares around his body, covered himself with a tarp, and waited to see what would happen. What happened was the cops pulled up. Burden explained that he was making a sculpture; the police arrested him. Angry they had "wrecked his piece," Burden later settled the matter in court.

Or how about Marina Abramović? In 1974 she stood motionless for six hours with 72 objects, a gun, needle, knife, and scalpel among them, laid out on a table for audience members to use on her body in any way they saw fit.

Is this art? Kind of? Is it important to ask the question even?

I suppose it depends on your motivations, what you feel art should be. The definition is too fraught to pick sides. "Art should serve beauty. Art should intensify human consciousness. Art should revolutionize society. Art should make the everyday strange. Art should redistribute the sensible. Art should be an axe for the frozen sea within us," Nelson lists off some of the definitions that have been put forward over time.

Nelson isn't concerned with any old Sunday painter's art but the stuff called avant-garde, or at least once called that. And she's particularly interested in the question, "How do we reduce the violence and hatred that have so often marked human social interactions?" Of course there is no simple answer, for "compassion is not necessarily found where we presume it to be, nor is it always what we presume it to be, nor is it experienced or accessed by everyone in the same way, nor is it found in the same place in the same way over time. The same might be said of cruelty."

What I like about this book is how it puts violence and cruelty at the centre of discussion on what the shock troops of the art world are doing. Like an investigative journalist, Nelson wades into some grim spectacles (while gladly sparing us the details) and comes out reporting her findings, philosophizing, her humanity intact, and she expresses it all with a clarity that stands out from the typical swamp of arts writing.

I think this is brave. Beholding images, let along ones intended to provoke strong emotions, is not like listening to a slowly unwinding piece of music or reading a novel, which you can pull back on if it gets overwhelming. "One beholds an image all at once, which leaves the organism more vulnerable to assault," she explains.

Desensitization is a risk. She describes one performance. "As the first wave of emotion lifted, I felt angry. Then I felt disgusted. Finally, I felt bored."

I'd like to say I'm not crazy about uncomfortable, overly conceptual art, but then you're not supposed to be crazy about it. What about daring to look? Nothing is learned or changed by looking away. Rightfully, Nelson doesn't give the answers, but she does blow open the questions.


  1. From what I've read, human beings have equal capacity for cruelty and kindness; the former seems more prevalent, of course. But still, whether in performance art, installation, or an image, why focus only on cruelty? Is it, as Nelson writes, to help "reduce the violence and hatred that have so often marked human social interactions?" I hope so, but I would have to turn away from the spectacles mentioned in the book!


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