IN 1840, MARGARET FULLER wrote an essay for The Dial, the Transcendentalist magazine, which she modestly titled “A Short Essay on Critics”. It is one of the most practical, and morally capacious, explications of the critic’s role; I have been teaching it to my graduate students for years. Fuller urges critics, indeed beseeches them, to avoid “despotic” habits and the “attempt at dictatorship” and to develop, instead, an empathic relationship with readers—one that offers them the freedom to develop their own aesthetic rather than mimic the judgments of the critic. The critic, Fuller wrote, must not tell the reader “what books are not worth reading or what must be made of them when read, but what he read in them.” In Fuller’s view, criticism should and could be a great democratic undertaking, one that could not be separated from the larger democratic undertaking that was America itself: “In books, in reviews, in the senate, in the pulpit we wish to meet thinking men, not schoolmasters or pleaders,” she argued. The critic should “speak as man to man . . . He will be free and make us free . . . He will teach us to love wisely what we before loved well.” In this way, criticism could inculcate the habits of independent thought that are the necessary prerequisite for democratic citizenship.
In her new book, Maggie Nelson proves herself to be a Fullerite—at least when Nelson is at her sporadic best. Nelson treats a wide variety of works (her range is impressive)—including Francis Bacon’s paintings, Sylvia Plath’s poetry, Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves, Chris Burden’s all-too-literal performance-art piece “Shoot,” Marina Abramovic’s “Rhythm 0,” Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica, and art-world darling Ryan Trecartin’s videos. These works vary wildly from each other, but all explore the human capacity for cruelty—emotional or physical or both—and all raise ethical questions for artists and audiences alike. Can we make art about cruelty that does not replicate it? Or must the deepest, most challenging works that address cruelty reproduce the experience itself? If so, how can the artist resist simply recreating the perpetrator-victim relationship, and therefore become a part of the pathology of cruelty? And what should the viewer do with the attendant impulses toward masochism and sadism that such art conjures in her?
The most forceful parts of Nelson’s book occur when she tells us “what she read” in various works of art. She is unafraid to be politically incorrect, bewildered, confused, and contradictory as well as appalled, shaken, revolted, amused, and exultant; she therefore offers the reader the freedom to be these things, too. Nelson rejects the useless dichotomy between thought and feeling: she is capable of recording her emotional reactions to a work of art, then submitting them to a rigorous intellectual analysis. Nelson’s suppleness and hermeneutical humility—her willingness to let us watch as she works out her ideas, rather than simply present us with fully-formed pronouncements—is too rarely found in contemporary critical writing, and so in reading The Art of Cruelty I often felt grateful to her.
Nelson understands that the critic brings her particular life experiences to any work of art—but that she must look for much more than an affirmation of those experiences, and that the most valuable artistic experiences are those that challenge and stretch us rather than offer either confirmation or reassurance. Consider her discussion of the choreographer Elizabeth Streb, known for subjecting her dancers to extreme bodily risk. In 2003, Nelson saw Streb’s piece “Wild Blue Yonder”—in which dancers dive from a platform onto a mat, “landing each time, facedown, with the company’s signature thud”—shortly after a close friend had been paralyzed in a bicycle accident. “Streb’s piece irritated me,” Nelson recalls. “In the face of the involuntary harm my friend had just suffered, the risks here taken seemed ridiculous. Life has enough suffering in it, I thought.” But then: something changed, which just goes to show that a work of art is a process, not a fixed thing.
As Nelson continued watching Streb’s piece, its “perverse beauty” seeped into her, and the performance no longer felt like an insult. Indeed, it brought her closer to her friend’s calamity, “not because there was no price to such flight, but because there could be. It ended up being one of the most moving viewing experiences I’ve had, in that it transported me from protesting our bodily vulnerability to accepting it.” This is, surely, a contemporary version of catharsis—or at least as close to catharsis as we moderns are likely to get. (On the other hand, Nelson’s brief parenthetical aside, in which she reveals that one of Streb’s dancers later broke her back during a performance, cries out for more comment, since it raises a host of ethical issues about the “price” of such art.)
Nelson is at her best in her analysis of various female artists. She describes Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” performed at Carnegie Hall in 1965, in which Ono sat, impassively, on stage as audience members snipped off pieces of her clothing—a process that all-too-quickly moved from playfulness to aggression. What makes the piece thorny—and interesting—is that Ono was the author of this aggression, not its victim. “The whole point of the piece is that Ono has invited this violation,” Nelson argues. “She didn’t lay out a feather or a jar of cream; she laid out a pair of scissors . . . The result is deeply unnerving. Also unnerving: how erotic the performance is. I long to see Oko’s [sic] clothes fall, to see her breasts bared. Yet I also feel a mounting sense of alarm. . . .The surplus of contradictory emotions builds in slow motion toward the unbearable.”
Nelson’s reactions to the late Ana Mendieta’s “Rape Scene,” from 1973, are similarly complex. Re-staging the aftermath of a rape, Mendieta invited students to her apartment where, without warning, they found the artist “naked, tied up, her underwear around her ankles, her body smeared with blood and dirt and bent over a table.” Certainly the piece protested violence against women. But Nelson rightly raises the question as to whether it was also an acting-out of cruelty toward its unsuspecting audience. “You can’t toss it into the ghetto of feminist protest art and ignore its more aggressive, borderline sadistic motivations and effects,” she observes. Yet this sadism—Nelson uses the word “terrorize”—is precisely what makes the work worth contemplating, for the viewer must question her own implication in the performance—and, I would argue, her own feelings of rage against the artist for subjecting her to it.
Art that rejects the twentieth-century avant-garde’s dubious tradition of bludgeoning the audience into awareness interests Nelson. So does the ways in which trauma replicates itself, and the kinds of art that examine such replication—especially when they eschew the cudgel. Nelson’s discussion of Paul McCarthy’s video Family Tyranny—a piece, from 1987, that conjures both “bewilderment” and “revulsion” in her—is illuminating. In this eight-minute piece (exactly the kind of thing I would never ordinarily watch, which is why I’m glad that Nelson did), a “father” symbolically abuses (and perhaps rapes) his “son” by stuffing mayonnaise down a funnel into a ball that evokes a human head and mouth. All the while, Dad coos, “Don’t worry, they’ll remember it.”
Of course, the abuse is all make-believe—but that is awfully scant comfort. “On the one hand, this transparent attitude toward fakery makes the work bearable,” Nelson muses. “On the other, the obvious artifice also makes the piece more insidious . . . We are having uncomfortable and complicated feelings while watching a video, which is to be distinguished from undergoing involuntary psychic and physical damage. And yet McCarthy’s emphasis on psychological haunting is unnerving, insofar as psychological haunting is precisely where the action of both art and trauma occur.” Nelson does not mistake art for life, but she also knows that dismissing a work as “only art” is a cowardly evasion of art’s symbolic power. Her analysis of this work raised a host of intriguing questions in this reader. If one definition of good art is art that stays with us, does McCarthy’s work suggest that that is also the definition of a good trauma? Is trauma’s definition of success the same as art’s? And if so, are the artist and the abuser a bit too close for comfort?
Alas, such passages of insightful criticism are too rare. Much of The Art of Cruelty is a mess. Nelson has a weak narrative sense; she tends to begin her chapters in one place and end in a very different one, without ever tying together her disparate ideas. She stumbles into asides and digressions whose relationship to the art of cruelty is difficult to discern. Too often she will tell us that a work is brilliant, compelling, and fantastic, but her description of the work fails to convince us that this is so. Indeed, the gap between the effusive adjectives and the apparent banality of the works in question can be startling. (This is especially apparent in her discussion of the performance artist William Pope.L.) Nelson has a kind of grab-bag approach to criticism: her book is peppered with names like Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, Simone Weil, Frantz Fanon, John Berger, and Gilles Deleuze—most breezily tossed up, none discussed in depth or critically engaged. Anyone who has struggled with these writers will be frustrated by Nelson’s use of them for ready-made ideas; anyone who has not will probably be confused or misled, and feel smarter than they should. This kind of intellectual attention-deficit disorder is especially lamentable in a book that celebrates “slow seeing, slow thinking, measured articulation.”
Nelson is inordinately impressed by the words of various sages—even when the words she cites make little sense, or contradict much of what she argues. “Spectatorship is a bad thing,” the philosopher Jacques Rancière wrote. “And looking is a bad thing. . . . Looking is put as the opposite of knowing.” In fact, the opposite of looking is not looking, which may or may not be a morally acute position. Sometimes Nelson places two contradictory quotes next to each other—hoping, perhaps, that proximity would result in a synthesis of the two. But the magic fails to occur; dialectical thinking is hard work.
The major problem, though, is that Nelson doesn’t really “reckon” with the art of cruelty. I cannot really find an argument in her book. Nelson encounters, ponders, contemplates, but she never pulls her thoughts together in any coherent way. Instead she tells us what she does not want to do. She insists, for instance, that she is “not” (her italics) concerned with art “that expressly aims to protest, ameliorate, make meaningful, cast blame, or intervene in instances of brutality.” This is a pretty long list of negatives, and surely it can’t be right. Who can doubt that many of the artists Nelson discusses—including Ono, Mendieta, Abramovic—were and are protesting brutality, even if their art does other things too? Who can doubt that Jenny Holzer’s piece on the Serbian rape camps, which Nelson explores in some depth, was meant as a protest, a casting of blame, and even perhaps as an intervention? (The piece was begun in 1993, when the war was still on.) In Nelson’s desire to avoid political correctness, she robs Holzer’s work of its political, and therefore its ethical, intent. Similarly, in her desire to be non-dictatorial, Nelson sometimes slips into relativism, which results in utterly baffling generalizations, such as the pronouncement that “art doesn’t really say or teach anything.” Really? Then why write this book, and why ask others to read it?
Important issues are raised but not fully developed. At several points, Nelson explores the question of consent as it pertains to the art of cruelty, particularly in the art of Streb, Frederick Wiseman (in Tititcut Follies), Diane Arbus (in her “hypnotically creepy” photographs of retarded people), and Andy Warhol (who filmed his drug-addled friends in various stages of decay). Then she discusses an odious-sounding Spanish artist named Santiago Sierra, whose contribution to the world includes giving “four prostitutes a shot of heroin for agreeing to have a line tattooed across their backs,” offering “ten poor Cuban men twenty dollars to videotape themselves masturbating,” and paying ten Iraqi immigrants “‘as little as possible’ to be coated beyond recognition with toxic foam.” The fact that all these subjects agreed to their exploitation makes it no less exploitative—and says less than nothing about either the artist’s responsibility in making these works or the viewer’s responsibility while watching them.
Still, Nelson seems appropriately repelled by Sierra—which is why I am utterly lost when she concludes that for Sierra’s subjects, “dignity—which, to my mind, the artist has the power neither to restore nor to annihilate—remains untouched.” This is the kind of wishful thinking that posits dignity as some sort of innate, inviolable asset that is impervious to hurt, assault, scorn, exploitation, and deprivation. If a subject’s dignity can survive just about anything, how can any artist, ever, be accused of exploitation or harm?
In too many places Nelson contradicts herself in ways that do not suggest complexity or nuance, but simply a muddle. She tells us that, in a piece called “8 Possible Beginnings,” the artist Kara Walker has her young daughter utter such lines as, “I think he’s going to hurt me.” Nelson then suggests that “one can easily imagine that the daughter made it through the recitation unscathed.” Perhaps this is so. But on the very next page Nelson describes Walker’s use of her daughter as “gratuitous, almost evil.” Rather than guiding us through the ethical minefield that Walker’s work presents, we are left with two radically different ideas that Nelson has been unwilling—or unable—to synthesize.
Many of Nelson’s claims are true, or at least partly true, but too many of them are painfully obvious. “Neither politics nor art is served if and when the distinctions between them are willingly or unthinkingly smeared out.” (Well, yes.) Of Francis Bacon’s work: “They are paintings; our job is to behold them. There is no need, or even invitation, to submit to their terms.” (Well, yes—though isn’t a painting that makes us submit to its maker’s vision one definition of powerful art?) And in noting the rather gigantic differences between Greek tragedy and violent pornography (including the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib), there is this: “This classical type of tragedy is not easily analogous to [the] mass-marketed media spectacle that shoves images of torture porn down our throats, especially at a time when our country has slipped into making use of actual sexualized torture.” Well, yes!
The dismal events of our recent history—the Iraq War, the rise of the radical right—grieve Nelson, but her sense of history doesn’t extend much beyond that. This results in odd statements, omissions, and anachronisms. It seems strange, for instance, to claim that World War I “deprived” Italian futurism “of much of its steam” without noting that many Futurists, including Marinetti, retained enough energy to support Mussolini, or that Futurism’s obsession with war as a form of “hygiene” became a key fascist, and especially Nazi, idea. Other examples abound. Anti-intellectualism in America is not a “contemporary” phenomenon; it has a long if not glorious history. Nor did we need Abu Ghraib, as Nelson suggests, to teach us that the exposure of wrongdoing does not automatically lead to outrage or justice: countless journalists, photojournalists, human-rights workers, and political activists have lamented the gap between knowledge and action for at least the past century. How can anyone quote, without commentary, Artaud’s statement that “no one knows how to scream anymore in Europe”? Written in 1938, this would certainly have surprised the inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald. And what can it possibly mean to condemn seventeenth-century Puritans as “intolerant,” or to describe slavery in the U.S. as “singularly” cruel? Nelson insists, rightly, that art is not simply a response to history, and cannot be confined within it; but it is quite another thing to suggest that the critic need know little about the past.
The Art of Cruelty is a disappointment, and a sometimes frustrating one. And yet I hope that critics, and aspiring critics, and those who are interested in the relationship between art and ethics, read it. The questions that Nelson raises about what it means for artists—and audiences—to delve into cruelty need to be addressed, thought about, discussed, debated. Nelson’s analyses often fall short, but she is right to reject easy, definitive answers. In doing so, she forces us to think for ourselves—which, as Margaret Fuller knew, is often the critic’s greatest gift.
Susie Linfield’s book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2010) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. She directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in the graduate journalism department at New York University.