The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

Maggie Nelson

Art criticism
Maggie Nelson
W W Norton and Company


The Art of Cruelty attends to the moments in which cruelty is made manifest in artistic practice, not as a way of fetishizing or hovering with it for any sensationalist benefit, but as a way of arguing for these instances of moral complexity as ‘knots’ with ‘compelling formal as well as psychological interest’ which might be otherwise overlooked, and the need therefore to ‘become intimate with discomfort’ and develop an appetite for nuanced analysis. It may be, Nelson argues, that these knots and their often troublesome representation in art (for example in the avant-garde) can provide unprecedented clarity on what has been referred to in Buddhism as our ‘styles of imprisonment’. I.e looking at cruelty - specifically looking at instances in which cruelty is represented or explored in art - might provide us with a clearer picture of the ways in which we entrap both our selves and others. This is an important and frequently surprising book. By reframing the history of the avant-garde in terms of cruelty, and contesting the smugness and didacticism of artist-clinicians like the notorious Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch, along with other heirs of Sade and Artaud, Nelson takes on Modernism’s (and Postmodernism’s) most cherished tenets. After all, the premise of aesthetic ‘shock’ as an inherently powerful affect has underwritten most of our cultural innovation for over a century. The Art of Cruelty might be read as the foundation for a post-avant-garde aesthetics, one that, Nelson imagines, “might deliver us . . . to a more sensitive, perceptive, insightful, enlivened, collaborative and just way of inhabiting the earth.”

Works that attend to qualities of cruelness somehow also seem relevant to Lawson park because they attempt to critique or work against the widespread neoliberal ‘happiness project’ somehow, in which we are continually urged to ‘have a nice day’ in every facet our daily existence, despite all evidence suggesting that this is almost impossible if you are paying attention to the state of the world. This is not to argue for pessimism, or for cruelty, as guiding lights for how to forge an existence. It’s just that learning more about them, or even just looking at these things in more detail, might be able to generate a more imaginative existence.