Beautiful Monsters

The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning BY Maggie Nelson. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 304 pages. $24.

The cover of The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

Take an apartment. Trash it thoroughly. Strip. Smear yourself with blood, bind your wrists, and bend over a table. Wait for your friends to discover your “corpse.”

Too much?

Take a city sidewalk. Take a bucket of “blood.” Splatter. Hide. Look at people looking at the “blood.”

How much is too much?

This is the horror art of Ana Mendieta, the Cuban-American performance artist; the scenarios are taken from 1973’s Rape Scene and People Looking at Blood, Moffitt. Mendieta is one of the battalion of painters, filmmakers, and novelists analyzed in The Art of Cruelty, an earnest but scattershot book by poet and critic Maggie Nelson. Nelson writes about artists for whom cruelty is the medium and the message, the subject and the method: Think Francis Bacon’s slabs of meat and hacked-open faces, the parlor inquisitions of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels, the antebellum nightmares of Kara Walker, the variously bludgeoned, humiliated, and carved-up “heroines” of Lars von Trier’s films. Mendieta is, Nelson writes, “drawing attention, via horror, to a horror that had been inadequately attended to. But her compulsion to re-enact [the rape piece] (not once but twice!) and to terrorize an unwitting audience (not once but twice!) complicates any simple look-at-how-bad-rape-and-murder-is feminist gesture.” It’s this complication, this ritualism, the oblique motivations and skirting of sadism, that fascinate Nelson and make Mendieta’s work “so formidable.”

This is a book born of a particular time. The photographs from Abu Ghraib are very much on Nelson’s mind. In a world where cruelty is so commonplace, Nelson asks, why do we go to art for facsimiles? Can seeing sadism playacted teach us anything about cruelty? (Nelson’s response: Maybe.) Won’t prolonged exposure to brutality make us more brutal? (Quite possibly.) Most important, can we come to a definition of what kinds of depictions of cruelty are “worthwhile” and what are gratuitous or downright dangerous? (Absolutely.)

So we enter violent imaginations, into art that is endured rather than enjoyed, whose mere descriptions can terrify (e.g., Jenny Holzer’s series on rape as a weapon of war, “Lustmord”). Nelson makes a stab at organizing her investigations under broad, evocative categories: A section called “Inflicted,” for example, studies why some artists render meaning dramatically, with, in the words of Ionesco, a “bludgeon blow.” On each writer or painting, she is coherent, but the overarching argument is haphazard. “Inflicted” hopscotches from sword imagery in the New Testament and Buddhism through Kafka, Brian Evenson, and Wittgenstein, then moves on to vagina imagery, an analysis of Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica, and the contention that the prose of some contemporary female writers is “fiercer in form and effect than that of their male counterparts.” It’s like reading a Tumblr full of tenuously connected posts—a tangle of other people’s thoughts and observations.

What we want is more of Nelson’s blunt commentary, as when she describes author Jane Bowles thus: “Like many artists of cruelty [Bowles] is no philosopher. She is roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin.” Nelson swiftly sums up Neil LaBute as “weak-minded,” and observes of Walker and Sylvia Plath: “Both remain seemingly more transfixed by the psychology—and erotics—of oppression than of liberation.” Her generalizations can ring so true that they’re like hearing your own half-realized truths in someone else’s mouth.

But this quality of thought is too frequently concealed behind an impermeable, marmoreal style of academic theory. This voice does not come naturally to Nelson, but she adopts it nonetheless to quell a suspicion about beautifully made arguments—namely, that it is hard to know when they are false. So she chooses—to her detriment—rococo sentence constructions. For instance: “Do we really live under the aegis of these opposing threats, or is it the very reiteration of them as our two primary ontological options (and our unthinking acquiescence to such a formulation) that acts as a truer threat to our enlivenment, to our full experience of the vast space between these two poles—a space which, after all, is where the great majority of many of our lives takes place?”

Ambiguity is a key feature of the art of cruelty. When we look at People Looking at Blood, Moffitt, we’re not certain how we fit into the tableau. Who are we—Mendieta’s conspirators? Her witnesses? Her victims? It’s as critic M. L. Rosenthal wrote of Sylvia Plath’s poems: In them, Plath is “victim, killer, and the place of horror, all at once.” What we need from an interlocutor in this world is an attention to nuance, certainly, but clarity above all. Here, instead, we get congeries of clauses and qualifiers and a hectic tour of contemporary art and politics. Like a ruthless docent, Nelson hurries us along: We can’t dawdle on Diane Arbus—there’s James Frey, Sonia Sotomayor, Hugo Chavez, J. L. Austin, Alexander Trocchi, and the Yes Men to get through. Chop-chop.

She is at her best when she allows herself to linger. When she meditates on how, for example, Mendieta’s obsessions intersect with her politics or the torsion in the artist-viewer relationship. Nelson is so strong on this last point—pondering how artists of cruelty hold our attention even as they strive to offend and terrify us—that it’s a pity she chooses not to engage the reader more in her own book, to demand, as Mendieta does, our attention and complicity. She’s here to reckon with cruelty. We’re here to watch. But Nelson keeps the reader at bay. The Art of Cruelty was initially a university course, and the book retains a whiff of a particularly demanding seminar. But we’re not able to participate or ask questions. We slump in drowsy reverence as Nelson loads up the next set of slides.

Parul Sehgal is a reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and the 2010 recipient of the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.