The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

Maggie Nelson

Language: English

Pages: 304

ISBN: 0393343146

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


“This is criticism at its best.”―Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

Writing in the tradition of Susan Sontag and Elaine Scarry, Maggie Nelson has emerged as one of our foremost cultural critics with this landmark work about representations of cruelty and violence in art. From Sylvia Plath’s poetry to Francis Bacon’s paintings, from the Saw franchise to Yoko Ono’s performance art, Nelson’s nuanced exploration across the artistic landscape ultimately offers a model of how one might balance strong ethical convictions with an equally strong appreciation for work that tests the limits of taste, taboo, and permissibility.

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observes—which is to say that the exposure of a disturbing fact or situation does not necessarily alter it, but in fact may further the circular conviction that one can never be paranoid enough. Prejean’s logic relies on the hope that shame, guilt, and even simple embarrassment are still operative principles in American cultural and political life—and that such principles can fairly trump the forces of desensitization and self-justification. Such a presumption is sorely challenged by the

an almost comedic phenomenon, that as mainstream news reporting in the United States continues its slide away from fact and into a partisan cesspool of spin, invective, and infotainment, news programs have started to blanket themselves with a “just the facts, ma’am” brand of sloganeering. In 2009, there was Campbell Brown’s “No Bias, No Bull,” FOX’s knowingly duplicitous “Fair and Balanced,” CNN’s juvenile “Just sayin’,” and so on: all bank, however disingenuously, on an offer of “straight

patricide at the center of the (male) psyche. Freud was not known for his attention to female subjectivity or sexuality, the latter of which he famously deemed a “dark continent” for psychology. It therefore comes as no real surprise that he chose a founding myth for psychoanalysis that places the male subject, heterosexual desire, and patricidal fantasy at its core. Ironically, however, the trope of a psychically repressed matricide (or, more generally speaking, a gynecide) as the

of the sacrifice.” There is no sacrifice. We do not have to understand or get to know Bacon’s figures to feel their pain, nor do they need to represent the pitifully massacred children of God. They are animals on their way down, as are we; that’s enough. The figures that dominate Plath’s late poetry, on the other hand, are almost always on the rise. But as with the spirit of “Lady Lazarus,” who notoriously rises out of the ash in the poem’s final lines to “eat men like air,” their ascent is

positing a world beyond this world—a God, a transcendent heaven, moral absolutes—religion does violence to the present world. On a level of content, Altmann’s Tongue insists that violence is meaningless and that justification of violence, controlled or not, is ultimately futile. Instead of doing violence to this world by positing transcendents, Altmann’s Tongue does violence to the transcendents by refusing to acknowledge anything beyond this world, but offering characters who cannot even imagine

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