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The Sunday Conversation: Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson of CalArts' School of Critical Studies talks about her new book, 'The Art of Cruelty,' and how this part of avant-garde culture became popular in the art world.

August 07, 2011|By Irene Lacher, For the Los Angeles Times
  • CalArts Maggie Nelson says the art of cruelty became part of avant-garde works in the 19th and 20th centuries.
CalArts Maggie Nelson says the art of cruelty became part of avant-garde… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Maggie Nelson, a poet and faculty member of California Institute of the Arts' School of Critical Studies, takes on a sometimes disturbing offshoot of 20th-century avant-garde culture in her new book, "The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning" (W. W. Norton & Co.).

What is the art of cruelty?

The question of cruelty in art is not the same question necessarily — it can be, but it's not always the same question — of what cruelty is in life, because if you presume cruelty has an object, like you're being cruel to somebody or something, the question of who a piece of art might be cruel to if it's just depicting something that makes you think, "Wow, that's a really cruel thing,'' the question hasn't really been answered. Can you really say that piece of art was cruel to me? It doesn't necessarily make much sense. In life and art, there are distinctions to be made between what an act of cruelty consists of.

Why did art that takes on the subject of cruelty pick up steam in the 20th century?

The turn of the century coincided with radical changes in the culture — industrialization and gearing up for the First World War. I'm not quite sure why it went the way it went, but in the 19th and the 20th century, there became a real interest in the idea of a violent rupture from that which had come before in art, and part of that violent rupture would be to venerate that which was most shocking. I don't think this turn came about because Nietzsche declared the death of God, but I think there were very serious challenges to Christian and other forms of codified morality. They explore an interesting playground for people like [French playwright Antonin] Artaud to experiment with and embrace things like cruelty. Of course, not all art was doing this, but I'm just talking about a certain avant-garde tradition.

You quoted Lionel Trilling as saying, "It is possible that the contemplation of cruelty will not make us humane but cruel," and you wrote that you agree, so why did you write the book?

I agree with it insofar as he says it is possible. I dedicated the book to Annie Dillard, who's a writer and a friend of mine, who has always said to be very careful what you take in because it will make you who you are. She got the dedication because the whole book is predicated on that exact notion you're asking about, if someone is interested in pushing the limits and you're interested in art that pushes the limits, and you're not someone who wants to create more suffering or cruelty in the world, then you're going to be engaged in a negotiation. You're not going to decide one way or the other. So yeah, I agree with the statement because he doesn't say [it's definitely the case]. I don't feel like my book has made me a crueler person, not at all.

Or the people who read it.

I actually think the opposite. I think analyzing [it] can make you recognize things like the alibi that a lot of artists or others use to say, "I had to make this ultra-violent to show the world how bad violence really is." Or "I had to be brutally honest with you in an unkind way just to tell you how I really felt." I think these things are alibis. So I think that getting better at understanding them helps us to reduce suffering.

Can you give me examples of artwork dealing with cruelty that you think are worthwhile?

Many of the people I write about: Ana Mendieta, Kafka, Francis Bacon, Brian Evenson,

the writer Mary Gaitskill, Paul McCarthy, Karl Wasser, Karen Finley, Jenny Holzer, Sylvia Plath, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pier Paolo Pasolini.

How do you discern the difference between artwork that's worthwhile and artwork that's exploitive?

I don't think there's a litmus test. Sometimes it's an I-know-it-when-I-see-it kind of a thing. And I think sometimes it changes over time. I think of many works I saw the first time and had a very negative response and upon seeing again, felt differently. Likewise, the opposite too. Works I thought that at first were terrific turned tinny over time. When it feels undecidable — rather than brutality being used as a bluff or a bludgeon — I'm more inclined to think there's something going on. My book was to give myself and anyone else permission should they need it that there's no prescription in life to take in things you don't want to see. If everybody out there told you this movie was terrific and it has a rape scene that you find completely unsufferable, then for God's sakes, turn it off and get out. I don't ever believe in violence as a kind of medicine.

What do you think of Francis Bacon's belief that suffering makes great art?

I don't think there's any formula for what makes great art. You have someone like John Cage who says, "My feelings belong to me, and my art should not be about imposing them on others." And many people would say he made some of the most interesting and best compositions of the 20th century.

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