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.
Though books of criticism don't normally break through to mass audiences, there are certain tomes, like John Berger's Ways of Seeing or Susan Sontag's On Photography, that have managed to seep into public consciousness. It's clear that The Art of Cruelty intends to be this kind of book. In between her serious blocks of research, Nelson pauses to synthesize, inject humor and often speak directly to the reader as if he or she were part of a fiery conversation over dinner rather than an anonymous page turner. Her one-liners are sparkling ... The Art of Cruelty is not a book for the squeamish or even the passive reader. It will upset and confuse, and even delight at times. It's a lean-forward experience, and in its most transcendent moments, reading it can feel like having the best conversation of your life. It's not an easy text to dive into, but once begun it's difficult to ignore.
Maggie Nelson has her laments about violent representations, but in The Art of Cruelty she refreshingly aims them largely up the cultural ladder, at the fine arts, literature, theater — even poetry ... 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 and other heirs of Sade and Artaud, Nelson is taking on modernism’s (and postmodernism’s) most cherished tenets ... Nelson’s opinions can be quirky and hard to square with one another, but they never fail to be interesting, quite some accomplishment in what could have been a free-form ramble through the mires of someone else’s aesthetic preoccupations ... Hopping like a jackrabbit between genres and media, including forays into the swamps of pop culture, Nelson is strongest when at her most rageful, writing with controlled fury at the anti-intellectualism and crassness of the present ... Occasionally I felt an urge to protest these rather balletic leaps, but Nelson, who is also a poet, is such a graceful writer that I finally just sat back and enjoyed the show.
Her open-mindedness toward questions of catharsis and its demands is what makes her book so fascinating. Her inability to offer anything like consistent answers to the questions she poses is what makes it so frustrating ... Nelson’s aim is to encourage her readers to suspend, at least for a few moments, whatever repulsion they may feel toward depictions of cruelty and toward artists who use them to explore the human capacity for cruelty, in order to appreciate the efforts to lead us into unfamiliar territory. But since emotions and perceptions vary so much from one person to another, her approach is inevitably highly subjective. Though Nelson occasionally ventures into theory, The Art of Cruelty is best read as a record of one person’s reactions to an impressive number of exposures to works of art, both familiar and esoteric. And in the end, perhaps an idiosyncratically personal account reveals the inescapable contradictions and tensions in the enterprise better than any tidy analysis could.