“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.
The gory, brutal images that swamp modern culture are stupefying and dehumanizing or maybe not, argues this richly ambivalent study. Poet Nelson (Bluets) surveys cruel art, lowbrow and high, flitting among Hollywood torture-porn and sadistic reality shows, avant-garde films and performance pieces, poetry and literary fiction, and photographs of abused Abu Ghraib prisoners. She repeatedly circles back to a few cruelty auteurs like the painter Francis Bacon and the poet Sylvia Plath. This panorama provokes strong reactions in her, but no dogmas. Nelson rejects the modernist claim that brutality in art provokes cathartic reactions that shock us out of alienation and into social justice, but rejects also the notion that cruel art makes people cruel; she wearies of the entertainment industry's cynical assaults on taste and sensibility " neither I nor the world will be a better place if I ingest a particular cruelty'" while celebrating provocations that she believes have an undeniable artistic power. Nelson's erudition and wide fluency in artistic and philosophical traditions yield many subtle, insightful readings (her meditation on "brutal honesty" is especially good). But her view of her lurid subject is sometimes too nuanced and unsatisfying.