Winner of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.
Ian Buruma is fascinated, he writes, “by what makes the human species behave atrociously.” In Theater of Cruelty the acclaimed author of The Wages of Guilt and Year Zero: A History of 1945 once again turns to World War II to explore that question—to the Nazi occupation of Paris, the Allied bombing of German cities, the international controversies over Anne Frank’s diaries, Japan’s militarist intellectuals and its kamikaze pilots.
One way that people respond to power and cruelty, Buruma argues, is through art, and the art that most interests him reveals the dark impulses beneath the veneer of civilized behavior. This is what draws him to German and Japanese artists such as Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Mishima Yukio, and Yokoo Tadanori, as well as to filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. All were affected by fascism and its terrible consequences; all “looked into the abyss and made art of what they saw.”
Whether he is writing in this wide-ranging collection about war, artists, or film—or about David Bowie’s music, R. Crumb’s drawings, the Palestinians of the West Bank, or Asian theme parks—Ian Buruma brings sympathetic historical insight and shrewd aesthetic judgment to understanding the diverse ways that people deal with violence and cruelty in life and in art.
Theater of Cruelty includes eight pages of color and black & white images.
This collection presents 28 articles reviews of films, books, and art exhibits as well as some travelogues, originally published in the New York Review of Books by Dutch critic Buruma. As the title suggests, the theme of art and war apply to most selections and WWII looms large. Buruma is happily eclectic in his interests yet, as he notes, also preoccupied with the moral character of individuals under extreme circumstances and (from a secular point of view) the problem of evil. This emphasis leads to some provocative arguments. A prominent one, flagged in the opening chapter's exploration of the "joys and perils of victimhood" and in a later chapter's review of Anne Frank and her various biographers, lambastes identity politics as "our modern form of sentimentalism." Throughout, Buruma's liberal and cosmopolitan worldview colors his curiosity about figures, mainly artists Leni Riefenstahl, R. Crumb, Werner Herzog, George Grosz, Mishima Yukio, and David Bowie, among others whose work and lives give shape to the times, by their opposition, complicity, or both. Some essays feel perfunctory, but the scope of the collection has a force of its own.