Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty (Norton, 2011) is consistently interesting, intermittently insightful, and frequently annoying. I wanted to say “infuriating” in that last spot, but that is way too strong.
To get over the annoying bit first: Nelson is very fond of quoting some writer or other, and then saying “I mostly agree” before launching into her reasons for not fully agreeing. Not only is this a tic, but it also often just comes across as the attempt to believe two contradictory things at once. Which, in fact, is often just what she does want. On the one hand, she tends toward a fairly stringent aestheticism. Hardly surprising if your topic is cruelty in art. It’s important to stress that cruelty in art is not cruelty in life. Child abuse in life is morally reprehensible; no nuances there. But child abuse in Lolita is something else again. Yet (there is always that “yet” in Nelson), she also wants to say that art gives us some insight into non-aesthetic human behavior. Cruelty in art is not totally separable from cruelty in life.
So what is the relation? At this point she goes into waffling so deft it can seem illuminating. Francis Bacon haunts this text. It seems pretty clear that Nelson doesn’t “like” Bacon’s paintings—and she certainly doesn’t like Bacon as a person. But she keeps returning to look at the paintings as if another look will get her to some settled account (one that satisfies her) about what those paintings do. Bacon turns living flesh into “things,” stripping them of all subjectivity in order to render them as objects. In this way, he replicates what Simone Weil (in her famous essay on the Iliad) says is the effect of “force”: it turns what it touches into a thing, brute material acted upon.
“Artists such as Plath and Bacon aimed to access ‘the brutality of fact’ without providing any narrative to house it, and yet also without courting abstraction. This is an intriguing aim, albeit one bound to produce not only formal but also political difficulties” (239). There you have it; art is not just about itself; it also has some relation to “the political.”
Specifically, the political difficulty is fatalism, which breeds a passive acquiescence in the “brute fact.”
“For many would argue [notice Nelson’s sly distancing of the thought she is about to utter] that art which aims to extinguish the story behind suffering and focus on the suffering itself partakes in a different, more insidious cruelty—that of depoliticization, of stripping cruelties from their contexts so that they seem pitiable, sensational, or inevitable, rather than contingent, avoidable, or explicable. . . . ‘The most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show him, every day, that there can be no change,’ says filmmaker Wim Wenders. For the most part, I agree. [The Nelson hedge at play.] And if one suggests that the thing that cannot change is the very thing that is causing suffering, the indoctrination can be all the more toxic. Such forms of expression can seemingly act as an accomplice, even if unwittingly, to this cynicism, which turns its back on the hard work of ferreting out the reasons why a particular cruelty has occurred, who is responsible for it, who gains from it, and who suffers” (239).
Nelson then narrates going to a Bacon retrospective and having the experience of “finding I wasn’t in the mood to look at Bacon’s paintings any longer” (240). But the suggestion lingers that this mood might pass, and she will find herself able (even desiring?) to look at his paintings some other time in the future.
What’s annoying (OK, infuriating) in a book written so persistently in the first person, is that Nelson never tries to describe this mood or, more globally, the impact of the Bacon paintings on her as spectator. In fact, the book is full of brilliant statements about what this or that artist is doing in his or her work, but whenever it comes to describing the viewer’s response, Nelson invariably turns subjectivist: each audience member’s mileage will vary. She is fond of reporting on the unexpected responses of her students to works she had experienced differently. But she never tangles with the question of the legitimacy of her responses—or to the question of how faithful to those responses she should be.
In short, why should she look at Bacon’s paintings at all. To be even more blatant (and philistine?) about it: what do Bacon’s paintings contribute to the world? Is the world a better place because they exist? That’s crass, I know. But surely art doesn’t get a free pass just be announcing itself to be art. Why should it not have to justify its existence in the same way that everything else does? And aren’t we bowing to the tyranny of received institutional authority when we think we ought to (some kind of imperative is at work here) look at Bacon’s paintings. It is very hard for me to imagine any kind of purely aesthetic argument (art for art’s sake) for the value of Bacon’s paintings. There must be something they are thought to deliver (in the way of insight or feeling/emotion) that underwrites claims to their greatness. So what is that something? Showing us that humans can turn subjects into objects, that living bodies are vulnerable to mutilation, that some people take pleasure in mutilating? Are those things we did not know, that we need Bacon to tell us? And what are to do with such knowledge?
I am tempted to follow Brecht here; having walked through a Bacon retrospective, just what is it I walk away with, and toward what ends will I direct the knowledge and/or feeling I have gained/experienced in viewing the paintings? My complaint is that Nelson short circuits the discussion—much as she says that Bacon’s paintings short circuit “context” and “story.” Bacon’s paintings become themselves a “brute fact,” hanging there on prestigious museum walls, echoing the “brutal facts” the paintings depict.
Do I want Bacon explained away by some back story about his psychological depravity? No, not at all. What I want is some story, some context, that makes his paintings do something besides shock and disgust. Because I don’t see the value in shock (Nelson can be very witty about the avant-garde’s endless repetition of its stock moves) and I don’t see what more than that Bacon’s paintings aim for. I am not a good art critic—and writers like Berger, T. J. Clark and Nelson at her best often make me see things I didn’t see for myself. I want someone to do that for me regarding Bacon before I am willing to grant either his importance or his genius.
But I didn’t come here today to talk of Bacon. I actually want to write about Nelson’s intriguing attempt to bridge the art/life divide, to finesse their being two separate things even as they sustain some sort of relation to one another. Nelson’s idea is that the artistic object is a “third thing” that exists between people—and through which they relate. She is partly influenced by Arendt’s notion of the “in-between,” of the distance, the space, that exists between people—and which enables their connection. Intimacy collapses the in-between and thus overwhelms individuality, tending toward a collapse of selves into one another. Here’s Nelson’s version of art’s functioning to establish the “in-between.”
“Rather than lambast that which mediates as our enemy, each [of a group of writers Nelson admires] makes a concerted effort to reclaim the value of the ‘third term.’ ‘In the logic of emancipation,’ Ranciere writes, ‘there is always a third thing—a book or some other piece of writing—alien to both [teacher and student] and to which they can refer to verify in common what the pupil has seen, what she says about it and what she thinks about it.’ The emancipatory value of the third thing, as Ranciere sees it, lies in the act that no one can own it; no one can own its meaning. Its function is to mediate, but not in the sense of imitating or representing a reality from which spectators are barred. Here, ‘the mediate’ relates people to each other, with relation signifying the process of being brought together and given a measure of space from each other at the same time” (46).
This seems to me a lovely and very productive way to think about art, one that preserves at one and the same time art’s separation from “life” and art’s contribution to that same life. Nelson returns to this notion of the “third thing” several times in her book—and ends by invoking it one last time.
“A paradox is more than the coexistence of opposing propositions or impulses. It signals the possibility—and sometimes the arrival—of a third term into a situation that otherwise appeared to consist of but two opposing forces. Roland Barthes elaborates the third term—which he calls the Neutral—with the utmost beauty and intelligence in his 1977-78 lectures titled The Neutral. . . . For, as Barthes suggests, insofar as certain third terms—however volatile or disturbing—baffle the repressive forces of reduction, generality, and dogmatism, they deserve to be called sweetness.” [The last sentence of Nelson’s book] (269).
Note that “certain” third terms can do this job. But Nelson’s book never attends to how specific works play this function—or, crucially, to how different works perform it differently. What happens when Bacon is our third thing instead of Matisse? That a book on the art of cruelty ends with the word “sweetness” suggests that even cruel art can be sweet if it opens a pathway out of dogmatism. But Nelson never does the work of showing us how this all goes down. Place Bacon between us—dear reader and me, the writer—and what Happens? I don’t know (can I admit to not really wanting to know?). I certainly would love to hear Nelson’s account of what happens, an account that avoids the “generality” she says that third terms help us overcome. I want, in other words, this notion of the third term “cashed out” (to invoke that much maligned phrase from William James).
Because I do, in fact, find the idea of art as a stimulus to, even a producer of, relations deeply appealing. It makes the aesthetic a “space of appearances,” an intersubjective zone of discovery, where what is discovered is my identity, your identity, and our identity—a discovery unavailable without the catalyst of the work. “Identity” is not a great word here, but I use it in hommage to Arendt’s notion of the ways in which we create/discover ourselves through interactions with others. That art works may have some special way of provoking those interactions seems right to me—and places art works in relation to “the world” (again, using that term in an Arendtian fashion) in evocative ways.
I am not on firm ground here. I am working from a set of intuitions and prejudices. I certainly do not want to take the position that the cruel art work (or any art work) must have “redeeming value.” In fact, I want to jettison the notion of “redemption” (in all forms and in all applications of the term). But shorn of the idea of redemption, I still want to think (as specifically as possible) about what an art work does. So thinking of the art work as catalyzing human relationships seems promising to me. What kinds of relations do cruel works foster? How do they move audiences to new places? My claim is that all art works do something; they are operators on their viewers. So let’s figure out what they are doing.