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The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

Overview

Today both reality and entertainment crowd our fields of vision with brutal imagery. The pervasiveness of images of torture, horror, and war has all but demolished the twentieth-century hope that such imagery might shock us into a less alienated state, or aid in the creation of a just social order. What to do now? When to look, when to turn away?

Genre-busting author Maggie Nelson brilliantly navigates this contemporary predicament, with an eye to the question of whether or not ...

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The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

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Overview

Today both reality and entertainment crowd our fields of vision with brutal imagery. The pervasiveness of images of torture, horror, and war has all but demolished the twentieth-century hope that such imagery might shock us into a less alienated state, or aid in the creation of a just social order. What to do now? When to look, when to turn away?

Genre-busting author Maggie Nelson brilliantly navigates this contemporary predicament, with an eye to the question of whether or not focusing on representations of cruelty makes us cruel. In a journey through high and low culture (Kafka to reality TV), the visual to the verbal (Paul McCarthy to Brian Evenson), and the apolitical to the political (Francis Bacon to Kara Walker), Nelson 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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. (July)
Laura Kipnis
This is an important and frequently surprising book. By reframing the history of the avant-garde in terms of cruelty…Nelson is taking on modernism's (and postmodernism's) most cherished tenets. After all, aesthetic shock has under­written most of our cultural innovation for over a century. So this book could be read as the foundation for a post-avant-garde aesthetics…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.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393072150
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/11/2011
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Maggie Nelson is the author of several books, including Bluets and The Art of Cruelty. She teaches at and lives in Los Angeles, California.

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Table of Contents

Styles of Imprisonment 3

Theaters of Cruelty 15

Great to Watch 31

Captivity, Catharsis 53

Everything is Nice 66

They're Only Dolls 91

The Golden Rule 105

Nobody Said No 119

The Brutality of Fact 131

Who We Are 162

A Situation of Meat 175

Precariousness 191

Inflicted 205

Face 227

Rings of Action 239

Rarer and Better Things 262

Acknowledgments 271

Bibliography 273

Index 279

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