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The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning Hardcover – July 11, 2011

3.8 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


An important and frequently surprising book… could be read as the foundation for a post-avant-garde aesthetics… Nelson, who is also a poet, is such a graceful writer that I…just sat back and enjoyed the show. — Laura Kipnis (New York Times Book Review)

[Nelson’s] critiques of individual artists are delightfully fierce without being mean spirited… Fascinating and bracingly intelligent…The Art of Cruelty’s prose is often gorgeous. — Troy Jollimore (Boston Globe)

A lean-forward experience, and in its most transcendent moments, reading it can feel like having the best conversation of your life. — Rachel Syme (NPR Books)

I hope that critics, and aspiring critics, and those who are interested in the relationship between art and ethics, read [The Art of Cruelty]. — Susie Linfield (New Republic)

About the Author

Maggie Nelson is the author of several books of poetry, autobiography, and criticism. She teaches at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles, California.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (July 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393072150
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393072150
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #708,004 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Maggie Nelson is a poet, critic, scholar, and nonfiction writer. She is the author of five books of nonfiction, including The Argonauts, a work of autobiography/theory forthcoming from Graywolf Press in May 2015; a landmark work of cultural, art, and literary criticism titled The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (Norton, 2011), which was featured on the front cover of the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times as well as named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; the cult classic Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), named by Bookforum as one of the best books of the past two decades; a memoir about her family, media spectacle, and sexual violence titled The Red Parts (Free Press, 2007); and a critical study of painting and poetry titled Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa, 2007; winner, the Susanne M. Glassock Award for Interdisciplinary Scholarship). Her books of poetry include Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, 2007), Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull, 2005; finalist, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir), The Latest Winter (Hanging Loose Press, 2003), and Shiner (Hanging Loose, 2001). She has been the recipient of a 2012 Creative Capital Literature Fellowship, a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction, an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, and an Andy Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant. She currently teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
What I love about this book is not just its subject, which is interesting enough on its own. I love the fact that it is a critical book about culture that is not overly academic, pedantic, and stiff. It weaves together topics that could be considered disparate by some, but this open and "multi-media"-oriented approach is exactly what I find exciting about this moment in time critically. The author combines ethical theory with specific works by a range of visual artists, dancers, choreographers, philosophers, playwrights, poets etc. all revolving around the topic of the relationship between cruelty in artworks and culture. She also includes personal stories and historical tidbits of information that keep the reader personally engaged as well as intellectually stimulated. One last thing I appreciated was that she did not have the all too familiar stuffy air of an agenda-driven art critic. Sometimes a critic can become so engrained and invested in her own theories she begins failing to justify them within works. It can lead to an air of "this is my opinion and therefore it is a fact I no longer need to attempt proving." Maggie Nelson, however, leaves room for dissent within the work. I didn't agree with her at all points, but that is not important. Her tone lead to inciting my curiosity rather than arrogantly demanding my compliance.
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Format: Hardcover
Maggie Nelson brings a refreshingly direct poet's sensibility to this book of art/social criticism. The subject of "The Art of Cruelty" is 'shock art', but Nelson has expanded the focus to include literary expression as well. Thus, her starting point of avant dramatist Antoin Artaud is appropriate, because Artaud was obsessed with the notion of a "theater of cruelty", and the parallel with contemporary art--- which has become very theatrical in its nature--- is very easily drawn.

The larger thesis is an examination of the merits and drawbacks of performance art as practiced by the " Viennese Actionist" group and their inheritors, such as Vito Acconi.

I found this book valuable because as a reader of modern literature, I could relate to many figures Nelson discusses whom I have familiarity with: Sylvia Plath, Mary Gaitskill, Elfriede Jellinek---as well as artists I had researched like Diane Arbus and Ana Mendieta. Nelson also introduced me to many writers and artists that were new to me, like Ivy Compton-Burnett and William Pope.L.

Because Nelson is a feminist, and because she is concerned with the degree to which "the avant-garde fetish of terrorizing the audience" has penetrated our culture at large, it is easy to accuse her of being politically correct. The truth is that she makes it a point to criticize the modern college faculty practice of reprimanding students for transgressing borders of propriety, because she knows that runs very contrary to the encouragement of artistic expression.

Still, she is concerned with the 'adolescent' practice of artists who bludgeon their audiences with shock for its own sake, and her solution is simple.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In the first chapter, "Styles of Imprisonment", the author sets her premise: to focus on works of art whose employment of cruelty seems to her "worthwhile"; she is not interested in "stupid" (stupidity vs. intelligence) cruelty. She attempts a "shaking" -- challenging the habits of thought of aging vanguardism. As for the interpretation of cruelty, the closest she arrives at, congruent with what Buddhists see it, is "the far enemy of compassion". The audacity of her proposition is impossible to overstate. However, "worthwhile" and "intelligent" cruelty, it seems to me, are her stipulative definitions and somewhat arbitrary; ultimately the discipline of keeping a coherent, focused linear progression is, unfortunately, absent. Having said that, I do find her insights on Plath and Arbus both interesting and illuminating (there are extensive pages of reflection on the poet).

This book indeed has great potential. While I am not debating her reckoning, I have trouble with the structure and the indistinguishable principles she takes up. Nelson spends a considerable time in preparatory research, which is evident from the hundreds of quotes and names of artists, philosophers and critics that she includes in the book. But the problem with so much material packed into a 297 page book (Kindle edition) is that her own voice too often becomes merely the link between the notes and data she has collected; not enough in-depth exploration is offered. There is also the high possibility of misrepresentation from quotes taken out of context. In my opinion, it's a lot more fun, when an author is as intelligent as Nelson, to deliberately choose more aggressive demonstration AND an assertively articulate, restrained premise.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Maggie Nelson in this book is clearly experimenting with language in art criticism. I much appreciated this aspect. Common readers, i.e. readers that are not trained in art criticism, often find art theory pure invention, fanciful speculation or arcane discourse. Nelson investigations and questions are simple, specific, concrete and objectively reasonable. How did she managed to do this? talking in first person as personally and emotionally engaged. The topic, artistic issues related with an hypothetical (since theorized in theater by Artaud and barely mentioned in art) "Art of Cruelty", is very original and Nelson is brilliant in raising it to critical attention.
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