the avant-garde as cruelty


Well-meaning laments about violence in the media usually leave me wanting to bash someone upside the head with a tire iron. To begin with, the reformist spirit is invariably aimed down the rungs of cultural idioms, at cartoons, slasher films, pornography, rap music and video games, while the carnage and bloodletting in Shakespeare, Goya and the Bible get a pass. Low-culture violence is literal, while high-culture violence is symbolic or allegorical and subject to critical interpretation. Low-culture violence coarsens us, high-culture violence edifies us. And the lower the cultural form, or the ticket price, or — let’s just say it — the presumed education level of the typical viewer, the more depictions of violence are suspected of inducing mindless emulation in their audiences, who will soon re-enact the mayhem like morally challenged monkeys, unlike the viewers of, say, “Titus Andronicus,” about whose moral intelligence society is confident. Maggie Nelson has her laments about violent representations, but in “The Art of Cruelty” she refreshingly aims them largely up the cultural ladder, at the fine arts, literature, theater — even poetry. What interests her is the “full-fledged assault on the barriers between art and life that much 20th-century art worked so hard to perform,” often by enlisting violence and cruelty, simulated or actual, including cruelties inflicted physically on the person of the artist, or affectively on the psyches of the audience.

more from Laura Kipnis at the NYT here.