Lately I’ve been re-reading The Art Of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, a book about the uses of violence and cruelty in modern and contemporary art: Chris Burden’s crucifixion, Catherine Opie’s self-portraits, Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” Francis Bacon’s brutal paintings, Kara Walker’s jarring cut-outs.
I read (and re-read) The Art Of Cruelty in part because of my inability to confront certain cruel and violent images, which I’m reminded of every October. A particular breed of delirious, over-the-top, gore-filled, Halloween-ready blockbuster horror movies reached cultural saturation when I was a teenager, and at the time I could hardly handle parodies of scary movies. I haven’t come far since.
I like Halloween just fine. I love candy. I appreciate an opportunity to get dressed up. But I cannot, and have never been able to, handle anything remotely scary.
An example: 2014. My partner and I are driving home from a perfectly lovely October day on Chincoteague Island. He asks if he can put on the Halloween edition of a storytelling podcast he loves. I say no. He says it won’t be that scary and if it is, we can turn it off. He promises. I say ok. I don’t remember any of the details of the podcast but I remember, ten minutes in, absolutely losing my sh*t. He is laughing because it’s really not that scary but ok, it’s fine, we can turn it off. But I’m already so shaken and upset that I don’t talk to him for the next hour and a half. I act like it’s because he should have known better than to even suggest listening to something scary but in truth it’s because I am, of course, super embarrassed!
It’s not that, say, I am dreaming of sitting down and watching a horror classic or a zombie flick or, like, one of the Saw movies (which Maggie writes about in The Art Of Cruelty) but I guess I’d like to know I could if I wanted to; more than that, I’d actually just like to locate where my inability to stomach this stuff comes from. (And of course there is a whole realm of scary — creepy, suspenseful, supernaturally freaky, paranoid, psychological, etc. — that I can’t handle and that falls outside the art of cruelty, too.) That being said, on neither of my reads has The Art Of Cruelty turned into a how-to guide.
Another example: High school. We go to a friend’s house some Saturday night. We all hang out in the basement and eat pizza and someone recommends putting on one of the Final Destination movies and I acquiesce because one time I met one of the guys in the movie* and how scared could I legitimately be of this movie if I know it’s all made up because I’ve met this guy?! I find the movie both vapid and disturbing and cover my eyes and cry a little bit for most of it. But very little of this horror registers in my memory because that same night I break a tooth** and spend the rest of the night casually talking with my hand over my mouth, trying to make sure no one notices.
Part of the book’s mission is to think about the lines we draw around art and life — how the art she describes, by performing violent actions upon the body, or dwelling in injustice, or rubbing our collective noses in the cruelties of human behavior, blurs those distinctions. Perhaps the aim of those works is be edifying, but the book’s main concern doesn’t seem to be, Does it work? For her, it seems, there are a million equally interesting questions: How does it make us feel? And how do we feel about those feelings? How and when does cruelty lead to rupture or revelation? How do we make distinctions among cruelties in art when our media landscape is flooded with violence? How do we receive this art of cruelty when it comes from different subjectivities?
One of the things I like best about the book is its ambivalence: its consideration of low-brow and high-brow art in the same paragraph; its exploration of how we can find some works of art aesthetically compelling but morally repulsive; its belief that it’s OK to be unsure how we feel about one work or another; its encouragement to walk away from certain things that unsettle us. (“I know I generally feel very alive and emancipated when I choose to walk out of something,” she writes.)
Another thing I like: the way that, early on, she lays out a distinction between violence and cruelty, without really defining either term.
In his senior year of college, my partner took a film class about horror movies that focused on haunted houses. It was his first time living alone, in an old and spacious apartment in Baltimore beneath an utterly empty apartment landlorded by a very old woman. The class was at 9am on Mondays, which is either a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective. He told me in detail the story about people vomiting in the aisles at the premiere of The Exorcist. He told me he took the class to face down his own discomfort with horror movies. It worked.
Towards the end, The Art Of Cruelty explores at length Jenny Holzer’s “Lustmord,” which I’ve written about before. The ambivalence is top-notch here, and makes me feel good about my own ambivalence about the piece.
(I read one chapter of The Art Of Cruelty while waiting in a parking lot to get a precautionary COVID test, my stomach slowly filling with dread at the prospect of having a swab inserted forever-long into my nasal cavity to see if I had a mysterious and often invisible illness that has left hundreds of thousands of people in this country dead, often in utterly cruel and avoidable ways. Art imitates life imitates art.)
A great Halloween: A delayed party since we all had to take the SAT on Nov. 1. I dressed up as a tacky Party City Marie Antoinette. My friends stayed over and the next day we lay in the sun and smiled at each other and fit, like, eleven people into someone’s car to go get Dunkin Donuts. It was a lonely year and that day I felt loved and loving. A bad Halloween: In college, I ate mushrooms and cried for about four straight hours.
“For some crowds,” says the podcast episode about untimely deaths and uncommon genius, “watching a person force themselves to bleed with no visible consequence ignites a desire to join in on the act. A desire to make that person bleed with your own hands.”
There are many works mentioned in The Art Of Cruelty — plays, novels, films, etc. — that I would choose/have already chosen, when given the opportunity, not to watch or read in their entirety. So I did what I often do with horror films my friends recommend — I googled them and read their plot summaries on Wikipedia. Not a habit I’m proud of, and frankly not really necessary for understanding the arguments in the book. It didn’t help that I often read the book before going to sleep. Maybe I indulge this habit because I can better handle cruelty or violence when I know the end, or that an end is coming, even if it doesn’t make the story any less cruel or violent. Maybe it’s just scratching a masochistic itch. Unclear.
Maybe the thing I took away most from reading this time was the usefulness of making space, the argument that there is sometimes something to be gained by settling with our discomfort from some distance, rather than immediately speaking for or against it.
Still, I won’t be watching any horror movies this year.
Thanks for reading. Hope you face some fears this week, and if you are on the wrong side of the great is-candy-corn-good-or-bad debate, I don’t want to hear it.
*On a mission trip lol
**The truth here is that I actually re-broke this tooth after having initially broken it (and about half a dozen others) after crashing into another girl in the warm-up ring at a horse show. She was fine, both our ponies were fine, but I spat out a bunch of half-teeth and probably looked like a maniac during the competition itself.