The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

I was afraid to read this book, not wanting to face the images that Nelson might foist upon my brain, but admiration for her writing won out and I primly frolicked through the pages. My overall impression is a smudge of characters (Artaud, de Sade, Plath, Kafka, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Chris Burden, Wittgenstein, Gaitskill, Derrida) whose names act as shortcuts or passwords for entry into this realm of thought. The biggest takeaway was learning about some pieces I’d never known about and confirming that the 1970s were probably the best decade by far for making art:

  • Burden’s crazed work of the early 1970s: 220– filling a gallery with a foot of water/4 wooden ladders/climbing up with 3 other people/tossing in a live electrical current and remaining in danger for 6 hours; Deadman – laying down in traffic on busy La Cienega Blvd in LA with 2 flares by his body, covered by a tarp. Cops ask him what he’s doing, “Making sculpture.”; his famous Shoot where his friend shoots him in the upper arm with a .22; the failure of TV Hijack where he pretended to hijack a news anchor on live TV; and his TV Ad where he purchased as much air time as he could afford – 10 seconds – to air a snippet of footage of another piece where he crows on his stomach through broken glass only wearing underwear.
  • An early work (1974) of Marina Abramovic in Naples, Italy, similar to Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece: Rhythm 0, performed only once, where she stood motionless for six hours with objects laid out for audience to use on her body, including a gun, scalpel, needle, knife, rose, olive oil. “Violations to Abramovic’s body begin slowly, then pick up speed. By the end of the performance, her clothes have been cut off, her body burned, sliced, and decorated. Eventually a man holds the loaded gun to her head and tries to make her fire it, at which point some audience members intervene to stop him.”
  • Gordon Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecture” in the 70s, making core cuts in buildings scheduled for demolition in NYC.
  • Eleanor Antin’s 1972 piece Carving: A Traditional Sculpture which used her body as living marble along with a thirty-six day diet, photographing her body slimming “almost imperceptibly over the days, her vacant stare prohibiting any happy before-and-after narrative.”
  • Nao Bustamante’s 1992 Indig/urrito performance inviting white men from the audience to get on stage and kneel in penance for the 500 years of white-male oppression of natives then bite the burrito she wore like a strap-on.
  • Not intentionally an art piece, but the surveillance cameras along the Mexican border used in the Texas Virtual Border Watch Program where users at home can pick a spot to monitor. One housewife in Rochester, NY watches at least four hours a day. Nelson visits the website: “there were fifteen cameras rolling on scenes of bucolic calm. My favorites were Camera 5, which featured a still patch of golden weeds with the directive, ‘During the day watch for subjects on foot carrying large bags,’ and Camera 10, which featured a swiftly moving river alongside the directive, ‘During the day if you see four or five men in a boat report this activity. AT night if you see a vehicle, boat, or people movement report this activity.’ The static, unending nature of the footage bears a weird resemblance to the endurance-based, art-house aesthetic of, say Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964)—a film that consists of eight hours and five minutes of continuous footage of the Empire State Building—or that of a virtual yule log, albeit one of a more sinister variety.”

Nelson gives a shout out to a list of women writers, including Jean Rhys, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Marguerite Duras, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Octavia Butler, Eileen Myles, Gaitskill, Highsmith, Compton-Burnett.


Just went down a Lydia Davis rabbit hole and discovered a great interview with her. This part about not naming characters resonates:


You rarely give your characters names. Why is that?


I’ve always felt that naming was artificial. I’ve done it. I wrote about one woman and called her Mrs. Orlando, because the woman I based her on lived in Florida. Recently I wrote a story called “The Two Davises and the Rug” because I have a neighbor named Davis and he and I were trying to decide which one should end up with a certain rug, and I was very fond of using that name, even though it wouldn’t make much difference to anybody if I called it “The Two Harrises and the Rug.”