Our love-hate thing with violence in art

Stephen Dorff grabs Melanie Griffith in a scene from John Waters’s film “Cecil B. DeMented.’’ Stephen Dorff grabs Melanie Griffith in a scene from John Waters’s film “Cecil B. DeMented.’’ (Abbot Genser/ Artisan Entertainment)
By Troy Jollimore
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2011

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Of all the love-hate relationships that complicate our psychological landscape, the one we have with violence might be the most complicated. Violence fascinates and repels. And particularly in the past hundred years or so, the spectacle of violence increasingly has elbowed its way into our entertainment and our art. Fictional depictions of violence might seem to let us have it both ways: No one gets hurt, but we all get a thrill.

But there are issues here, too - not only questions about whether viewing violence encourages violence, but more interesting and provocative ones about the meaning of violence as art: what it says of us when we enjoy it, and what it says of us when we don’t.

“The Red Parts,’’ Maggie Nelson’s 2007 memoir, focused on a real act of violence: the murder of her aunt in 1969. With “The Art of Cruelty’’ she turns to the question of fictional violence. Nelson is not trying to settle questions of law or policy; in fact, she isn’t much concerned with settling anything. What she wants to do is simply think her way carefully and creatively through an area in which sloppy sloganeering and crude moralizing have shut down the more interesting discussions before they could get started.

“The Art of Cruelty’’ ranges widely, from Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty’’ to painter Francis Bacon, from poet Sylvia Plath to the Marquis de Sade to filmmaker John Waters. Nelson shows an appreciation for a wide spectrum of art, and while she is perhaps over-enthusiastic about contemporary performance and video art, she displays an admirable resistance to the contemporary cult of the image. “[A]fter nearly 200 years of photography, it may be that we are closer than ever to understanding that an image - be it circulated in a newspaper, on YouTube, or in an art gallery - is an exceptionally poor platform on which to place the unending, arduous, multifaceted, and circuitous process of ‘changing the world.’ ’’

The problem isn’t that images have no effect, but that their effects are so complex, unpredictable, and idiosyncratic that they are hard to control for political purposes. Moreover, concentrating on the power of the image sometimes puts the cart before the horse, both causally and morally. As she writes about photographs of prisoner abuse by US soldiers, “It isn’t the act of releasing photos that inflames anti-American sentiment; it’s the behavior captured by the photos. . . . If you don’t want to inflame via images of the behavior, then you have to stop the behavior.’’

Her critiques of individual artists are delightfully fierce without being mean spirited. On Sade: “Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about Sade’s writing is its immense capacity to shock, and its equally immense capacity to bore.’’ On filmmaker Lars van Trier: “I sat in the dark theater [at the end of “Breaking the Waves’’], probably not unlike many viewers, feeling distraught to the point of destroyed. Then, as the first wave of emotion lifted, I felt angry. Then I felt disgusted. Finally, I felt bored.’’ On Artaud, who valued shocking his audiences out of their complacency by any means necessary: “You can’t rape someone into independence any more than you can deliver democracy at the tip of a gun.’’ Indeed, as she reminds us, saying no to a work of art - shutting a book, refusing to look, walking out on a performance or a movie - can be a satisfying and indeed life-affirming exercise of individual autonomy.

This openness to saying no is linked, for Nelson, to the willingness to say yes - to try out new works while putting one’s preconceptions and anxieties aside. Many contemporary artworks seem to me to have very little to say, but as Nelson valuably reminds us, the fact that we don’t know what they are saying need not always keep us from enjoying them. Here she is on the performance artist Pope.L:

“I agree: this says something. What on earth it says, I have no idea. I like it, though, because it bothers me, and I’m not sure why. It also makes me laugh. . . . Whatever it is, I agree that it places us in the ‘lived moment of contraries where we all have to deal.’ I’m not sure where this is, but I’m glad to be here.’’

It’s hard to summarize this fascinating and bracingly intelligent book, because Nelson herself resists conclusions and summations. She writes in the Emersonian tradition, moment by moment, thought by thought by beautifully articulated thought. Nelson is also a poet (her book of prose poetry, “Bluets,’’ is stunning), and “The Art of Cruelty’s’’ prose is often gorgeous. I am still haunted, in particular, by a remark about Francis Bacon, which I suspect will stay with me for some time. “We do not have to understand or get to know Bacon’s figures to feel their pain,’’ she writes, “nor do they need to represent the pitifully massacred children of God. They are animals on their way down, as are we; that’s enough.’’

Troy Jollimore is author of “Love’s Vision’’ and “At Lake Scugog: Poems.’’ He can be reached at

By Maggie Nelson
Norton, 288 pp., $24.95