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LA Review of Books Publishes Excerpt from Maggie Nelson’s Forthcoming Art of Cruelty

By Harriet Staff

Excerpt of the week? At least. The Los Angeles Review of Books has published a piece by poet, critic and CalArts professor Maggie Nelson from her forthcoming book, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, out next week from W.W. Norton & Company. The excerpt elaborates on Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, and looks at the avant-garde and all its discontents. Nice to read a disillusioned point of view on such easily glamourized movements as the Viennese Actionists:

But however ecstatic the communion, or however viscerally startling the transgression, this emphasis on bloodshed as a jumpstart into reality can be wearying. Indeed, whenever I read an articulate excoriation of the Viennese Actionists — such as those written by artist Carolee Schneemann or feminist Germaine Greer — the work can seem quickly ridiculous, a witless testament to a ludicrous white-boy repression, Austrian-style, literally trying to whip itself up to Wagnerian proportions. “Soll niemand mein Schwanz steif machen?” — “Is no one going to make my dick hard?” — a flaccid Otto Muehl reportedly yelled during a 1971 performance, a performance at which Muehl’s sacrificial goose was seized (by the British poet Heathcote Williams, urged on by Greer) before it could meet its fate. Goose-less, Muehl ended up shitting on the stage instead.

In any case, whether the call is to create a Dionysian orgy (à la Nitsch), to mobilize a “hygienic violence” to cleanse society of its gangrenous elements (a la the Futurists), or simply an injunction to “free your mind” (à la Oko and Lennon), the anxiety over the relationship between art and life remains quite high; the mandate to break down the barriers between them, acute.

Nelson goes on to consider the ancient conflict between action and spectatorship, while reflecting on Plato and mimesis; Brecht and audience; Allan Kaprow; Carolee Schneeman; Michael Haneke; Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar; and of course, the intentions and optimal interpretation of Artaud and Theater of Cruelty in times of now. She writes:

[Artaud] was, after all, a man who persisted — if just barely — in a harrowing state of near constant agony, ecstasy, trance, withdrawal, or psychosis that few others would choose or be able to suffer. He did not live to see the piece in Le Monde published shortly after 9/11, in which French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the terrorist attack that brought down the Twin Towers “our theatre of cruelty, the only one left to us.” Nor did he live in the age of, say, beheadings available for casual viewing on YouTube. Nor, thankfully, did he live to see the results of my Google search this morning under “theater of cruelty”: up first, a piece from The Nation that describes the acts of torture committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib — and the circulation of the photographs of those acts — as a “Theater of Cruelty”; next, a USA Today blog inviting readers everywhere to weigh in on the question, “Are ‘[American] Idol’ auditions a ‘Theater of Cruelty’?”

Perhaps this is why Artaud’s writing now seems to me best encountered in silence, in solitude, and — despite what he might have wanted — on the page. Its crackle is still audible, it still scorches. But there it does not rely on the decimation of thought that Artaud at times imagined as a purification, but which the anti-intellectualism of contemporary American culture has repurposed into something utterly stultifying.

All work posted above courtesy of the LA Review of Books, and please do read the full piece there.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, July 8th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.