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Entries in barbara galletly (8)


In Which We Consider The Art Of Cruelty

Armed With a Pin


As I was reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning a young woman was murdered by a stranger. When this happens, it is unnerving. It passes because we have to let it. But this was a friend of friend's, in a house that is down the street from mine, just after she got home from a New Year’s Eve party. Someone had followed her home, and stabbed her while her friend was in the bathroom. On the same block a woman was knocked down in the street twice, maybe by the same man, before and after she called the police to report the initial attack. A third woman was in her bedroom, in her bed, while a few friends slept on couches and on the ground in her apartment when someone, maybe the same man, came in and strangled her until she passed out. I think he also undressed her, but it's unclear. On the same block my friends were celebrating 2011 or 2012 together, and coming and going. It does not make sense. No part of it is all right. One awful side effect is that the rest of us are now mortal too, terrified by the uncontrollable and random cruelty that comes for us out of the dark when we do not think it can touch us. I wasn’t even there, I don’t really even know what happened, and I still couldn't sleep without falling into brutal dreams.

A year ago I was sitting in a sunny yard in Los Angeles when I first heard Maggie Nelson read from The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning. She shared a section on the writing of Paul Bowles' wife, Jane. I held my breath as she described Bowles' creepy deftness at revealing the bitter, dishonest underbelly of truisms. Her examination of Bowles’s story “Plain Pleasures” centers on two very reserved middle-aged people (Mrs. Perry and Mr. Drake) who are neighbors on an attempted date. The story results in their evident failure to connect, Mrs. Perry’s subsequent drunkenness, which leads her to drop her borrowed pearls in her gravy and proclaim that she is no one’s mashed-potato masher before she escapes the scene. The tale ends as she awakens the next day with the revelation of the possibility of rape, her unwitting aloneness, and what may be a failure of hope. This sounds like a sad ending, but more interesting to Nelson is that Bowles doesn’t actually ask us to read sadness into this, or feel badly about any of it.

jane and paul bowles When Mrs. Perry wakes up naked, alone, unaware of what happened the night before, she is happy: the "blacked-out lacuna at the story’s navel is one of literature’s most understated slivers of cruelty. But cruelty to whom? Indeed, one of the more remarkable things about Bowles’s stories is that more often than not they leave the reader not knowing how to feel." It’s not just wickedness but multivalence. "It isn’t so much that Bowles is out to tell us that the world is a cruel and cold place, and isn’t it a pity. Like many artists of cruelty, she is no philosopher. She is roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin." Nelson is pointing out what we are eager to avoid, articulating the cruelty inherent in the mundane, the multivalent. The unremitting debunking of niceness in the world that interesting art performs.

But cruelty can spring from love too, and these two things are little more than opposite sides of a single coin. She discusses a line from William Carlos Williams, "The business of love is cruelty, / which, / by our wills, / we transform / to live together", which has long captivated her curiousity:

I don’t particularly agree with its temporal proposition — that the business of love begins as a form of cruelty, which can be subsequently (heroically?) altered, until we all get along. I do, however, like its calm admission of the coexistence of love and cruelty — its acknowledgement that they can exist within one another, rather than at opposite ends of the spectrum, or locked in an oppositional embrace. That there might be an alchemical, rather than a conflictual relationship between them. That the possibility of transformation is always alive, always ours.

Maggie Nelson is not exploring foreign turf, she is a cruelty artist herself. One of the most unnerving books I have read is her 2005 book Jane: A Murder, a memoir (in prose, poetry, and found text) that she wrote to explore the life, rape, and murder of her mother’s sister.


There was an argument going on, one with subtle terms.

Can anyone like blood the way one likes the mountains or the sea?

Two slugs turn the light of the mind into dull meat.

Answer me.

For pain comes not just in witnessing or bearing cruel acts, but when "frivolousness" is cut away, leaving nothing but the inevitable vulnerability of mortality to hang from the meat hook. In a chapter called "A Situation of Meat" Nelson expands on the deep horror implicit the fact that "the spectre of our eventual 'becoming object' — of our (live flesh) one day turning into (dead) meat — is a shadow that "accompanies us throughout our lives."

maggie nelson

The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning is not just a book about what happened or how to respond, it’s about how we address and interpret cruelty in art, how we look at that art, and where such spectatorship leaves us. This is also a book about looking for a response to questions of what it is to be cruel, to kill, what it is to die, on the one hand, and on the other of how to keep going regardless of the answer (which doesn’t always feel less awful). It is poetry, but also about something very real.

In The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Nelson is clear that cruelty is a frightening focal point, unflinching regardless of our gaze. Naturally the author herself is dubious of contributing to its grip on us. In her introduction she cites the Buddha on the importance of avoiding the topic, and even Lionel Trilling, who says, "It is possible that the contemplation of cruelty will not make us humane but cruel; that the reiteration of the badness of our spiritual condition will make us consent to it." Regardless, we struggle with cruelty, flirt with it and worry over it.

This focus is not cynical. Rather, it stems from my belief in the paradoxical yet sage statement once made by the poet Fanny Howe, that "the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn't…"

The result, in this volume, is an attempt to get at the root of the action, the use or purpose or value of cruelty in art, whether such cruelty stays at a healthy remove or seeps out of its frame to touch us too closely. The ultimate goal is to make distinctions between what is worthwhile and not, to address but not resolve its problematic nature.


The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning takes the form of a most delicately constructed house of horrors that we enter through Antonin Artaud’s "theatre of cruelty" in the 1930s and takes us through performances and expressions and violent acts of cruelty of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. From the Texas Virtual Border Patrol Watch Program, which allows viewers to observe border checkpoints and report sightings of “illegal” people or activities, and the dissociation from reality such a creepy program encourages; to reality television in the form of Fear Factor and To Catch a Predator; discussions of spectatorship and the possibility of cruelty in art as catharsis; to Sontag and Arendt on the banality of evil and the effects of its depiction; horror films and objectification of victims to sacrificial or pornographic acts of violence reenacted in performance art; a careful if not exhaustive collection of the ways in which we have, as a civilization, recently hurt and been hurt by one another. And the roles we, when engaged in such cruel art, play as witnesses and victims.

Nelson is clear that the acting of observing cruelty should be and is a two-way street. Most important is that we really should not disparage the act of thinking about what we are seeing, reflecting, even meditating on it before we attempt to pass judgment and move on. But this is really hard. For example, a major focus of the book is that women are more often victims than aggressors, as Nelson knows well. And of course there is a great popular demand for glamorized cruelty against them (us). In Jane: A Murder she quotes Edgar Allan Poe:

’Of all the melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death — was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious — ‘When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.’

She takes the case of a 2007 film Captivity, which stars Elisha Cuthbert as an extensively tortured “heroine” whose physical and mental defeat that looks a lot like torture-porn. This is not just readily available but an overwhelmingly popular trope of mid-aughts media. A counterbalance to the real life terrorism enacted at by the United States. At Abu Ghraib, for example.

When I saw Cuthbert’s face I saw not just the airbrushed image of another blonde actress pretending to be held in captivity and tortured and potentially terminated, but the nameless bodies of all the real brown people being held in captivity and tortured and potentially terminated, and this huge sexed-up, Aryan, crying face standing in the way…

On the other hand though she documents the efficacy of feminist efforts at staking a space for women in the arena. She cites Karen Finley, a performance artist whose work has often served as a protest against objectification and victimization of the body, and Marina Abramovic, as two of the most well-known and powerful actors in this field. But most striking was her description of performance artist Ana Mendieta’s work. I am so glad that as I read I could not find any more than a few still photographs of Rape Scene (1972) and Rape Piece (1973), in which she recreates the scenes of violent crimes (rape, obviously, and murder) and poses, naked in both cases, smeared with blood, for her friends to discover her.

Or 1973's People Looking at Blood, Moffitt, in which she pours chunky blood on the sidewalk and photographs people as they walk past it. Nelson has sought out and described films made of the performances, picking apart the discomfort they evoke in those who stumble across them, the deep unease she, a most sensitive observer above all else, experiences herself.

Distance or distinction of art from reality is very hard to maintain when we see a video of a performance of a violent act, or a television show in which a “criminal predator” is captured in the commission of a simulated act of cruelty. It seems very real. It might be easier when we read, when we have to turn each page to get more, and when we maintain control over all of our senses but sight. In creating a multi-scene theatre of cruelty for her reader and allowing so many works of cruel art to speak through her as a medium, in providing a window we are compelled to fog with our breath, Nelson affords us the opportunity to really look closely through her. She also encourages us to maintain autonomy:

The freedom is important. It allows for a dance; it allows you to see yourself dancing in reaction. There’s information there. Your choice to keep going can itself become a cause of puzzlement. Or, if you choose to abandon ship, you can then ponder the classic question, did I fail the work, or did it fail me? When, or what, was the tipping point, and why?

One reason the art of cruelty is so captivating is that it is not a simple force, easy to control. It bleeds quite effusively back into life. But Nelson does not talk about the early death of Jane Bowles, from a combination of alcoholism and related health problems (including acute aphasia and visual impairment brought on by a stroke), or the fact that Ana Mendieta died at the age of 36 when she fell from her bedroom window after fighting with her husband, sculptor Carl Andre.

When I got back home I placed scissors, mace and a rape whistle around my bed. As if they might help. It took me months to read the whole book and until the very end I felt like I was pulling myself forward through it with my fingernails — but I couldn’t stop myself from reading. For me there was not another way out of the situation. There was no way to undo, go back, erase, un-know. Not that my reaction was correct or that I felt it to be. I couldn’t fall back on the anonymity of a big city and chance, and I had to do something with my fear. And Nelson did not leave me without hope.

Cruelty isn’t just an external artifact, document, or technique. It is something we each have to come to our own terms with in order to keep going. Refusing to shy away from it might help, refusing to be cowed. But this is more likely to beget more violence than anything else. In a more compassionate gesture, Nelson shares a suggestion from Roland Barthes. We might claim, in his words, that a third term he calls the Neutral proposes "a right to be silent — a possibility of being silent…the right not to listen… to not read the book." Or in hers, "It allows for a practice of gentle aversion: the right to reject the offered choices, to demur, to turn away, to turn one’s attention to rarer and better things." It is this, a more compelling alternative to not reduce, simplify, ignore, or reconcile, which in the end "deserves to be called sweetness." This is our weird, unnecessary, thankfully unremitting capacity for compassion, the near enemy of both cruelty and love. The thing we have to learn to live with is that we tend to confuse love with sweetness, but love itself is not sweet at all.

Barbara Galletly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. She last wrote in these pages about the world burning. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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In Which We Are Psychologically Attached To Willem De Kooning

In or Out of Hell


de Kooning: A Retrospective
The Museum of Modern Art
on display until January 9, 2012

Clear even in Willem de Kooning's earlier work, in the beautiful pants on "Seated Man" and in the pretty, pensive "Portrait of Elaine" is his uncanny talent for dynamic composition, an ability to deliver serenity and the verge of madness in the same package. So it is only natural that his shift from realism to abstraction was graceful, intelligent. Just a few years later, in his early 1940s portraits of men and women where deliberately articulated design elements and limbs float on color-blocked fields of turquoise, yellow, pink, de Kooning would already be the de Kooning we know.

This is also the period in which Elaine, who would become de Kooning's wife, morphs into the painter's better-known women of the early forties. I think even 1944's famous "Pink Lady" looks an awful lot like her. These ethereal, amorphous women will have her eyes as long as they have eyes at all. Even without exception of the famous black-and-whitening of his paintings that took place after his term at Black Mountain College (fine, let’s except a couple of paintings, 1951's "Untitled," and other sapolin on enamel works), his color palate remains recognizable. Pinky, fleshy tones he used in the forties and fifties populate a plurality of paintings in the show. Familiar slatherings of yellows and turquoises offset the human tones.

in East Hampton, 1953

A retrospective at a major museum is an interesting tribute, especially when a very famous artist is involved. What would be a more natural way to demonstrate that artist’s value, his mark on the world, than to guarantee he join the immortals as really, tremendously important? The homage is a function of, or will almost certainly result in, a critical reevaluation and revision of cultural memory of the artist exhibited. It makes a mark on a personal level too. Pacing madly around galleries that claim to contain a complete record of a great artist’s career, one can’t help but wonder what it means that immortality can be distilled in such a way or what it means to be so close to it.

Well, I agree with the whole world even if I don’t love Willem de Kooning quite as much as Peter Schjeldahl does. MOMA’s de Kooning, A Retrospective, selected and mounted meticulously by chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture John Elderfield, is wonderful. Much has been written on the painter, but only now are we presented with the opportunity to meditate on his prolific genius in person, freed from comparisons to his contemporaries like Jackson Pollock (to whose his fame, prestige, influence his has been considered runner-up). Its transcendental beauty is that it documents the painter's uncanny ability to portray the complexity of human emotional life, even if it is just his own, as it evolved.

"Portrait of Elaine" 1940-41

I must mention two things. One, Willem and Elaine were married in 1943, five years after they met (his 1940 drawing was made early in their relationship). And they remained married until her death. Both painters were passionate in their personal and creative lives, and it was by all accounts a strange and stormy sixty years, replete with interloping third parties and alcoholic binges. This may be putting it mildly: for most of their marriage they lived separately; he had a daughter with his longtime lover, Joan Ward, and Joan would eventually host Elaine’s funeral.

I think it is possible he really hated her on a subconscious level, but Elaine was equally strong-willed, a driven perfectionist determined that her husband would succeed, and while she maintained her own career separately she supported him publicly, promoting his work in a way he was never capable of doing. As Marc Stevens and Annalyn Swan recorded in their excellent 2004 biography, de Kooning: An American Master, Elaine once commented that, for her husband, "a woman is a woman is a woman." This quite apart from his comment: "We have no life together but I'm psychologically attached to her."

"Woman" 1949

Second, if the more famous remark he made that "Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented" resounds in his work, I think just as interesting is the statement he made regarding abstraction, which can be found mounted on a card in the gallery containing "Excavation":

I’m not interested in 'abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or an idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s different from mine as long as it comes from the painting which has its own integrity and intensity.

I mostly take this to mean that de Kooning paints more like Cy Twombly than Jackson Pollock: he is dealing in signs, flesh and feeling. These unequivocal statements are cues, and evidence in favor of the assumption that no matter how abstract a form it takes it, flesh is a major part of the extraordinary appeal of de Kooning’s work.

Women occupy a lot of the work in the exhibit in a fairly obvious way, tempering abstraction, facilitating an observer’s entry into the paintings. There are exceptions. Take two roughly contemporaneous works: "Gansevoort Street," from 1949, is awash in red meat, butcher blood, isn’t it? This and his largest easel painting "Excavation" are hard to love. I think this is because they are too red, too white, and therefore drained of life: too inhumane. "No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built or invented except literally to get out of hell," wrote Antonin Artaud, and I can't help but agree that this is the case for de Kooning.

Post-"Excavation" came more women and some of de Kooning’s most famous work. Presented in a gallery called "Women to Landscape," are a series of large format paintings: "Woman I," 1950-2, was a work he painted and repainted, and the various iterations are shown on the MOMA's exhibit website. The canvas is populated by a scrapped city of women over time, or an exploding woman layered in frames on top of herself. De Kooning stabs "Woman III" with smears of red, but she is nothing compared to the gruesomely bloody "Woman V." I find these paintings deeply violent, profoundly disturbing. But then again, the rather abstract "Woman Wind Window II" from 1950, is a cheery, almost Pop-y work.

In the next two decades de Kooning distanced himself from such evident violence (from "Women to Landscape," was born "Full Arm Sweep"), as if his rage has suddenly mellowed. This period was characterized by a new painterly expansion of strokes, a freedom from black, from line. A total departure from the urban landscape of 1955, "Gotham News," was de Kooning’s subsequent foray into abstract pastoral landscape. "Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point" is beautiful in a new way, calmer and bright; de Kooning’s flesh tones have returned, this time in pale sand that blushes under the yolky sun.

"Clam Diggers", 1963

Beginning in the sixties flattened fields of female flesh also frolic on the shores of eastern Long Island. "Clam Diggers" seems to prefigure the doughy bodies of "Montauk III" and "Montauk I." In the "The Visit," a bare splayed nude appears to me as a mother nursing a baby. Most creepy is "Woman, Sag Harbor" from 1964, which, perhaps because of the context from which it has emerged, reminds me more of a Soutine animal carcass stitched with shocks of red than anything else. One or two works from this period incorporate collage, reminders of historical context: 1964 was also the year Robert Rauschenberg won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale (in 1953 Rauschenberg had produced the sensational "I Erased de Kooning").

"New Directions" (1969-1978) encompasses his final and mad effort to squeeze life out of life. De Kooning’s sculpture of this era is a fascinating, palpable embodiment of the physical and emotional expression of which he had become master. Beginning in the late 1970s though it became evident that de Kooning was entering the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and his eyesight began to deteriorate. He would continue to work through the mid-eighties. In the words of John Elderfield: "I think there's something poignant about an artist painting his own disappearance. It's something that doesn’t happen much..."

Finally come the "Late Paintings," including an almost cartoonish "Garden in Delft" and his most contemporary painting in the exhibition, 1987's "The Cat’s Meow" — which is now owned by Jasper Johns — in which de Kooning is no longer to attack entire canvases, and he has returned to the line. For the first time in his life, he does not spread himself over every breath of canvas, and this is a strange moment indeed. Just two years later he would be in such a diminished state that he never knew Elaine had died.

Barbara Galletly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her summer.

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In Which The World Is Burning Somewhere Else

Doing This Again


As a little one I loved school. It was normal. It always helps to be good at it and to have a nice teacher. My parents went away every day, and when they traveled and I felt particularly lonely my first grade teacher asked me if I would like to call her at night just for a familiar voice. I did. And then I was given a hardcover copy of an interesting book called Annie Bananie, My Best Friend. Evidently, we were moving on. To Texas. I didn’t even know I was "from" any place at all until then, but afterwards this "from" concept would be a problem.

It was August, there was tumbleweed, and as my father drove us "home" from the airport my sister and I wept. It was really hot, and by that I mean awful. The first day of school I found out I had missed last year’s introduction to cursive. Horrifying. Behind. I also learned a new word, so common that the other second graders used it in cursive in their little journals we kept to practice writing. "Yawl" or "ya’ll" or "yall" or even correctly, "y’all." But this was simply too much. I remember sobbing that night, a seven-year-old cutie from the preppiest town on Long Island, describing these barbarians (yes, my name is Barbara) to my parents. I can't imagine how they dealt with me, or what they felt when they found out they had a snob on their hands.

In spite of this seemingly innate bitchiness, the children of Dallas were kind to me and became my friends. I caught up in cursive and slipped into y’allsing every now and then. Soon I was from Dallas, I became a normal, average teenager. I wasn’t too good or too bad, and I wanted to be Winona Ryder in Reality Bites (that’s actually Houston) so just before ninth grade began I cut off my hair. I had cool friends even if I wasn’t awesome, and no one even made fun of my boy hair because the point of a girls' high school was not to start hot and stay hot, but to start a kid and end up a woman. So. Then we were moving again.

In Houston being from Dallas was like being from the moon. And a leper colony. I had no friends for the first six weeks of school and from August to October I went to the phone booth at lunchtime, to cry instead of having to sit alone in the cafeteria. Great attitude. Where the hell was Tavi Gevinson then? Probably not born yet.

Part of the problem was that little snob inside, who thankfully found acceptance at college and occasionally snuck out of hiding while I lived in New York, where she had been born, where my family lived and where mild snobbery is neither exceptional nor such a bad thing: "Home."

Then I decided to move. It was in tiny part about loving or wanting someone who had left for California before me, but it’s mostly a cruel streak of habit and a desire to challenge whatever I think of as my identity. Whether it’s true or not, I believe that once you start moving around, it does not get any easier to adjust to new places, it’s just awfully hard to terminate the pattern. My mother, who has moved at least 25 times, says you can make a home for yourself anywhere. And I have taken this statement as a dare. Who are you when the things you do and the people you know and the places and certainties change abruptly, for you, and you can’t get back home because you’ve just forsaken it? Anyone you want to be?

It helped that I could convince my best friend to drive with me, and it was awesome. Well, I was kind of a mess, but I was also so excited to go and explore and see what I was worth to other people. My friends in Los Angeles were amazing despite obnoxious complaints about traffic, pollution, strangeness, erratic public transportation, occasional rain, etc., so I thought "I can do this again!"

I came back to Texas, this time to Austin, ready to embrace August this time, to go back to school again. I knew summer here was not really a great way to kick things off. I didn’t suppose it would be this bad. The drought here has been exacerbated by temperatures in excess of anything seen before. God is clearly punishing Rick Perry or me, or all of us Texans and our plants and animals and water. Driving through the western half of the state from California I passed scorched corridors that wildfires had recently decimated, groves of thirsty live oaks alternatively charred and spared, all of us equals under the wide greedy heavens.

My first evening in Texas there was a burst of lightning and rain splattered Marfa, kicking up dirt before evaporating. That’s the last time I saw this enormous blue sky do something so kind as obscure itself in the daytime. Austin’s summer has finally ended, the hottest on record, and just this week daily highs dipped below 100˚ for the first time in two and a half months. Given the circumstances, the outbreak of wildfires around Austin was unsurprising but dramatic and scary. The sunset reminded me of Los Angeles, colorful through all that smoke. Meanwhile my old apartment in Greenpoint was in a Flood Zone B, two blocks from the East River, and had just days before escaped Irene/Borene. Everywhere a natural disaster zone.

Graduate school is like a mix between high school and college, so far, as we’re all shy aliens of different ages, doing different things, and it is hard to be the right amount of friendly to absolute strangers. On the first day I dressed myself as Scandinavian, with clogs and a Marimekko tunic and everything, and it really did not matter because adults are less likely to really notice what other people are wearing, and no one else seemed to have dressed "special" for the occasion.

I brought all of this with me, ideas about who to think about and how to act and where to say I'm from, and I got my sister to come and make sure it’s really true, that I arrived and that I still exist. All of the people who love me, who I love, I think about them all the time that I am not worrying about sunscreen or my reading for Tuesday or new wrinkles. I do not love a single soul in Austin yet and I think that is the strange thing, why it feels very weird to be here, to live here. Not so weird as it feels to be cool in my air-conditioned house when the world around me is burning or to find delightful fruits and lettuces inside grocery stores when I can’t keep a sage plant alive in my backyard.

Wherever you are, be somewhere else. But no matter how hard you resist, you will also be exactly where you are. So thank Tim Berner-Lee for the www, and please send us your rain.

Barbara Galletly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

Photographs by the author.

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