The Sound of Cruelty

I just finished reading the exquisite, insightful, and thoroughly engaging book, “The Art of Cruelty” by Maggie Nelson.  The book is a revelatory collection of thoughts and ideas about how artists engage with cruelty, and pain, and darkness in their work.  Nelson’s arguments are erudite and opinionated and she isn’t afraid to acknowledge the role her own preferences as a critic play in shaping the argument she is making.

My only disappointment with the book is that Nelson, while writing extensively about visual art, film, literature, poetry and media art, left out any robust examples of the way sounds can or should be cruel (with the exception of several mentions of the writings of John Cage).  I can think of a number of reasons why she might have done this, ranging from the lack of printed space or the general historical divide between the ‘fine arts’ and performance based work.  But neither of these reasons feels satisfactory.  Nelson’s deep dive into performance and media arts demonstrates a willingness to embrace a wider realm of art history, and there are so many mentions of what I would consider second rate examples of artistic cruelty (see Tarantino) that surely some could have been edited out in favor of a broader multi-disciplinary inclusion.

I suggest the real reason for this omission is much more about the perceived meaning of music and sound and the way the listener and our culture at large connect with the sonic arts.

Nelson explores the idea of cruelty through many lenses, but the closest she gets to a thesis for the book comes towards the end when she discusses the artistic goals of painter Francis Bacon:

What is “deepest” for Bacon is sensation, not psychology.  And the peeling away of psychology from sensation occasions a certain sort of pain–the pain of extinguishing the story behind the suffering, and of contending directly with the sensation of suffering itself.

I find this quote to be illuminating because it so clearly shifts the onus of meaning into the viewer’s experience as opposed to the artists’ experience.  The experience of the viewer depends on their willingness to look at and acknowledge their own unease with the cruelty enacted in the art.   Whether the art is or is not connected to the artists’ own experience is besides the point.

There are plenty of reasons that we haven’t developed a culture of sensing sound as an experience.  In classical music, we connect to the ‘difficult’ sounds of late Beethoven, the Rite of Spring or Milton Babbitt to the composer or time period, tying dissonance or complexity to psychological or intellectual rationales.  Even those sounds that deal directly with noise (ie. Marianetti, Schaffer, Xenakis, Cage, Aphex Twin) are quaintly seen as byproducts of social forces, technology, multidisciplinary exercises and or politics.  So there is no room in the midst of these works to say, “the ugliness or pain is so upsetting that I must turn away,” thereby triggering one of what Nelson identifies as a prescribed response to cruelty: that it reveals to the viewer something inconvenient or more ‘truthful.’

Not to mention, it is harder to turn away from sound.  There is no real aural equivalent of shutting your eyes, something that Nelson acknowledges in her discussion of how Paul MaCarthy’s videos retain their power even when only heard and not seen.  And then there is the fact that when one engages with sound it is normally in a formal setting whose rituals exclude walking out (though surely many people ignore this rule).  Also, when we are talking about instrumental music without words or theater, there is a perceived understanding that music by itself allows room for the imagination to create its own images.  This is a sweet and misinformed idea that listeners use to make sense of the power of sound to infiltrate ones mind and reorganize beliefs and emotions. Finally, there are the technical hurdles to deeper musical appreciation, knowledge of decisions composers make that carry political or historical weight.  Perhaps Nelson simply feels she doesn’t know enough about the material of sound to place it within her rubric of cruelty.

One place where it would have been easier to connect her thesis into sound would have been the realm of opera.  I wonder what Nelson would think of the operas of Alban Berg, who uses the language of modernism to address the pain and isolation of war, sexual violence and madness.  Surely the violence of Wozzeck bears mentioning in a book that also addresses the politics of meat in Pink Flamingos? And what about the operas of Bernd Alois Zimmerman (Die Soldaaten), John Adams (The Death of Klinghoffer), not to mention the ritual performances of Diamanda Galas, which while not technically opera are certainly operatic.  Should Nelson’s book have been written a couple of years later, it would have been appropriate to include a critique of the flagrant melodrama of David Little’s ‘Dog Days’ or Missy Mazzoli’s forthcoming opera adaptation of ‘Breaking the Waves,’ a movie that Nelson chews over in her book.  

Of course there are other worlds of sound art, noise, drone, metal or hardcore music that would also seem relevant to a discussion of cruelty in art.  But Opera would seem to just as fully present that magical space of transformation for audiences to engage with the intensity of experience that Nelson so admires in the work of Francis Bacon and Sylvia Plath.  

— Aaron Siegel