The Art of Cruelty
W.W. Norton: 304 pp., $24.95
From a movie billboard in her Los Angeles neighborhood to the Italian Futurists, Maggie Nelson swings her lively gaze across a century's worth of art and culture in "The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning." The starting point for this study of violence and art is Antonin Artaud, the French playwright behind the "theatre of cruelty" who wrote that cruelty in art "signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination." Those ideas fascinate Nelson, but they don't hold sway over her; she often brings up Buddhist thinking as a...