A Stream on Cruelty

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Generally we call cruelty that which we do not have the heart to endure, while that which we endure easily, which is ordinary to us, does not seem cruel.  Thus what we call cruelty is always that of others, and not being able to refrain from cruelty we deny it as soon as it is ours.  Such weaknesses suppress nothing but make it a difficult task for anyone who seeks in these byways the hidden movement of the human heart.

– Georges Bataille, The Cruel Practice of Art (1949)

The goat in the big black tub was systematically eviscerated.  Its legs dangled from the rim of the pail, and the guts and innards were spilled on the bottom like some sort of artful – if not disgusting – sculpture.  The leathery skin of the goat was green from death, mottled and scorched from the flame that passed through it.  It was art, for all intents and purposes, to be transformed to artful forms of indigenous cooking.

The appreciation of art is the appreciation of death.  The most beautiful of forms – the poem, the painting, the sculpture – are all celebrations of things that are lifeless.  The letter does not carry with it a pulse, and the liveliest paintings of flowers and festivals are committed to paint that does not breathe, and fibers on a canvas taken from dead plants.  Everything we do to commemorate and celebrate living is to do it on something dead.  We are sustained by dying.  That which we call cruel, says Bataille, is always justified when it becomes us.  When we become cruel ourselves, we find every reason to justify the practice.

I am taken back to the many deaths of this year.  The year 2009 is a year of dead celebrities, icons, figureheads, and ordinary people brought about by the circumstances of tragedy or crime.  It is art, to the eyes of Nature or the murderer, macabre and disgusting as it may be.  It is art, simply because it can be justified as such.  What is cruel to one may be beautiful to another.  The irony of existence is that we can never come to consensus or agreement into anything.  Most especially something as relative and as evocative as art.  Or food, or slaughter, for that matter.

Can I call a murder artful?  Of course not, but a murderer will.  Could I call a mass grave a sculpture?  I refuse to, but a genocidal egomaniac of a warlord would.  Do my opinions matter?  They cannot, for those who do not value them.  Does my advice matter?  Definitely not, for the people who refuse to listen.  The most critical thoughts, for me, could be nothing more than a collection of the most idiotic statements.

Yet, it does not seem cruel at all; it just opens up the gateways to interpretation and discussion.  Arrogant ones made out of a sense of entitlement, and wise ones made from a sense of truth.  It only becomes cruel when it is justified and acted upon with cruelty.  When we treat the living as things dead, only then do we justify cruelty as art.  Discussion can never be artful, criticism never beautiful, for it is done on the living.

That, I guess, is when the most vile becomes, in some decrepit way, beautiful.  Here’s to politics: my least favorite topic.

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