Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty (2011) is an attempt to work through a question about the possible connection between cruelty and the production of knowledge. Is there an inherent link between learning and trauma, or is their coincidence merely that, occurring where it may (or may not)? Through artistic practices high and low (from Marina Abramović to Jackass), Nelson grapples with the effects representations of violence, working through the different ways these kinds of images can be made productive for those who come upon them, by choice or not. In her reckoning, she offers some choice criticisms about the hubris of the idea of an artist bestowing knowledge upon their audience. “I’d much rather the artist be thinking about his or her own experience than trying to micromanage mine,” she declares, for “the desire to catch an audience unawares and ambush it is a fundamentally terrorizing, Messianic approach to art-making, one that underestimates the capacities and intelligence of most viewers, and overestimates that of most artists” (109, 116).
So much curatorial writing around art does just this, preaching the effects on an audience of an encounter with a work instead of drawing out what it meant for a curator to encounter the work initially. I know I am guilty of this, using the “we” instead of the “I,” of generalizing outward, of making assumptions about what an instance of looking can yield. But what would my writing look like if I were to shift the frame of consequence from an imagined audience to my own body? Part of the resistance is to deny the ego or self-centredness of speaking about artworks through my specific experience. As a curator, the idea is to move the experience of a constellation of works, first felt deeply in privacy, out to others, but does this mean to literally situate looking from my seat of experience? Or, in Nelson’s terms, how can the curator remain humble about how their framing might resonate with viewers while simultaneously not attempting to predetermine the very same experiences viewers might actually have? Because the thing is, those frames–exhibitions–are very very deliberate. The conceit is that the context encourages the works to be read a certain way. But maybe the solution is to somehow incorporate the actual experience of the show back into the curatorial texts, so that, let’s say, there is an essay that accompanies the closing of a show that somehow reflects on how the work was experienced by gallery visitors. What might an investment in this type of recuperation look like? What kind of changes in the curator’s understanding of how the work functions, from opening to closing, could be mapped? And might this information be useful in understanding any of the works themselves?