The Art of Cruelty is an interdisciplinary exhibition investigating artists’ potent explorations of cruelty in post-war and contemporary art and visual culture. The exhibition will feature work across media by approximately thirty artists from the 1960s to the present, with emphasis on art made over the last thirty years.
Works of art and movements exploring brutality abound across the 20th century—from Futurism, Surrealism, Viennese Actionism, and Postmodernism—to the present. In many ways, shock-and-awe tactics have come to define avant-garde art of the last century. This exhibition does not attempt to tell a single unifying history of cruelty in art over the last sixty years. Rather, it proposes a cross-generational and transdisciplinary view of artists whose works take up questions of brutality—lyrically or poetically, with humor, rage, and/or unnerving clarity and candor—often in relation to key cultural or political moments. Inspired by poet and scholar Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), a book on representations of cruelty in art of 20th and 21st centuries, this thematic exhibition explores the myriad ways artists have engaged the subjects of violence and transgression. It looks at artists and artworks that employ, depict, or enact forms of violence, works in which violence is more subtly alluded to or intimated, as well as works engaging the less sensational and more mundane cruelties of daily life.
In the decade-plus since Nelson’s book was first published, there have been many seismic political, cultural, and ideological shifts, from rapid climate change, to pandemic crises, and democratic collapse, to say nothing of the violence that continues to pervade daily life in the US and beyond. Under these conditions, it is no surprise that artists have sought to counter the constant barrage of brutality with work aimed at healing our individual and collective wounds by emphasizing care and compassion. These practices and positions are vital and much needed. They are not, however, the purview of this exhibition which is based on a belief in the need to pay heed to difficult work and to be willing to spend time in spaces of discomfort. This exhibition proposes that artists and artworks may in fact have much to offer us as they lay bare, parse, and blow open the dark underbelly of American culture and its mythologies. While The Art of Cruelty departs from Nelson’s book and many of its objects of inquiry, it shares the aim of “making a space for paying close attention, for recognizing and articulating ambivalence, uncertainty, [and] repulsion.”
The Art of Cruelty was recognized as part of the 2019 Sotheby’s Prize with a commendation for its “engaging and challenging” thematic framework.
Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston is funded in part by the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance.